Tag Archives: the Blitz

Army without Banners by Ann Stafford

Until recently, in written history, war has been a male occupation: the political approach to it, the armies and combat, and reluctance to include women in the services on the same basis as men. In the British Army, for example, they have served only since 2018 on the same basis as men. Auxiliary service has been open to women for much longer.

Of course women have always been affected by war, and sometimes involved with the events of war, even if written history has not put them in the foreground. They kept families and homes together in the absence of the men, they took over the running of estates, of jobs, of responsibilities; they cared for the men who were wounded, buried and mourned the dead, followed armies in baggage trains as cooks, nurses and prostitutes. One or two we know of disguised themselves as men to join the forces, such as James Barry (1789-1865). Identified as a female at birth, Barry lived his/her adult life as a man in the medical corps of the army, becoming Inspector General of the military hospitals. 

In the First World War (1914-18) the impact of the mass armies, and mass deaths, meant that huge numbers of men were required to volunteer for armed service, and later were conscripted into the armed services, not least for the trench warfare on the Western Front. Women were required to fill many of their jobs. We read of women bus conductors, posties, munitions workers, radio operators and mechanics.

The Second World War (1939-45) saw the destructive action of war visited upon Britain’s cities through aerial bombardment – the Blitz – especially London. Women were mobilised, and by 1944 a third of the civilian population were engaged in war work including 7 million women. In London and other cities, the emergency services and air raid responders played a vital role in rescuing, caring for, rehousing and protecting the populations. Army without Banners is a novel that celebrates the role so many women played in supporting the community in the face of the destruction. Ann Stafford foregrounded the role of the ambulance service, but she also celebrates 

a full range of civil defence and women’s voluntary service personnel, post-raid and welfare services, caterers in tea cars and British restaurants, salvage collectors and a hospital librarian. (From the introduction pxii)

The experience was recognised as significant both for individual women and for their shared attitudes. Towards the end of the Blitz (and of the novel) some of the female ambulance crew (with male nicknames) are outside watching the dawn

‘I guess earning good money and getting on and having swell friends and a good time – that sort of stuff don’t seem real any more. But having good pals does. And sticking by each other and having a job of work you mind more than you mind about yourself.’
Mark said, ‘Yes we’ve come to feel that way in the blitz.’
‘If only,’ Penny said anxiously, ‘we can remember …’
‘We will,’ I said. The sound of my own voice surprised me but I couldn’t stop. ‘We will; there are so many of us, all in this together, all feeling the same way. Mark’s right; we’ve grown real. We – we know the things that matter now, I think. Kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other. I’m pretty sure those are everlasting things.’ (183-4)

Army without Banners

The narrator, Mildred, is a middle-aged woman who lives at the start of the novel in a village, and whose husband and son are both away in the war. Like many women in September 1940 she was busy with local voluntary activities to support the war effort: ‘the First Aid Post in the village, the knitting groups and the committees and all the local nonsense’ (6). Her friend Daphne writes from London, telling her that she has been a driver in the ambulance service for six months, but now the Blitz has begun they need drivers. After some equivocation Mildred joins her friend and begins work as a driver. 

We learn about the training, the preparation, waiting and going out on call and the terror of being nearly hit. We get dramatic descriptions of driving out in the ambulances, the coordination with other services, and the dangers that they work in. They love it, that and the camaraderie in the Ambulance Centre. They hate the down time, and from time to time when action is less brisk Mildred looks at other services and wonders if she would have more interesting occupations in these: mobile canteen, hospital librarian, East End Settlement worker, Thames River ambulance, and in administrative jobs that coordinate it all. By this device we get a view of the many volunteer opportunities, as well as the details of the shifts, uniform, tasks and so forth available to women during the war. For this enthusiastic historian it’s a real treat.

Ann Stafford valued ‘kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other’ brought by the shared experience of volunteering. While it was openly calling for women’s solidarity after the war, and praising the work that women did in the war, this novel is also a good read. There are also some charming line drawings by the author, which capture the tone of the writing. The action concludes in April 1941.

