What “Lady Mary” would have written? A woman’s WWI diary

imageA while ago, the Imperial War Museum recommended this book on Twitter. I just received the book Monday and started reading it. It is sort of funny how your first impression of a book can change while reading it. Some books you hate from the start, and by the end of the book, you realise that you have read something really good. Like when I read “The Grass is Singing” at the age of 18, by Nadine Gordimer. Some books you hate from the start and still hate them at the end, likewise with books that you love from beginning to the end. This is one of those books which makes you change your mind  while reading it. I made the following notes at the beginning of the book: Ethel Bilbrough’s diary starts in 1915, because as she says, she never thought of starting one in 1914, assuming like everyone else that the war would be over in no time. Her first very wise statement follows upon this: ” It is a great mercy that the things which are to come are veiled from us”. I totally agree. For some reason, some of us would probably not want to get up in the morning, if we knew what was in store for us. And life would be tougher to handle. As it is, when we are faced with the trials, they are suddenly there and have to be dealt with.

This book is a very beautiful replica of the real thing, which means that my head ache soon descended upon me after only a few pages, since my generation is so unused to reading cursive writing. But this said, I feel strangely related to this person Ethel, who writes that “when I feel very strongly about a thing it is always a relief to put pen to paper!” It sounds like it came straight out of my mouth and not hers. I guess there is a special breed of women that all feel the same thing over time and over the borders. That feelings have to come out one way or the other.

Two days later, I discovered that there was no need to struggle with Ethel’s pretty but difficult to read writing. After 142 pages, the diary is printed all over again, but in a regular printing font. This is when I started to feel cheated! When a book says it has 232 pages, you expect a lot from it, but when it all boils down to it, it only takes two hours to read the entire diary since it is full of newspaper clippings and often with such a small text faded by the years that they are impossible to read, drawings, flags and so forth. To be honest, there really isn’t much there. For all lovers of “Downton Abbey”, it would be like “Lady Mary” writing of WWI. She never got involved, never volunteered for anything and never sacrificed a thing. This is the sort of life this Ethel Bilbrough lived. She was in no way a pauper, quite the opposite, with maids and a big house. Her observations of the war mainly comes from what she reads in the newspapers and zeppelins tormenting the neighbourhood. She as a 45+ woman, when the war broke out, and with no children, certainly could have done more than just write a few letters to the newspapers. What would really have been interesting, would have been one of the nurses writing a diary or a munition worker… Someone who truly got close to the war effort and experiences. As it was, this diary was written by a lady of leisure who had too much time on her hands!

Yes, I did read the book and found some interesting information in it, but I do not concur with the IWM that it is a fantastic book or with author Margaret Forster, who said it was “Absolutely Brilliant”. She must have been paid to say so, because there is not enough there to make it brilliant or fantastic. Most of Ethel’s statements are short like the fact that Patriotism being fine in the abstract, but she questions if love of a person is not a stronger thing and that people might not want to sacrifice their loved ones for their country. She herself is one of them and is very relieved that her husband is over 45 when conscription goes in to force in 1916. It is something that she has really requested, but only for all the slackers, she would not have wanted her husband to go.

Some “fun” facts are scattered in the book like that khaki bibles and khaki prayer books were printed and sold to soldiers. They came about thanks to an old seasoned soldier, Earl Roberts, who felt that one must always put one’s trust in God, even in war. How very true his words ring when he said “You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness, and strength when you are in adversity”.

As a historian I have always been the most interested in the social aspects of war, so her bringing up the Belgian wounded soldiers and refugees arriving, was an interesting fact. But her reflections of how kind the British were to take these in for months at the time, also showed her snobbishness since she herself would not inconvenience herself with doing the same. But she was interested in how the first kindness turned in to a damaging thing, when these men thanked for their hosts’ teas, entertainments, concerts and excursions by coming home intoxicated. The hospitality had to change in to chaperoned walks instead, but since the only chaperones available, were women, parts of society was enraged. But Ethel wrote to the newspapers and said that these men needed to get out and have good conversation with whoever was available for a walk. Question is if her little writings to the newspapers ever made a difference.

Even though she is one of the privileged women at the time, she can see that her own social class is being ridiculous and that a war was needed to bring it to its senses and on to its knees. She does not write to the newspapers about this view though or anything political like her thinking the politicians being slow to decision and the Americans just talking a lot, even though their ships were being sunk by more and more submarines. But she does write to the newspapers, that people should be more frugal. That one should invite friends more often, to not feel so bored and lonely,  but that it should be agreed upon that not a whole lot of food would be served.

Even though noone in her family is sacrificed in the war, she does state that she worries about all the young men dying and perhaps leaving a world without men. She thinks that the world will be an awful place with just women around, but it sort of sounded silly coming from this woman who had her husband by her side throughout, who even slept through bombings.

The things she do mind, are things that infringe on her personal life, which one would have thought small inconveniences that one easily could live with. The one thing she minds is the censorship of letters. I can’t imagine her writing anything that was blackened, so what was the problem. More than that she thought they insulted her.  And the registration cards who everyone had to carry, were also seen as an insult by her, so she glued it in to her diary. In other words, she did not ever intend to show it to anyone! Even if requested to do so. She hated that it stated that her principal occupation was household duties, which she felt was the least of her duties. After all she had others do those duties for her, didn’t she? But of course they could not really write what they probably thought of her, “a waste of space!”.

