I have a long-standing interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. I guess it is because, being of the ‘boomer’ generation and born after the war, it influenced so much of my formative years. Yet we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had mothers who were silent about their experiences, which we sometimes later discovered had been rather racy; our fathers in the armed or reserved services were hard to imagine. My own father hid behind the Official Secrets Act if we asked him about his war years.
And there is the added interest of our current troubles, the pandemic, which has many parallels with the war. One overwhelming difference is that our ‘enemy’ is a microscopic virus, while in the Second World War it was Hitler and his followers and their malign beliefs. The reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.
Margaret Kennedy’s memoir of the summer of 1940 is therefore a boon to people with my interests. It was published in America in 1941, and has been made available to us today, reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. (My thanks to Handheld Press for a copy of this book.)
Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry
She writes about the people she meets, friends she corresponds with, the decisions she makes and how the war progresses over the next six months. The immediate fear was of invasion, but also bombardment of the kind seen in Guernica in Spain in April 1937. By September 1940, when the Blitz was well under way, it seemed unlikely that an invasion was imminent.
My story begins at six o’clock on an evening in May 1940 when the BBC announcer told the British people that the situation of our army in Flanders was one of ‘ever-increasing gravity’.
Those three words banished for ever the comfortable delusion that we were ‘certain to win’. And from that moment, the war took on a new character in our minds. (10)
During those months ‘we in this country were living through a supreme experience’, she wrote.
Many of us were more frightened than we ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most. […] The story of last summer is the story of forty million people, each one of them taking that journey. Each had to find his own path back to faith and sanity, each had his own unuttered fears, each found his own source of courage. (3-4)
In our own case, the pandemic brought similar experiences of fear, unsuspected bravery, passions and loyalties. And we have each needed to find our own resources to deal with what the pandemic has thrown at us.
Margaret Kennedy writes about the fall of Belgium that occurred soon after that BBC announcement. The situation was indeed increasingly grave. The British army became trapped at Dunkirk and was rescued, France was invaded and capitulated, and Paris was occupied. A German invasion was expected every day.
During that time she and her husband had to make decisions about where to live: she moved with the children from Surrey to ‘Porthmerryn’ – St Ives, Cornwall, where she had spent much of her childhood; her husband stayed in London as an air raid warden. Later they decided not to send the children to Canada for the duration. This decision was partly motivated by egalitarian principles. Instead they helped with the hundreds of evacuee children who were sent west to Cornwall.
The children went to Cornwall by train and saw another train full of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk.
While they were waiting on the platform a train full of soldiers came in. The men were filthy and ragged and unshaven, many of them wounded and hastily bandaged up, They were shouting and cheering wildly, and all the people on the platform were cheering and rushing forward with coffee and rolls and fruit and cigarettes. A huge, north-country giant jumped down on the platform and kissed Lucy; pressing a Belgian franc into her hand. (32)
Later as she followed them the writer met a train full of French soldiers, who were much less cheerful for they were going into exile.
Margaret Kennedy’s skill as a writer is in evidence throughout this memoir. I enjoyed her sketches of people, such as the woman who posts pro-German leaflets (like an antivaxxer on social media); the refugee couple from Vienna who have seen terrible things; her friend who denies that anything bad is happening.
For another example, she goes into the garden to find Cotter, the gardener, after that BBC news announcement.
He too had heard the six o’clock news and he looked perturbed but not flabbergasted. But it would take the last trump to dismay Cotter, and even then he would probably appoint himself an usher and marshal us to our places before the mercy seat. He runs the entire village, the British Legion, the Cricket Club, and the Parish Council. It’s my belief that he was born giving instructions to the midwife. (15)
She comments upon class issues, pouring scorn upon the ‘Gluebottoms’ who arrive seeking safety and expecting service they had enjoyed before. They do not muck in. The attitude to the evacuee children is not always generous. We read of the general suspicion of the French, the preparations for invasion and bombardment; rumours that spread and get distorted, and reactions to the first alert.
There are some interesting and amusing details. There are no boats in the Porthmerryn harbour when they arrive because they have not yet returned from Dunkirk. They go for a walk on the seemingly unprotected cliffs and are surprised by hidden soldiers. There is Lucy’s postcard to a school friend:
The waw is getting very bad and we are lerning to nit.
If you think of it as the waw it does not seem so frightening somehow. (32)
She is exceptional for presenting, along with her own thoughts, the variety of attitudes, arguments, dogmatisms about Belgium, France, the US, bombing, evacuating children to Canada and so on.
By the end of the summer, like us, she and the British public have learned to live normally in an abnormal situation; to keep the children safe and educated, to keep in touch with friends. She repeats the general admiration for the RAF, reminding me of the admiration we feel for the staff of the NHS. She believes that the British will carry on, and even create a better world after it’s over, although the fight is likely to be long and bloody. It lasted for another four and a half years. Let us hope our ‘duration’ is nothing like as long.
Born in 1896 Margaret Kennedy attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville, where she read history, with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. Her brother was killed in Palestine in 1918. She died in 1967.
The presentation of this memoir in this new edition is excellent. There is a useful and interesting introduction by Faye Hammill.
The title comes from a poem, My Soul there is a Country, by Henry Vaughn.
My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry
All skilful in the wars: (set to music by Parry, in Songs of Farewell, during the First World War)
Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy first published in 1941 but only in the US, reissued by Handheld Press in March 2021. 201pp
Related posts on Bookword
The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (1924) from April 2018
Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith (1948) from January 2020
Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2 from November 2019