‘the only black-out is the black-out in my soul’
British women’s poetry of the Second World War
by Anne Powell
… experiences connected with the blitz, drugs the home front, symptoms deserted wives, and deceived husbands, broken homes, dull jobs, bad schools, group squabbles, are so much a picture of our ordinary lives that unless the workmanship is outstanding we are prejudiced against them …
That was the verdict of Cyril Connolly, editor of the literary journal Horizon, writing in 1944 and aiming his comments squarely at women. Despite his scepticism, civilian women and those in uniform wrote poetry and verse that remains an important testimony to the war years. These poems do not describe merely the mundane and ‘ordinary’. Quite the reverse. They reference everything from lost ships and battles to the heart-ache of parting, personal loss and the horrors of Belsen and Hiroshima.
Vera Brittain, whose fiancé and brother had been killed in the First World War, listened on 3 September 1939 to the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ‘old and trembled voice’ announcing that Britain was at war with Germany. In her anguish, she wrote a poem of England’s ‘aching grief’. As Chamberlain’s broadcast ended air-raid warnings were sounded. Precautions were immediately taken – shelters dug, black-outs enforced and gas masks issued. Vita Sackville-West’s home, Sissinghurst in Kent, lay beneath the flight path of German bombers travelling from the channel ports to London. She recorded her impressions of the first weeks of war in Country Notes in Wartime where she writes that each evening, as she went round to check that the black-out was complete, she discovered ‘that the only black-out is the black-out of my soul’.
War brought dramatic changes for everyone. As the men joined ships, regiments and air bases, over one and a half million children and mothers were evacuated from towns to the country. The natural bewilderment a child experienced after leaving home in these circumstances was evoked by Edith Pickthall in her poem Evacuee. She was a member of the Red Cross Detachment at the reception area for refugees in the Cornish village of Mylor, near Falmouth:
The slum had been his home since he was born;
And then war came and he was rudely torn
From all he’d ever known; and with his case
Of mean necessities, brought to a place
Of silence and space; just boom of sea
And sough of wind; small wonder then that he
Crept out one night to seek his sordid slum,
And thought to find his way …
On 10 May 1940 Hitler launched his invasion of Holland, Belgium and France. After the Dutch and Belgians surrendered, the German army continued to advance and the Allies were desperate to prevent them from reaching the retreating army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Against formidable odds almost a thousand ships and privately-owned small boats evacuated some 340,000 men from the beaches. Teresa Hooley wrote Regatta:
Yacht, trawler, barge and coaster,
Battered and scored and black,
Snatched life like Lazarus from the tomb,
Snatched victory from the jaws of doom,
And brought the Army back!
The battle for France lasted for the next seventeen days and was recorded by women in shocked and sad poetry. The roads became flooded with refugees. In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s poem, Road 1940, a sick child represents the burden of suffering carried by weary, hungry and homeless civilians. Cecily Mackworth, before she left her home in Paris, helped refugees from Belgium and northern France at a rest centre at Austerlitz station. Her journey south to Marseilles took two months and the long distances she covered on foot in the hot sun were relieved by train journeys and lifts in cars, farm carts and lorries. Afterwards she wrote En Route:
The chequered map of France beneath our feet
Unrolled itself day after clover-scented, azure day,
Incarnate Summer’s ultimate and proud display
Before she laid her corn and birds and flowers down in defeat.
After France signed an armistice with Germany, Britain was concerned that the still considerable French navy might fall into German hands. Negotiations with the French at the Algerian ports of Mers-el-Kebir and Oran failed and on 3 July 1940 the Royal Navy were forced to attack the French ships. Over a thousand French sailors were killed. The following day Naomi Mitchison gave birth to her seventh child at her home, Carradale House, on the Kintyre peninsular in Scotland. She was a well-established author and at Carradale looked after her family and evacuees, managed the farm, and wrote her diary for Mass Observation. Her baby daughter only survived one day and her long elegy Clemency Ealasaid identifies her personal bereavement with the unfolding grief in Europe:
Shall we try to make sense of Oran?
