Friday, May 25, 2012
White Cliffs and Women During Wartime
A few days ago The Heiress took herself off for an adventure and sent me this photo of a small section of the iconic white cliffs of Dover. There was an eerie moment when I opened the file as just two hours earlier I had been thinking of asking her to send me some pictures should she ever find herself going out that way. My train of thought came from being completely engrossed in the book Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson. This is a brilliant work of non-fiction from the World War II era and despite not even hitting the halfway mark yet I thought I would share a few anecdotes....
Lady Diana Cooper, married to Duff Cooper, would carry a bag stuffed with some of her diamonds, 200 GBP in cash, make-up essentials and passport to a cubicle in a subterranean Turkish bath. Popping a sleeping pill she would spend the night and when the all-clear sounded in the morning she would head home. Her staff would bring a breakfast tray to her room and she would enjoy The Times, have a nap and then it was off to The Ritz for drinks.
The Henreys were living in Normandy with their infant son when the Germans crossed into France. As they watched the coastline burning they knew escape was their only chance for survival. Madeleine took a last look around the house, gathered a few things and with her husband, their baby and her mother they left for the British Consulate. She had a British passport, her son had a British father but her mother was barred entry despite their pleas. Can you just imagine how heartbreaking a scene it would have been for mother and daughter? I was so relieved to find out that five years later they were reunited, thank goodness.
As Frances walked home, dressed in her first-aid uniform, after a heavy night of bombing, she passed the remains of a building. A doctor, a nurse and some other wardens shouted for her assistance as they stood over a gaping hole leading down to the basement. Frances were very tiny, just the right size to squeeze into an opening to administer aid to a man they could hear below crying out in agony. The space was so tight she had to remove her dress to be lowered into the opening, head first. The poor man's injuries were so horrific that she vomited repeatedly when she was pulled back up. The doctor gave her a cloth soaked in chloroform and Frances was lowered once again to end the man's suffering. It was euthanasia but the poor man welcomed it as he inhaled deeply from the cloth.
Mrs Milburn, like many other women, blew apart the culture of womanhood and began cursing as they never would have dreamed of before and using the word 'hate' with such passion. I did have to laugh when she wrote that the vermin eating the vegetables in her garden were given names like Hilter, Goering and Himmler before being dispatched. One woman working in an aircraft factory in Bristol broke three hammers as she worked on Spitfires, each blow she delivered was with Hitler in mind.
We have all read stories or watched films in which young lovers marry in the blink of an eye during wartime but I am still amazed by just how quickly some went about binding themselves in holy wedlock. In some instances a call for duty after a couple of evenings out dancing with a young girl was enough to have a man down on one knee. There were also loads of young women and girls sitting through a night of bombing in a tube station vowing to have sex at the first chance they got. There was no way they were going to die virgins! Less exciting perhaps, but hilarious, were the two friends who made a pact not to die in their curlers so with every air-raid siren they whipped off their headcover and unrolled their hair, no matter how tired. Once the all-clear was sounded their curlers were put back in to place.
This is such an addictive read and I can't count how many times I have said to myself 'just one more page and then I'll get going'.