By the autumn of 1915, any thoughts of a short war and fast victory were forgotten. In faraway mud, millions lay dead. And for those at home, the horror beyond the horizon was finally starting to sink in.
Today, most people know Enid Bagnold as the author of the much-loved story National Velvet. But her first book, an account of her work in a wartime London hospital, is rooted far from the idyllic Sussex setting of that later, more famous work. Published in early 1918, it can’t offer the comfort of describing the Great War’s final resolution. But Bagnold also denies her readers the reassurance of definite facts. The hospital itself goes unnamed (it was, in fact, the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich: a week after the book’s publication, she was dismissed), and the book itself is — as its title states — A Diary Without Dates. Instead, she evokes the routine of a ward in wartime through the particularity of details. She reveals how the cap of her uniform is slowly rubbing away her hair, and how her rings no longer fit onto her work-worn hands; she notes the small pleasure she takes from the ritual of laying cutlery out on the patients’ tea trays. Like the precisely-placed elements of those trays, everything and everyone in the hospital ward has their own hierarchical place. It takes the arrival of a convoy of injured soldiers, delivered straight from the front, to throw the tidy structure into disarray. ‘Our ward is divided,’ she wrote. ‘Half of it is neat and white and orderly; the other half has khaki tumbled all over it. ‘Sam Brownes’, boots, capes, mud, the caked mud from the ‘other side’.’
For children of Bagnold’s era, wars — like wards — were meant to have their own order and pattern. Boys knew the roles they were supposed to play for King and Country, just as they did for every other aspect of their structured Edwardian lives; brave soldiers despatched with fanfare, off to war to win a speedy victory. And the girls left behind had rules to guide their waiting, as if laid out in an etiquette manual. They could either await the return of their heroes, consoled by letters of ‘love and kisses’, or soothe them as their gentle nursemaids. These roles were written into everything from children’s stories to couture; voicing the general expectation with the simplicity that made her novels bestsellers, Noel Streatfeild explained ‘Wars were fought by soldiers and sailors, who came on leave and were made a fuss of.’ But, she continued, ‘It soon became apparent that this war was not like that.’
It wasn’t like that — for Streatfeild, or for anyone else. Over four years, it would become a conflict in which the entire country and its resources became harnessed to the war effort — becoming, in the process, the first true ‘Home Front’. Among the first signs were the queues that grew for fuel and food. During the coal shortage of 1914, food became scarcer and more expensive; in all, costs rose by over 60% between July 1914 and 1916. Wrong-footed, the nation’s households had to play catch up, turning to newspaper columns to re-educate themselves. The likes of food reformist Hallie Eustace Miles, author of the cookbook Economy in War Time (or, Health Without Meat), came to the fore, dispensing advice to the millions of families finding that — as another cookery writer, Nellie De Lissa, euphemistically put it — ‘existence under the new conditions is a problem.’
Then, in March 1915, the Shell Scandal — when British losses were blamed on a shortage of shells at the front — made it painfully, shamefully obvious that ‘Our Boys’ abroad were dependent on what happened at home. 50,000 women took to the streets and marched through London in June 1915, demanding to play their part in the effort and wielding banners that declared ‘Shells Made By A Wife May Save Her Husband’s Life’. Streatfeild was among those who heeded the call; she left her sheltered vicarage home to work alongside 30,000 other women in the vast, regimented lines of the munitions factories at Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal. Her decision to do ‘her bit’ was no more informed than many of those who enlisted to fight on the frontline; ‘It was ignorance,’ she later confessed, ‘I had no idea what I was doing.’
And rather than something happening in a faraway place, coloured pink on a map of the world, this war was righteningly, tantalisingly close. In her fictionalised biography, A Vicarage Family, Streatfield hears the thud of cannon over the Channel from her childhood home in Eastbourne. Miles describes lying awake in her house near Euston Station, listening to the ‘muffled roar of trains all night’, delivering troops to ‘Somewhere’. ‘It seemed as if the war was so near us,’ she wrote in her diaries, later published as Untold Tales of War-Time London.
But proximity brought no clarity. News reports were filtered; letters and postcards from the front were heavily monitored and censored. Some of those employed in factories attempted to reach the men at the front in their own way, slipping notes into the shell cases of munitions, or into the bandage pockets of uniforms. And occasionally, men would emerge out of the chaos to ‘make their way to the coast — going home for the weekend.’ As Vogue noted, ‘It seems so odd — and so English.’
(This article continues in our Issue Six)