Few now survive who lived through World War II. Those remaining today can provide valuable accounts of their experiences, but such memories largely involve wartime childhood. As family historians, how can we connect with the range of experiences of adult civilians of the time?
Luckily, a remarkable collection of diaries in the UK’s Mass Observation Archive (MOA) allows us to step into the hearts and minds of the Blitzers. Described as a “time capsule of ordinary voices”, the MOA’s inaugural operations during WW2 solicited diaries from hundreds of people across the nation. These are a gold mine of social history.
Today I have the pleasure of previewing a new book which delves right into these diaries, shedding light on predominantly civilian experiences of WW2. Later on I’ll take a look at the Mass Observation Archive and how it can help YOUR research, and provide some pointers for using diary accounts in your own family tree.
Thanks to publishers Hodder and Stoughton, I’m able to give you a sneak preview of a new title due to hit UK shelves this week. This title will bring real colour to your genealogy work if you’re researching family who lived through WW2. So let me introduce Blitz Spirit, an anthology of accounts taken from MOA diaries of 1939-1945. Compiled by Becky Brown, it is on general release from this Thursday, 8th October 2020.
Let’s take a look now and see what it has to offer…
‘Blitz Spirit’: A Review
The Second World War is a frequent casualty of oversimplification in film and media. Standard tropes recur on-screen and in print: families rapt listening to the wireless, gardening stalwarts digging for victory. Yet the voices of Blitz Spirit demonstrate that there was no single universal experience of this time, and allow us a nuanced view of the era through (mostly) civilian eyes.
Triumph over adversity during the Blitz involved emotional struggles as much as physical ones, as people attempted to maintain a semblance of normality under extraordinary circumstances. To ignore these daily battles with fear, worry, anxiety – even selfishness and greed – would be to do our ancestors a disservice. From the very start, Brown invites us to challenge the notion of so-called ‘Blitz Spirit’ as “psychological bunting for the duration” and encourages us to see our WW2 forebears with the rich complexity they merit, all by connecting with first-hand accounts of the time.
Blitz Spirit presents extracts from a large number of MOA diaries. Ordered chronologically, we observe people’s experiences developing as the war progresses. Accounts from different diarists are interspersed with one another; one moment you’re with a male warehouseman based in Birmingham, the next you might be in Cornwall with a female writer and artist. Each chapter of diary extracts addresses a different six-month period and is prefaced by Brown’s overview of key historical events which influenced the correspondents during that time.
Researchers will appreciate the value of these primary accounts in narrating events as they unfolded, rather than in retrospect:
“If the youth of 50 years hence should ask me how I reacted to the tremendous events of today, I expect I shall ‘remember’ hanging on the announcer’s words. But the truth is I only listened with half an ear.”MOA Diarist 5390, 2 Sept 1939 – extract from Blitz Spirit, compiled by Becky Brown
At every turn, these accounts challenge our notions of the civilian experience. Mention air raids and we imagine the fear and dread they inspired – yet some diarists also point out the keenly felt impact of a prolonged lack of sleep, an aspect which features far less in many portrayals of the Blitz.
Despite the disparate social, regional and political backgrounds of the correspondents – and their different situations and opinions – many of their writings convey a similar arc of emotions, as the fear of the moment in the early years eventually gives way to hopes for the future. It would be interesting to know to what extent this is reflected across the full, unedited diaries. Towards the end of the war, correspondents muse over the type of world to come, wondering what their place in it will be.
“During these last five years, we have run the whole gamut of emotions, seen human nature at its most naked. We have had to put up with many unpleasant things and now we feel that our patience has been rewarded.”MOA Diarist 5205, 3 Sep 1944 – extract from Blitz Spirit, compiled by Becky Brown
A diversity of opinion amongst the diarists provides a variety of political and social perspectives across the class divide. One correspondent lauds Churchill’s skills as an orator, whilst another can’t be bothered to see his drive-through of Sheffield and “can’t see that a look at him would alter my ideas one way or another” (Diarist 5447, 8 Nov 1941). There’s the member of the landed gentry standing to attention – along with his dog – for the National Anthem on the radio, but there are also factory workers, typists, the unemployed and the convalescing going about their daily lives.
Irrespective of the time or place, food – or the lack thereof— is a constant theme. We see stoical types remaining defiant in the face of considerable rationing and deprivation, whilst others moan about a lack of biscuits. By the end of the war, we are entertained by a tinned food dilemma: does one opt for the “long-cherished” tin of sausages purchased in November 1940, or the tinned chicken acquired in January 1941? (For the record, the latter turned out to be foul and the sausages were devoured with gusto).
