Telling War Stories: Witnessing Expectations… – Lesley Wood

Does witnessing something change us? Most of us assume that it does.
Indeed the basic premise of a lot of contemporary social theory is that the things we experience make us who we are, what we want, our dreams, our animosities…  Following this logic, witnessing something like a war would be a profound influence on our sense of self, of the world, on our politics.

Mass media coverage reinforces this sense. Interviews with witnesses follow certain genres: “What happened when the boat went down… when your dog was stolen… when he started shooting?”  This question is usually followed by, “How do you feel?” We know the answer almost before we hear it. We’ve been trained. The storytellers have been trained. We can often predict the stories that witnesses tell.

There is a tension here. On the one hand, stories by ordinary people who witness something are seen as authentic and valuable in themselves. On the other, we also recognize that there are genres of storytelling – genres that reflect the larger culture and social structure. We have expectations about how to tell a witness story, even a ‘witnessing war’ story.

Authentic voices and storytelling genres came into conflict when I interviewed my father. He is 84 years old, and witnessed the beginning of World War II as a twelve-year-old, working class, Jewish kid in Brighton, a coastal town. At 15, he moved to London with his family to work in the factories and garment industries.

Following the theme of ‘witness,’ I wanted to understand how he thought witnessing a war had affected him and the people around him – their sense of themselves, and of the world. I wanted to record the stories he would tell. Some of them I’d heard before. But I wanted them as a cluster, as a map of how he became who he is.

But things didn’t turn out like I thought they would… My dad rejected the standard ‘witness’ genre, despite my efforts. Instead, he gave me a war story of youthful adventure. His insistence on this one genre rather than the other itself told me a story about him and his experience, as much as it told me anything about witnessing the war. He describes his relationship to the war, to others, and to himself through his stories.

What does this suggest about war stories? As historian Charles Tilly says, the trouble with stories is they help us to give meaning and identity and create relations to the world. At the same time, however, stories are manifestations of larger social and cultural struggles and interactions. But figuring out how the war story and the warring world are connected, that’s where things get tricky.

Lesley Wood: Tell me what you saw during World War II?

Matthew Wood: I’ll start when the war began, September 3, 1939, and I was still in school. I remember the Prime Minister, who was Neville Chamberlain, making the speech on that we were at war with Germany and we all looked at each other. And well, the three of us, my mother, my father and myself, and the newspapers had been talking about the possibility of war for weeks and possibly months. Then an hour after we heard the speech, the air raid sirens went and we weren’t sure whether we were going to be attacked, bombed. …

I was still going to school, and one day when we were out on the playing field alongside the school playing soccer, we heard aircraft noises and there was a Royal Air Force plane – probably a Spitfire – shooting at a German fighter plane while we were still playing on the field. The sirens hadn’t gone. Our teacher got us all together and he marched us into the air raid shelters under the school. They were dug underground, and we sat in the shelters until we got the all-clear, which was a continuous note on the siren.

A few weeks later, we were told that we’d only be going to school one week mornings and the following week afternoons because we had London children, brought down from London to escape the bombing. When we weren’t in the classroom, we were digging. They called it Digging for Victory – they had vegetable allotments alongside the school. We were issued spades and hoes and rakes, and we were planting vegetables. When we weren’t doing that, we went out with our teacher to places of interest, of historic interest, and as a child, I thought it was pretty exciting. I wasn’t affected psychologically by anything at that particular time.

I remember one particular day, I had begun working for an electronic distributor in the town of Brighton, and it was just he and I. I was a ‘joe boy’ there. I was working in the store, and supplying local electrical dealers with bits and pieces that they needed. Anyway, we were both of us just standing, looking out the window of the store and we saw three Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft coming in, just above the trees, machine gunning everything in sight. They were so close, you could almost see the pilots in the aircrafts. They came in under cloud cover, before the warnings went, and they bombed and machine gunned – they hit the telephone exchange very close to where I was working. This was what they called hit-and-run raids, to frighten and scare the people. Our windows were blown out from the blast on the telegraph exchange building, which was a high-rise building that was probably about 10 or 12 stories high. Anyway, I remember he said, “We’d better get this cleaned up.” And so I took a big broom and started sweeping all the glass together from the blown out shop-front windows. We tidied up the place, and they put plywood on the windows until they could get glass to put in. And this was happening all over these coastal towns.

In hindsight, I was probably one of the lucky ones – I had the excitement of the war, but the other aspect of it didn’t register until I was older. And we didn’t get news, we didn’t know anything about concentration camps being operated by the Germans. The newspapers were censored, the Ministry of Information controlled all the media, both radio and newspapers and magazines. And everything had to be submitted to censorship, so they couldn’t print anything that would affect the morale of the people. They would print Allied victories, but anything that suggested Britain had suffered defeats, or situations where the British army or allied armies were being affected, was controlled by the Ministry of Information.

When I first went to London, the Blitzes were tailing off, the heavy bombing was tailing off. I stayed in the East End of London in Stepney in a tenement. The people who lived there went to the air raid shelters every night, but I didn’t go, I thought I’d take my chances and stay. I couldn’t see sleeping on the floor in a warehouse or the basement of a warehouse or a reinforced building. I thought, I’ll take my chances here, maybe I was being a bit reckless, but I thought… I stayed there for a few months and then I moved.

…I was determined to stay on in London. But you know, as I say, morale wasn’t, in my case, it was the overall, you knew that there were all kinds of incredible things happening. It was an aura of excitement, but I never thought of being killed, it didn’t even occur to me that I could be killed.

I remember seeing when the American troops came in, starting after Pearl Harbor, the United States started sending troop ships over. Seeing all these American troops and Air Force people, with their amazing uniforms and they seemed to have so much money, they all looked in a sense like movie stars. Even NCOs or corporals, but the Air Force people, they were very glamorous and the English women responded to this in a big way. It was an exciting time…

LW: So the story you’re telling me is that you feel like the experience of the war itself didn’t fundamentally change you. The knowledge later and the insight later did, but the actual experience of being there, the war itself, didn’t fundamentally change you.

MW: Yes, it didn’t fundamentally change me.

LW: That’s interesting. Do you think it changed Britain?

MW: Yes, I would think it changed Britain, to a degree. The morale was amazing and I want to put it down primarily to Churchill and his leadership. Once he got himself established, and it didn’t take him long, Churchill was the man for the job. If he hadn’t been there, who knows, it’s conceivable that Britain would have gone down.

LW: So, do you think that it’s hard to remember what you felt then, given the amount you’ve read and seen films since? And it was a whole lifetime away, right?

MW: Yes, correct.

Image credit: Marion Doss

Lesley Wood is on sabbatical from York’s Department of Sociology. She is interested in how ideas travel, storytelling dynamics, the timing of social interactions, and the way repression affects struggles for justice. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle (Cambridge University Press), and an editor of the online journal Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements. 

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Telling War Stories – Witnessing Expectations…
by Lesley Wood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.