Armistice Day 1937: a special Guest Blog by Fiona Courage

10 November 2015

History | War and Conflict

This blog has been written by guest blogger Fiona Courage, Special Collections Manager & Mass Observation Curator, University of Sussex.

Female: 046

I cannot buy a poppy, for I have not got a penny. Not so rich. 11 o’clock, what an unearthly silence. My thoughts are upon my little children in school, their heads will be bowed in reverence to our beloved dead. It is all very sad for the relatives of the fallen, for it seems a pity to keep on reopening an old wound, causing a heartache. I don’t think any body really wishes to remember the war and its horrors. I am thinking about my child’s wet feet, hoping that her leaking shoe will not soak her foot. Wet feet mean bronchitis for her, unless I can stop it with my favourite medicine.

Her father served throughout the war in the Royal Navy as minesweeper, his three medals I would exchange for a pair of shoes for his child. If he were here he would say I had done right.


A Mass Observer’s illustration of a window display on Armistice Day 1937. Image © Mass Observation. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

These words were written by a widow in 1937 for an organisation called Mass Observation that had just been set up. We don’t know how old she was, how her husband died, or even what part of the country she came from. All we know is that she felt she needed to record her feelings in a way that could be both shared in a larger group and kept for posterity, lest we forget. Indeed her words seem to challenge the fact that we should remember – that raw feeling of it being a pity to keep reopening an old wound, and that no one really wishes to remember the war and its horrors. These sentiments seem to chime the exact opposite of what we might expect, but they are her valid opinion. They should be remembered too. Those feelings of despair and of poverty that she expresses, the way she challenges how she might have been publically expected to feel as the wife of a serviceman who served on that minesweeper may never have been shared with anyone else, other than Mass Observation. And that now can be shared with us.

Set up in 1937, Mass Observation sought to record the experiences, beliefs and opinions of everyday lives in Britain. The idea was to create a collage of everyday life that the founders felt was not reflected in the media, or necessarily even the politics of the day: the voice of the ordinary person, the feelings of the ordinary person. But as a result of this social ‘collage’ they created, they also created a vast archive that we still have today, of how individuals really felt at that time. But why is this so important? Why do we need to archive these memories? Why can’t we simply stick to the official archives to help us remember significant events?

The woman I have quoted from above was writing 19 years after Armistice Day. The First World War was still raw. The suffering that she felt was raw. Reading her words in the archive Reading Room at The Keep made me tearful, concerned, and surprised. What official record could I have found that would tell us that she would gladly have sold her husband’s medals to keep her child dry?

Although Mass Observation was founded nearly two decades after the First World War, it was still a world in which the memories of loss and horror were still raw. Particularly as the war to end all wars had clearly not done so, the threat of a new world conflagration hanging on the horizon of Mass Observation’s participants.

Mass Observation invited people to join a volunteer panel of writers to submit diaries of what they did on a day-to-day basis, providing surveys of their days’ activities, and inevitably alongside this how they felt about it. Mass Observation also hired a team of researchers to observe and record life around them, listening to lives and watching practices. This work continued into the mid 1950s, covering all aspects of British life from the most intimate aspects of relationships, spiritual belief or friendships, through to opinions on the big questions of the day and international events. The vast collection of material that was created through these methods has been housed at the University of Sussex since 1970 and is open to anyone to come and look through in its new home at The Keep. In 1981 the panel of volunteer writers was resurrected and we have continued to ask people to write in about themes since then. Over 5000 people have participated from a range of backgrounds, occupations and locations around the UK.

But back to why this is important.

The following extract is again from that Armistice Day in 1937. This time it is from a teacher in Leeds, a 23 year old woman who decided to record her feelings about the silence:

Female school teacher 136: 23 years old

We had to address two classes upon the significance of the occasion. We had already been “primed” that personal opinion must not creep into this twelve minute talk – “there must not be mention of Peace or Re-armament”. My colleague spoke under these difficulties – she could not be sincere – for she is biased. She told the children that her thoughts were going to be of “apologies to the Dead for our betrayal of their trust”. It had not been a War to End All Wars – people were forgetting – and were no longer sincere in their promises of 1918 -1919 and onwards, and we were forgetting that a million lives had been broken for an ideal.

Archives such as Mass Observation aren’t just useful for understanding how people feel at the time. The self reflective act of writing a diary, or a response to a questionnaire Mass Observation sends, allows people to reflect on what they do, and why. It places those acts of remembrance into the present day, allows us to state why they are still significant.

I believe these extracts illustrate why we should ensure that there are archives of the everyday – archives that might challenge the official perception, or support it, but either way archives that allow us to remember and be remembered as individuals and as a society.

I’d like to finish this post with a short extract from a diary sent in on 11 November 1937. A male electrician from Hampshire aged 31, who, I feel, summed up the reason why we need to continue what we are doing today:

Male Electrician, Hampshire 345: 31 years old

 

As I was paying my threepence for the drink that I had I observed that the armistice ceremony may be kept up for hundreds of years in the same way as Guy Fawkes has been. The original meaning may be lost site of as has happened in many cases

 

Let us continue to continue to value and preserve these records of feelings gone by, and continue to value and record our own contemporary actions, Lest we, or the generations that will come after us, forget.

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About the Author

Fiona Courage

Fiona Courage

Fiona Courage is Special Collections Manager & Mass Observation Curator at the University of Sussex.

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