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Our Land at War

A Portrait of Rural Britain 1939-1945

 

Duff Hart-Davis

Wm Collins, 7 May 2015

ISBN 97800007516537

Total War is a phrase that is often bandied about, and sounds rather like a 21stC computer game. Yet it really does encapsulate the nature of WW2. This was a conflict which engaged all the population of the countries involved. The changes wrought on British society (eg licensing laws) reverberate to this day. Whilst there has been copious publishing on the military aspects of WW2, it is only in recent years that the societal impact has begun to be examined. Our Land catches the crest of that wave.

 

It powerfully evokes a Britain that seems now truly a bygone age: a labour-intensive land economy, tightly knit rural communities, a perhaps inward-looking nation of Anglo-Saxons. One also wonders if the increase in control over everyone’s lives by Whitehall has ever been rolled back.  As  Hart-Davis makes clear, the compulsory purchase of swathes of farmland, and diktats about what crops were to be grown, sometimes came at terrible personal cost.  He evokes the debate about all sorts of issues we in peacetime take for granted: for example, in an era of dietary austerity, should horse racing still be continued when 2000 horses each consume 10-15 lbs a day? The evacuation of thousands of children, and the creation of the Land Army, both meant a huge exodus from city to countryside. Then as now, the gulf of ignorance was sometimes vast. As HE Bates is quoted: “It was incredible to find  that a huge section of our population  were producing children who did not know how potatoes grew.

 

Militarisation led to the Home Guard, of whom H-D points out 1600 died in service (a significant proportion I would have thought from accidental discharges). These produce some  moments of comic relief (which ring true, as they closely correspond to tales my grandfather told me!). One of the most interesting passages is where the author sketches the government’s fall-back plans in case of invasion – the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford would have housed Parliament (which would no doubt have lifted Churchill’s oratory to ethereal levels).

 

H-D’s touch is deft, his canvas broad, yet sometimes I sense his touch wobbles. An example: he asserts that “complaints about beer being deliberately weakened were generally unfounded: statistics in the Brewers’ Alamanack show that during six years of the war its strength went down marginally from 1040.93 specific gravity to 1034.54.” I think he misunderstands the notion of specific gravity – last time I lifted a pint the difference between 4.09% to 3.45% alcohol would have been material!

 

Likewise he covers women taking to the air (to ferry aircraft), and uses the inimitable and recently departed Lettice Curtis as his exemplar – yet the page and a half devoted to the subject never mentions the Air Transport Auxiliary by name. Odd.

 

He talks about the importance of emergency landing grounds (for disabled aircraft), and describes the “fog dispersal system known as FIDO”, yet goes on to say “The fuel was released through burners placed every few yards, and when lit formed parallel lines of fire, visible in low-lying fog”. Misleading – its purpose was not as a navigation aid, but to disperse the fog! His touch is surer on civil subjects than military ones.

 

As the war evolved, and the US joined the party, the impact on British rural society was marked, and H-D relates some interesting vignettes about the interaction with American servicemen. A by-product being the escalation of VD. On a  happier note, the book underlines the innate adaptability of the human race – no better illustrated than in the new temporary rules enacted by the Richmond Golf Club (sample – “A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.”)  The mind boggles!

 

The war meant a change of use for many stately homes, some of which had already become an intolerable financial burden for their owners.  However H-D gives copious examples of vandalism and theft after these once great houses were occupied by the Services – a side of military nature one rarely sees discussed.

 

Whilst many of those displaced to the countryside endured a tough time emotionally, many land girls and evacuees grew very fond of rural life. However it has only taken a generation for the gulf to re-emerge between city and countryside. Professor Gangulee, noted that the war ‘had united the nation as never before’.  Yet he was perhaps overly optimistic in stating that the Land Army would help to ‘re-establish the dignity of agricultural labour and occupation.’  

 

A rich and enjoyable book, although it might have been even richer had Hart-Davis conducted any interviews of his own of those who had lived through the countryside at war. He has however instead mined the rich seam of the records of Mass Observation. There are, annoyingly, no references. The ‘notes’ refer to sources; however the bibliography is listed by author not title, making it a labour to figure out  how H-D has arrived  at a particular conclusion.

 

A very suitable volume to be published in the week of the 70th anniversary of VE Day.  

 

evacuees land army