Try to make sense of inevitable hatred
From mothers of French sailors, babies who had lived
Through the years of hope and pride and delight,
boyhood and manhood,
Now murdered by the Ally,
perfidious Albion? …
During the spring and summer of 1940 preparations were made against an expected invasion. Defences were erected on the coast and inland, and a ‘people’s army’—which later became the Home Guard—was formed. On 30 June 1940 a German detachment landed at the airport on Guernsey and the occupation of other Channel Islands followed. Although 30,000 islanders had already been evacuated, some 60,000 remained. Life for the channel islanders was to be harsh for the remainder of the war. Ruth Ogier was one of several women who wrote at the time; her poem Substitutes retains a cheerful tone, even after four years of occupation:
Substitutes for everything –
Bramble leaves for tea;
Parsnips turned to coffee now,
Or acorns, it may be…
The Battle of Britain, fought in the sky, was at its most intense during August and September 1940. After that came the Blitz on London which lasted initially for fifty-seven consecutive nights. Civilian women, as members of the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS), worked as air-raid wardens, fire-fighters and drivers of ambulances, and organised mobile canteens. Edith Sitwell—and many other women living in London—recorded these terrible weeks in poetry. Sheila Shannon composed The Artist’s Vision: On a Shelter Picture by Henry Moore:
The artist sees the world in composition:
in colour, pattern, rhythm, line and light,
and we in Moore’s tube shelter sketch are seen
as solid half-recumbent figures,
still, statuesque, devoid of all emotion,
shining in splendour of soft magenta and green.
and Mary Désirée Anderson wrote of her experiences in Blitz:
I’ve seen young children watch the solid walls
Bend inwards with the blast and then recoil;
Seen their eyes wide with terror and their mouths
Closed far too tightly for such tender lips
Yet never sound came from them in their fear…
Heavy bombing raids continued on London, provincial cities and ports until May 1941. In the nine months of concentrated bombing more than 43,000 civilians were killed and 139,000 injured. Over a million houses were destroyed or damaged. Women continued to write poems recounting the devastation caused all over the country. From her cottage in a small village in West Wales, Lynette Roberts watched the three nights blitz on Swansea in February 1941; Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer, wrote a deceptively gentle poem which became a horrific description of the aftermath from an air-raid and, in I Remember, Stevie Smith’s old man recalled his bridal night and listening to German and English bombers overhead. The novelist and playwright Clemence Dane (Winifred Ashton) went to Plymouth after the city had suffered many casualties during two months of intense bombing. She conveyed the determination of its population to enjoy themselves in those dark days in her poem ‘Plymouth’:
They work all day
between the bombs. At night—this moved me most—
an hour before the sun goes down
they flock, the ruined people of the town,
to listen to the band,
(light music, nothing grand)
And dance, or watch the dancing, on the Hoe…
Food rationing was introduced in January 1940, followed a year later by the rationing of clothes, shoes and material. By 1942 shortages were becoming acute and, inevitably, a black market developed. The situation was satirised by Olga Katzin, under her pseudonym ‘Sagittarius’, in one of her weekly contributions to the New Statesman:
At Claridge thou shalt duckling eat,
Sip vintages both dry and sweet
And thou shalt squeeze between thy lips
Asparagus with buttered tips …
Later on in the war, Virginia Graham, poet and driver with the WVS, countered the threat of German doodlebug bombs with similar humour in Losing Face:
This is my doodlebug place. Can you see me?
It’s really amazingly snug
Lying under the desk with my doodle-bug face
And my doodle-bug voice in the rug.
During the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables in gardens and allotments. In Ruth Pitter’s The Compost Heap, Miss Twigg, who ‘is out to win the war/By all the means she may’ adds her dead tom-cat to the heap, ‘satisfied then his nitrogen/A good result would bear’. Prisoners of war, conscientious objectors, civilian volunteers, and members of the Women’s Land Army, replaced the pre-war male farm labourers who were now in uniform. Ruth Tomalin, who served as a land girl, found needlework a welcome diversion and relaxation. After a German aeroplane crashed at her home, Stansted Park in Sussex, wrecking the nearby chapel and its pictorial window, she wrote Embroidery, 1940:
The day the shattered Germans lay in shreds
among the placid nettles at the gate,
I took a skein of sunset-coloured threads
to make my brave Red Admiral a mate …
By December 1941 manpower was in such short supply that a Bill making unmarried women, between the ages of twenty and thirty, liable for conscription was announced in the House of Commons. They could choose between service in one of the armed forces, the nursing services, the Women’s Land Army, Civil Defence, transport or factory work. Conscientious objectors often volunteered for fire-watching or work on the land. Two years later, as military casualty lists grew, the age of conscription for women was lowered to nineteen and extended to fifty. Mothers with a child under fourteen were exempt and the great majority of women remained in the home caring for their families. Even so, by the end of September 1943 over a million women worked with the WVS and nearly eight million were in paid employment.
