Today is Armistice Day, a good day to visit the Sassoon exhibition in the Library, which ends on 23rd December. After seeing Sassoon’s First World war diaries and poems in the exhibition I was curious to look at contemporary ‘popular’ writing – novels, magazines, books for children, even advertisements – and see how they described the war. I found this was a rather naive idea. Of course there was no single attitude to the war, any more than there was a single experience of the war or a single way of writing about it.
But what surprised me was how the war coloured every single aspect of life in the books published between 1914 to 1918 and after. I had an idea that the First World War scarcely touched the civilian population, but when I looked at the advertisements in magazines, for example, they all included war-related text or pictures. However, only about half of them featured men in uniform (nearly all officers).
The rest were aimed at women and others left at home. There were advertisements for invalid foods – “indispensable in the home sickroom, and for feeding wounded soldiers”, for labour-saving appliances for invalids, and this one for a wheelchair.
Many of the advertisements showed women in uniform. Evans’ throat pastilles declared themselves essential for “Waacs and Wrens”. Women could choose a coat made from khaki drill, or a waterproof trench coat, “a most essential garment for nurses abroad” or even “overalls for lady workers”.
The popular fiction of the period includes colourful dustjacket illustrations of women wearing these clothes. “Munition Mary” wears the famous blue “frock overalls” to make shell cases at the local armaments factory. (Munition Mary / Brenda Girvin. London: Milford, 1918). In contrast the dustjacket illustration for “A girl munition worker” seems to deliberately emphasize the parallels between women workers in the cordite factory and soldiers at the front, placing the heroine next to a barbed wire fence and dressing her in a khaki overall that bears an odd resemblance to an officer’s uniform. This image may owe more to the artist’s imagination than reality. However, it’s clear that many women must have looked very different in wartime. It must have been a startling and unsettling change, bringing the war to people’s homes and families in a way I had never appreciated.
A girl munition worker / by Bessie Marchant. London: Blackie, [1917?]