Gems of overheard conversation scattered throughout the book provide comic relief from the more sobering accounts of death and destruction. In later chapters we witness an increasing desensitisation of the diarists to the trauma of war. We also see how the wartime mood breeds anxiety and suspicion and raises questions of conscience, and we are privy to various diarists’ confessions of reporting on their friends or neighbours:
“My hairdresser today told me of a case she knows personally – two women they know went to a wedding where there were lovely eats, got in Black Market. Next day they went to food office and reported it.”MOA Diarist 5447, 29 Feb 1944 – extract from Blitz Spirit, compiled by Becky Brown
Whether diarists are joyous or bereft, these extracts convey the impression of real individuals rather than flat stereotypes. The intimate style of the writing makes for a captivating read and invites you to consider what your own reaction would be to the same situations. Blitz Spirit makes you acutely aware of the difference between our own retrospective assessment of this era and the challenging, vacillating reality of living through it.
Putting a research hat on now, I would like to see more clarity as to the motivations for selecting the chosen passages. It is unclear whether they were chosen for their pithy comments, or whether they represent the more exciting reflections amidst the humdrum repetitiveness of the daily grind. Without a knowledge of the context in which these passages sit, it is difficult to appraise their historical value.
A good subject index would be of help in contrasting diarists’ differing opinions on a common theme, and it’s a shame this has been omitted. A separate index to locate all entries for a particular diarist and follow only their story would help us to appreciate the transit of people’s lives and feelings over the course of the war.
One For Your Shelves?
War and Pestilence may be different horsemen, but they bring surprisingly similar facets of human nature to the surface. Blitz Spirit is therefore the perfect antidote for world-weary citizens of 2020: modern readers will find some very familiar characters and moods to connect with. Desperate queues for household goods, black marketeers taking their cut from the crisis, and a fair bit of curtain-twitching to check up on those neighbours: these voices feel as fresh and relevant today as they were in the wartime Britain of the 1940s.
Although discussion of the curation process and some indexing would elevate the book, Blitz Spirit has much to offer and will delight people-watchers as well as anyone wanting to study the Home Front of WW2 at a more personal or local scale. If there were ever a year to connect with past generations who were ripped from familiar lives and cast into the unknown, then 2020 is surely it.
And as for what real Blitz Spirit is? Brown might leave us to make our own minds up on that score, but one thing’s for sure: you’ll come away with a far richer, more nuanced sense of the civilian experience than ever before. These voices not only demand to be heard, but the impression they leave will linger on long after you’ve turned the final page.
“Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945″ will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thursday 8th October 2020. Available in hardback and eBook, priced £16.99.
The Mass Observation Archive
Where did Blitz Spirit‘s diary entries come from? The Mass Observation Archive is based at The Keep at the University of Sussex and specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981 (Mass Observation Project).
Wartime diarists were free to choose their focus and wrote about subjects ranging from the minutiae of daily life, to community conversations, to politics and the bigger picture. Although these anonymised diaries don’t support direct genealogical research, they have huge value in providing social context. You can read more about the WW2-specific resources on The Keep’s website. In addition to mass-obs records, the archive also includes a collection of more general personal papers from the 20th century. Some of the more recent acquisitions have been digitised and can be viewed online.
The WW2 diaries have not been digitised, so you’ll need to visit The Keep yourself if you want to view them (however a digital index is available online). The anonymised nature of the programme means you can’t search records by name, but you can search for diarists living in a particular town which can help you locate entries of local relevance to your research.
How Can Diaries Shape Your WW2 Research?
Here are a few ideas for how to use contemporary accounts – and your response to diaries and anthologies such as Blitz Spirit – to guide and enhance your genealogy research.
Whether you read the accounts of Blitz Spirit or have access to personal diaries amongst your own family papers, examine them in tandem with the 1939 Register. Do the diaries give you a feel for what the mood might have been like in your ancestor’s neighbourhood at particular points during the war? Use the topics you find in diaries to search in local newspapers, to gain a sense of community attitudes and explore alternative accounts of events. Include these sources when you write up your family history. Our genealogical narrative really comes to life when we unite the formal record with social context.
Diaries and other contemporary accounts are valuable primary sources in your research. Considering the curation process that transformed the MOA diaries into the Blitz Spirit anthology should get you thinking about how we critique our sources. This doesn’t just include who wrote a source and why, but identifying the modification or editing it may have undergone. Question the provenance of diaries inherited in family papers, which sometimes undergo ‘editing’ by other family members before reaching us. How might any editing affect your impression of the contents?
You can explore ideas about sourcework further in the article “Understanding Genealogical Sources” over at Phil Isherwood’s blog.
Explore an Area
One-Place Studies researchers will leap at the gold mine of information contained within the MOA accounts. As the MOA’s online catalogue allows a place-based search, it’s ideal for locating town-specific diaries for you to follow up on and relate to existing research for your chosen location.
What Happened to Your WW2 Forebears?
If you have an interesting family story from WW2, then please share it in the comments below. These fascinating personal accounts deserve to be heard and we genealogists know the value of a good yarn!
All reviews on The Parchment Rustler are provided as independent opinions for the benefit of the readership and are not paid for or influenced by any external organisation.