One of the main problems of the book is how she brings up a topic that she could have talked about at length. Like should one retaliate and bomb the enemies women and children? How can one make them stop if one does not? She only states very shortly that it goes against the British ways to fight dirty like that, but perhaps one must? The same arguments of course came up 25 years later, when the Germans were doing it once again. And while Spitfire pilots have been celebrated as heroes, Bomber command have had to live with a feeling of shame, since they did not have the people backing up their missions.

When daylight saving time is introduced in May 1916, she is all for it since it makes it more pleasant all around, to go shopping at noon when it indeed is only 11:00 and cooler, to air out the house at 8:30 when it is really 7:30, and to be able to go for a walk at 22:00 instead of reading by gas light indoors. There is no mentioning about the real reason for it being brought about: to get more work out of the workers and to be able to keep war production going for more hours in a day. This was the real purpose of the time change, to get more working hours out of the day. And not just for factory workers but it was also making farmers working further hours as well, producing food. Food which was getting short. She seems to have failed to see that it was not instituted to make for a more pleasant day for lazy women!

She got further insulted at the fact that soldiers were begging for letters at the front, from young maidens. She wrote to a newspaper again saying that if the “lonely soldier” wanted the letters to be the start of a romance, then a matrimonial agency ought to be set up instead of asking for letters, any kind of letters, to the soldiers. Obviously she had written to someone who might not have got overjoyed at receiving a letter from a 45+ married woman. In a way I can fully understand her. Today there are internet penfriend sites for British soldiers serving overseas, who ask for the same thing. Or rather, when you first enter the site, you think it is lonely soldiers, just wanting to receive letters from a non-combat zone, with regular news of ordinary things. But since all of them only want letters from young “maidens”, one get the same feeling that Ethel did in 1916, that what they really want is to start a romance that will bloom when they get home. And of course it is ridiculous! At the same time, their lives have been put on hold and is it really abnormal to sit and dream of a rosy future?

Even though it is clear that she did not volunteer for nursing like “Lady Cybil”, “The Countess of Grantham” and “Matthew’s mother Isobel Crawley”  did in “Downton Abbey” (in one way or the other), she did paste in a cartoon that showed that the lazy, fragile, sickly girls of the upper classes, who were so pampered that they did nothing of value what so ever in a day, were admonished to volunteer as nurses, since that would make them in to healthy women. Unfortunately she has written no comment by the clipping so one wonders what her thoughts really were, on the subject matter. Why did she not volunteer for it herself?

When the King goes out and tells the people to not waste bread, Ethel answers with a letter to the newspapers that the upper classes are wasting as much bread as usual and that the proclamation to not feed the birds with bread, is one she highly objects to since, they make life more pleasant with their twitter and singing. A side note by IWM says that most people were too poor to buy bread at all, so her upper class view must have come across as really insulting. But she cared for the things that were “politically correct” to care for when of her social class and gender: the horses that no longer were allowed to eat corn, the birds, the dogs who could not eat biscuits any more. Once again, a woman without a purpose! Had she had a son at the front, no doubt she would have got more involved with humanity instead. She is ridiculous and contradictory throughout though. In January she welcomes the horrid dry toast that can barely be swallowed without butter, margarine, marmalade or jam. Hardly any food can be had but she feels that she is finally “taking part in the war!”. She is one of those who in November 1917 signs up with the League of National Safety, meaning voluntary economising and rationing. When national rationing is introduced in February 1918, she is upset about it, which makes you wonder about her voluntary rationing. What it really meant in her household? Only one serving of pudding instead of two?

June 14th 1918 she is grateful that the Americans have finally got off their seats and is helping out, “not a moment too soon”. They really were late were they not?! And as she sees it, they came to preserve their own shipping. But in October she is convinced that at least they came right when they were the most needed and that it boosted morale, redoubled the zeal and courage of all the Allies, so they could once again fight with spirit.

The diary ends very abruptly and I must say that I was disappointed with this rather expensive purchase. The book ends with the 11 November 1918 and not a single word is said after this. No prologue. I have gone in on the net to find out who this woman really was. She sent in letters to the newspapers, she liked to draw, and she was well to-do. But one does not really get a feeling for who this woman really was and the internet has no information on her, except that she wrote this diary. She died in 1951 and her husband’s second wife handed the diary to the IWM in 1961, because she found the “colourful pins stuck within its pages as the main interest”. Shows how bright that woman was! Of course IWM saw the writings as the most interesting, not some silly pins of flags! But the book left me with questions I would have liked answered. She mentions a more private diary. I am sure that this diary would have been more interesting to read than this one. And what where her thoughts when her country once again was in war, in a more terrible war, with more fearsome bombs being dropped on her and London, every night? What happened to her marriage? How did she take the changes that came about after the Great War? All that was needed was a chapter with the information, after the diary! To truly appreciate a diary like this, one needs to get close to the person and then all that around information is needed. Otherwise she just comes off as an arrogant snob who wrote a diary for publication and said what sounded good.


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