Ann Stafford

Ann Stafford was a most prolific writer. Her first publication was Business as Usual with Jane Oliver. She wrote four novels with Jane Oliver, 36 romance novels under another pseudonym with her and 25 novels on her own. She was awarded a PhD in Russian History and also studied art and rose to a high rank in the Red Cross. If you want something done …

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford published in 1933, a post on Bookword blog from April 2020.

Army without Banners by Ann Stafford, first published in 1942 and re-issued by Handheld Press (2024) 194pp with an introduction by Jessica Hammett.

Thanks to the publisher, Handheld Press, for the advance review copy. Publication date: 16th January 2024. 

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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

With so many good books in the world there must be some special reasons for rereading one. I recently took my copy of The Night Watch from my shelves and enjoyed several days in the company of Viv, Helen, Kay and Duncan. I first read it 14 years ago in 2007, a year after it was published.

I had two reasons for wanting to return to this novel. First, I am having something of a binge on wartime novels at the moment. It started when I began a short story set during the war, but I’ve neglected that story recently, while my enjoyment of wartime novels has continued.

Second, Sarah Waters employs an interesting structural device in this novel. The three episodes are present in reverse chronology: the characters are introduced in 1947, their experiences in 1944 follow and the final section concerns their lives in 1941. It’s a bold way to tell a story and I wanted to think about its effects. 

The Night Watch

We first meet the four protagonists after the war is over in 1947. None of them is happy and one of the effects of the chronological structure is that their histories are gradually revealed. Their backstories come later. The influence of the past on the present, of chance, of kindness and innocence are revealed in this way which makes everything unpredictable.

If you think about it, this is how you usually find out about people that you meet, and I don’t mean the ones in novels. You get to know them a little and you ask them about their past, where they’ve lived, their jobs, or education and so forth. We see how the person we have just met fits in with our understanding about the past that they reveal.

However, novels usually take the chronological development of their story in a traditional sequential way, albeit with flashbacks included. Sarah Waters in an exceptional storyteller. I would love to know why she chose to tell The Night Watch in the fashion.

It certainly makes the reader pay attention. They must try to sort out the puzzles that she lays before them. Why was Duncan in prison, for example? Or what is the mystery of the ring that connects Viv to Kay? And how did the war and their experiences in the war change the directions of the lives of the four characters? Part of the pleasure of reading The Night Watch is to resolve such mysteries. 

It is somewhat unsettling to read while keeping the later story in mind as she takes us backwards first to 1944 and then to 1941. The reader is constantly having to make the connections in reverse, as it were. The effect is to show up the accidental nature of so much of life, and, with the background of the war, how dark and dangerous life can be.

And perhaps this is one of the questions being posed – what are the limits of deploying conventional chronology in fiction and what happens when you reverse them?

Another experiment in telling stories backwards is Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991). He employs a different device, telling the whole story in reverse, from a reverse consciousness: death leading to a strange rebirth, the person arriving in the prime of life, recovering their innocence in childhood and finally being reabsorbed into their mother’s body. Slightly yucky but it does raise questions about cause and effect, and moral responsibility especially as the protagonist is a Holocaust doctor who works in the camps. The effect in this novel is also unsettling and raises questions about morality and how we develop and judge moral behaviour.

Within this experimental way of presenting the stories in The Night Watch there are some very vivid scenes. There is a walk during the air raids of 1944 by two women through the city. They must guess where they are by landmarks such as churches as all the street names have been removed in case of invasion. In the same section Duncan experiences a terrifying air raid from inside his prison cell. 

Other aspects of the novel only slowly emerge. For example, we learn where Viv met her older married boyfriend, in the final section. But we have already wondered why she had not ditched him. And her decision not to see him again in the post-war section is really only explained by the long experience of her affair with him.

So I learned more about being on the night watch during the Blitz, and also about playing around with chronology. It’s tricksy, destabilising and an intriguing technique.

Sarah Waters

Born in Wales in 1966, she came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. She came to fame as a result of the success of the television version of her first novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002. The Night Watch was her fourth novel, which took her four years to write. She has described it as like a wrestling match. 

Like her other novels it has been a success, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize (later the Women’s Prize) for fiction.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, published in 2006 by Virago.

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