Book Review by Sylvia D: Members of our Reading Group will remember that what seems like a hundred years ago now when we still lived real lives, we were reading anti-war and pacifist novels from our period. I read Neville Shute’s On the Beach (1957), the ultimate anti-war novel, which those of you who have read it know has a desolate ending. I did not review it online at the time as the story seemed too near the bone as the current crisis took hold. Since lockdown I have started re-reading some of the books I have read during the course of my historical research, and began with Irene Rathbone’s We That Were Young about her experiences in the First World War, and was immediately struck by the parallels between the initial political and social reactions of our country to that terrible War and to the present cruel coronavirus pandemic.
We That Were Young is a semi-autobiographical novel based on Rathbone’s (Joan Seddon in the novel) journey through the War and into the nineteen-twenties and also on the experiences of her friend, Ruby Wyld (Betty in the novel) and her cousin, Marion (Pamela in the novel). Although it does not initially seem a specifically anti-war novel, towards the end of the War when she has lost male members of her family and her friends have lost husbands and fiancés, Joan starts to question the point of winning if it entails the loss of so many of the nation’s young men:
“What was the use of winning the war” Joan cried to herself in sudden despair,” if none of the men who won it were to live? The papers were forever quoting ‘Who dies if England Lives?’ But after all what was England?”
It wasn’t until the spring of 1915 when the losses in the trenches were piling up, even more men were needed for the army and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was replaced by a Coalition government along with the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, that the traditional role of women started to change. Up till then, some working-class women had lost their pre-war jobs, particularly those in domestic service or, as overseas markets were closed off, were no longer needed by companies that traded internationally such as Sheffield’s precious metal goods manufacturers. Unemployment workshops were set up for them where they were paid to do sewing, knitting, mending clothes, rug making whilst middle-class girls spent their time in the first months of the War on voluntary work like bandage-rolling or knitting comforts for the troops. The message to women was that they should continue to devote themselves to good housekeeping and to keeping themselves attractive, ‘Do not neglect your appearance. At times like the present the country should see their women-folk looking their best’.
Joan Seddon, a middle-class girl with little knowledge of the world outside her small circle and lacking any sex education, takes the decision to join the register of women willing to do industrial, agriculture and clerical work that was compiled from March 1915. For her it was a means of escape from the tedium of being a dutiful daughter. She was sent to work in Boulogne at a YMCA camp, a staging post for men travelling to and from the front. She later moved to work as a Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in a London military hospital, finally returning to another YMCA camp in France after becoming very ill with septicemia from a contaminated syringe – little PPE in those days. In the section on her nursing experiences, she describes in graphic detail the type of injuries sustained by the men she is nursing and has to find time to comfort the dying and the seriously disfigured whilst working under unsympathetic staff nurses and constrained by what seemed to her petty rules.
The next section of the novel is based on her cousin’s experiences who, extremely bitter at the loss of her fiancée, left nursing and worked in a munitions factory until she became too ill to continue. The story then moves to the end of the War, the loss of Joan’s beloved brother from pneumonia brought on by Spanish flu (the same fate suffered by Rathbone’s own brother), the loss of her fiancé (Colin in the novel) killed in a small village uprising in the Persian Gulf and her turning to writing and middle-class voluntary work, particularly for the League of Nations, when the war ended
One of the main things that struck me about this novel is the way Rathbone, which she later acknowledged she had adhered to without realizing at the time, depicts the class divisions that continued to exist during the War. While theoretically the War had brought everyone together, when Joan is working in the Boulogne camp officers passing through are invited back to the girls’ digs and served strawberries and cream whilst the Tommies got rhubarb and custard. The camps were designed not only to provide sustenance for the troops but also moral and spiritual guidance through entertainments and religious services. Pamela finds most of the girls in her munitions factory are from the working-class and the only one she befriends is the daughter of a vicar. The two are treated fairly but warily by the other girls. When Pamela is forced to leave through ill-health, her aunt writes she could see ‘no point in competing with the lower orders in physical endurance.’
The second strong impression is how Rathbone depicts gender relationships. Middle-class girls rarely saw a man’s body before they were married and often had no education at all about marital relations but those who nursed were suddenly plunged into having to tend to the most private parts of the wounded and came into unchaperoned contact with men from all classes. If recovering men asked to meet them outside the wards or officers asked them to go for a drive when they worked in the YMCA camps, there was no -one to stop them. The relationship with male officials had to be treated sensitively as there continued to be suspicion, particularly from the senior military and from religious individuals, with whom they came into contact. This was the case with the Nonconformist ministers who were the supervisors in the camps where the women had to behave with decorum and could never allow their morality to come into question. Joan has a rather ambivalent attitude towards these ministers. They tended to be humourless and not very good managers. Thus, the oily-voiced Mr Goodge in charge of the Boulogne camp
was a pale fish-eyed young man with a great sense of his own importance but without anything like the character required to fill his rather difficult position.
.. . .
One day [Mrs Jessop, one of the workers] came into the hut looking extremely amused. ‘What do you think Mr. Goodge has been telling me this morning?’ she exclaimed. ‘That he feels we are not nice enough to him! He says there isn’t a welcoming atmosphere in our hut.’
He felt that although the girls were welcoming to the troops, they did not accord him the same treatment, that they were too independent and did not consult him enough.
Joan equally had ambivalent feelings about him being exempt from military service because of his religious beliefs.
With all the men Joan meets she never allows her feelings to run away with her and has a very idealized image of what a husband should be, only deciding at the very end of the War finally to accept the oft-repeated offers of marriage from a childhood friend who has been in love with her for years.
Re-reading the book at this present time, I was also struck by the parallels between the start of the First World War when very few people, the Government included, took cognizance of what was about to happen, There continued to be an almost continuing laissez-faire ethos amongst the ruling elite until the spring of 1915 and no Government machinery existed to co-ordinate society or manufacturing with the Government failing initially to get British businesses involved in organising the production of military supplies. The first few months of the War were a time when Government, businesses and society just muddled through as best they could, Later there are the shopping queues and the wealthy rushing to safety in the countryside when the Germans start to bomb London. (Today, my brother-in-law who lives in Kensington says his road is virtually deserted as most families have second homes to which they have decamped.) Then, at the end of the War, Joan’s brother, who has survived with only a minor injury, dies from Spanish flu as did so many millions of others. It was a most cruel twist for so many. I expect Group members know about the shipload of Australian troops returning from Durban to Fremantle fit and well when they sailed from South Africa but with many of them dead by the time the ship got home.
We That Were Young is a lengthy book but an interesting read, especially for a social historian. It gives a vivid picture of the contribution of three young middle-class girls to the war effort and in so doing provides a commentary on the changing role of women. Joan loves her English literature and going to shows in London, so the reader is presented with details of some of the books middle-class young women were reading, the shows they were going to see, together with the clothes they wore, at that time. Joan, like so many other women of her age and class, Vera Brittain who wrote Testament of Youth included, does not welcome the Armistice with celebration but with bitterness. Indeed, Brittain who had also worked as a VAD nurse, said of We That Were Young, ‘I read the story with deep interest and sympathy, realising, as you say, how similar was the spirit behind both books.’