‘I had enough last war’: Remembering the First World War during the Second World War
This blog accompanies Joel Morley’s Historical Journal article The Memory of the Great War and Morale during Britain’s Phoney War.
On 11th November 1939, a customer in a Bolton fish shop expressed her disquiet about the impending conscription of her sons: ‘I had enough last war – they took my husband then, now they want my two lads.’ Her memories of the First World War clearly shaped her attitude and sense of resilience at the outset of the Second World War.
Her passing remark, overheard by a Mass Observer, was preserved within the Mass Observation Archive, which is now in the care of the University of Sussex at The Keep. This collection is a testament to Mass Observation’s efforts to establish how ordinary Britons thought and felt about a panoply of things over the course of the Second World War. As well as listening to others’ conversations in public spaces, and conducting street surveys, Mass Observation posed questions to a large panel of volunteers. In February 1940 they asked their panel to reflect on the question ‘‘How much do you think childhood impressions and incidents colour your opinions in the present war? And if you do think childhood does affect your present opinion, in what way do you feel these effects work?’
The First World War loomed large in the responses to this question. As a result, they are the basis of my article for the Historical Journal, which examines how the memory of the First World War shaped morale at the start of the Second World War. The article shows that the First World War shaped the attitudes of many Britons, even those who had only “experienced” that war by hearing, reading, or watching stories about it after the Armistice. Whether people drew upon personal experience, familial stories, cultural representations, or commemorative ceremonies depended to some degree on their age. Each of these sources of First World War knowledge were influential to varying extents. Understandings of the conflict between 1914 and 1918 informed the dismay that Britons’ felt about the return of war in 1939, encouraged their distrust of political leaders, and emphasized the boredom of the Phoney War while simultaneously underpinning their expectation that they would need to steel themselves against much worse before Hitler was defeated.