Women poets in uniform wrote from many corners of the world. Patricia Ledward, serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), wondered in the winter of 1942 ‘what are we doing?’ from a cold, damp hut in North Wales. Olivia Fitzroy and Anne Bulley wrote poems of love—and then loss—while serving in Ceylon in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. In her poem Brief Sanctuary, Jo Westren, a nurse attached to Anti-Aircraft Command at Colchester Military Hospital, recalled a few hours when she ‘made love at an inn… in a narrow room’. Angela Bolton, a young sister in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, served in Bengal and Assam. One night she cared for a nameless American soldier dying alone in a small tent. She remembered him in The Unknown Soldier:
All men who die in war are in you, soldier.
Here in this lonely tent
Sunk in a coma,
With the yelp of jackals falling on deaf ears ….
Throughout the war years many women recorded the agony of parting from loved ones and the anxiety and loneliness which inevitably followed. Edith Joy Scovell told A War-time Story of Florence, whose husband was serving overseas and who gave birth to her airman lover’s baby, with tragic consequences. In 1942 Anne Ridler joined her husband in the Orkneys until he was suddenly ordered overseas to an unknown destination. It was popularly supposed that the men were routinely given an anaphrodisiac in their tea to quell their sexual desires. She later wrote a poem Remember him.
Personal grief was poured out in poetry. Priscilla Napier’s husband, Michael, was in command of a destroyer at the outbreak of war and died of septic endocarditis in August 1940, just a week before their third child was born. She wrote of her anguish in a long poem titled Sheet Anchor. Pamela Holmes’s husband was killed in December 1942 in Tunisia. She wrote a moving sequence of poems, Parting at April, Missing, Presumed Killed and War Baby. Missing, Presumed Killed epitomised the grief of countless young war widows:
There is no cross to mark
The place he lies
And no man shared his dark Gethsemane,
Or, witnessing that simple sacrifice,
Brought word to me …
Many women wrote with compassion for the enemy and for the starving civilians in Europe. Pamela King described bleak and severe winter conditions at home and ‘over dying Europe’. Prisoners of war worked near Elizabeth Berridge’s home in North Wales and she portrayed the home-sickness of an Italian farm-worker in Letter from an Italian prisoner. Similarly, Winifred Dawes remembered in verse a young German boy she knew before the war who was killed in Normandy. Early in 1945, Breslau, the chief city of Silesia, became a fortress defended by 35,000 German troops as the Soviet Army advanced on Berlin. Most of the civilian population was forcibly evacuated by the Nazi authorities. Edith Joy Scovell wrote in the person of one of these German refugees in her poem A Refugee:
My husband died in the mercy of Russian snow.
My child died in the train,
In three days in the weeping cattle truck
From Breslau to Berlin .. .
The concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British on 15 April 1945. On arrival they found mass graves, 10,000 unburied bodies and over 30,000 sick and dying men, women and children. Joy Trindles served as a sister in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. She spent nine weeks in Belsen helping to set up the first hospital at the camp. She later wrote Until Belsen:
We hid within our souls, deep and silent.
We clung together trying to understand,
The smell pervaded the mind and the sights and sounds
Reached those souls buried deep within and for so long
Encased in rock.
Bitter, scalding tears melted the rock
Our hearts were broken …
Victory in Europe Day was celebrated in the United Kingdom on 8 May 1945. Almost three months later, at 8.15 am on 6 August 1945, American bombers dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; 80,000 people were killed instantly. An area of five square miles was reduced to ashes and about 60,000 buildings were destroyed. Three days later, having heard nothing of a Japanese surrender, the Americans dropped a second, much more powerful atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki. This did less damage than at Hiroshima but some 40,000 people were killed. With the terrible results of long-term radiation, the final death toll for the two cities has been given in the region of 300,000. Edith Sitwell wrote Dirge for the New Sunrise, subtitled Fifteen Minutes Past Eight O’Clock, on the Morning of Monday the 6 August, 1945:
The living blind and seeing Dead together lie
As if in love… There was no more hating then.
And no more love: Gone is the heart of Man…
In Great Britain, members of the armed forces returned home and prisoners-of-war were repatriated. The country was impoverished and the grieving population exhausted. Years of rebuilding and readjustment lay ahead. The turmoil of war had created a complete reversal of the old way of life for women, but in Sylvia Read’s For the War Children, a new generation ‘leaping and laughing’ brought promise of reconciliation and renewed hope for the future.
Need to Know …
Anne Powell is editor of Shadows of War: British Women’s Poetry of the Second World War (Sutton Publishing, 1999) which includes 132 contributors and over 239 poems accompanied by introductory and biographical notes. Her latest book is Women in the Warzone: Hospital Service in the First World War (The History Press, 2009) – see our article here.
Shadows of War is no longer in print but Anne does have some copies available for sale to HerStoria readers for £25 with free postage. If you are interested please contact Anne via email@example.com
This article first appeared in HerStoria issue 4, Winter 2009.