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Women at War. Nigel Fountain ed.
Voices from the Twentieth Century:
Eyewitness Accounts from the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive.
London: Michael O’Mara in Association with the Imperial War Museum, 2002.
£14.99, 143 pages + Audio CD, ISBN 1-85479-857-X

The Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Nigel Fountain ed.
Voices from the Twentieth Century:
Eyewitness Accounts from the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive.
London: Michael O’Mara in Association with the Imperial War Museum, 2002.
£14.99, 143 pages + Audio CD, ISBN 1-85479-856-1

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen


It should perhaps been said straight away that Women at War and The Battle of Britain and the Blitz are not scholarly monographs in the conventional sense—but this does not mean that they have no interest for the serious student of ‘Britain in the century of total war’, to take up Arthur Marwick’s celebrated phrase1. The publisher, Michael O’Mara, generally does not produce ‘academic’ books as such2, but in this instance he worked in association with the Imperial War Museum3 to introduce a new series entitled Voices from the Twentieth Century: Eyewitness Accounts from the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. The last two words suggest that the books in the series are to be based on the wealth of recordings of all kind in the Museum’s possession: contemporary reportage and testimonies, but also more recent interviews with participants (as the covers indicate, ‘Includes 1-hour audio CD of actual eyewitness accounts’) —the whole interspersed with recreated sound effects (e.g. the inevitable Merlin purr4) and excerpts from the popular tunes of the time (with the equally inevitable White Cliffs of Dover sung by Vera Lynn). The consulting editor, Nigel Fountain, also has broadcasting experience from the BBC, thus theoretically making the undertaking a truly ‘multimedia’ one, as modern electronic facilities now make it possible at an affordable cost.

The first thing the buyer has to decide is whether he will start with the books or with the CDs, as the text and the sound do not really coincide. Sometimes the oral passage is longer than the corresponding typescript, sometimes the reverse is true. Also, when one reads the typescript of an interview in the book, there is no way one can tell on which track of the CD it will be found. Conversely, when listening to an oral account, it is impossible to go to the relevant page in the book since there is no concordance provided. An index would also have been useful in the books, if only to enable the reader to find the relevant pages from the names of the CD interviewees. From the point of view of cross-fertilisation between sound and written text, these first two titles are therefore a disappointment, and this is certainly not the state of the art in the exploitation of modern multimedia techniques. The only practical plan is to consider the CD and the book as separate entities—perhaps loading the CDs onto the car CD player for long motorway journeys and keeping the books for leisurely browsing in a comfortable armchair if one considers them as finely produced pictorial albums, which they are, basically. This does not mean that the written text has no interest, but the narrative is primarily made of connecting sections between the testimonies’ transcripts. A useful addition is the ‘timeline’ which runs across the bottom of the pages—a welcome chronological aid in situating the oral records in the general context of the war.

In this day and age, when ‘Women’s Studies’ are to be found everywhere, from Primary Schools to Postgraduate Courses, it was of course good policy on the part of the project’s originators to start the series with Women at War, a book which covers the field from 1914 to 1945, with many excellent illustrations of the time. What makes the book unusual is the unwonted number of colour reproductions of paintings, starting with Women test valves at the Royal Navy barracks, Portsmouth (Arthur McCormick, 1916) and ending with Dame Laura Knight’s celebrated picture of Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring (1943)5. This choice of ‘munitions workers’ as opposed to the older choice of ‘nursing sisters’ is of course not due to chance, and even though the book abounds with pictures of nurses of all kind in both wars (including a magnificent full-page ‘Woman as saintly mother, depicted in a painting for a poster design’—an intensely emotional First World War oil painting of a beautiful young nurse helping a wounded soldier along with one arm and protecting a bare-footed, bedraggled little girl, evidently a war orphan, with the other) the insistence is on women as ambulance drivers (or even ambulance or car mechanics, like the present Queen in her impeccably starched ATS overalls leaning against a lorry) rather than women in ‘feminine’ roles. This desire to show women in a ‘positive’ light, away from their expected subservient ‘gender roles’ goes perhaps a little too far, as there are almost no pictures or photographs of Lord Woolton’s6 enthusiastic ‘army’ of canteen helpers and tea-makers, who were so important in sustaining morale on the Home Front, whether among victims of the ‘Blitz’ or on the special food trains which brought some comfort to those who slept in Tube stations. On the other hand, there are plenty of photographs and portraits of the Pankhursts, of Millicent Fawcett and other Suffragettes, with captions which do not really establish their relevance with the central theme of the book. But this is minor criticism: the abundance of undoubtedly relevant illustrations makes Women at War a major iconographical source-book on its theme.

By and large, the same remarks on the informative quality of the illustrations can be made for The Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Since the theme is not really subject to historical revisionism, there is less scope for criticism from the ideological point of view, though the editors manage to ‘rehabilitate’ women’s roles once more in this field. Dame Laura Knight is called to contribution once again, this time with women working at a barrage balloon launch in Coventry (1942). This volume has fewer full-page colour reproductions of paintings, and in conformity with its subject, more photographs of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and other weapons, including the German V-1 and V-2 flying bombs and rockets. Not unexpectedly, there are plenty of photographs of bombed buildings and homeless victims, with the familiar photos of the upturned bus and London burning around the dome of St Paul’s. More uncommon is the perfectly legible colour map of the British Isles published in Signal, the German Armies’ propaganda magazine, in 1941, showing the priority targets for the Luftwaffe with a detailed key to the nature of the activities to be ‘blitzed’, as diverse as shipyards and wheat silos. The ‘gem’, however, has to be the ‘Wartime painting of a member of the Lancashire Home Guard’ which encapsulates all the nostalgia associated with ‘Dad’s Army’7 and powerfully reminds the reader of Orwell’s description, ‘a sort of People’s Army officered by Blimps’8. Unfortunately, though, no reference is given in the caption as to the author and present location of the painting. This would be a general complaint covering both titles: the captions are not explicit enough in identifying people (who stands next to Goering on p.71?), not giving exact dates (when were the members of the Home Guard preparing for a camouflage exercise on p.36 photographed?) or other circumstancial information (the reader wants more details on how the incredibly risqué pin-up girl of p.59 managed to pass the censors).

Perhaps other titles in the series will contain more ‘genuine’ reportage and wireless archival material, but the first two titles discussed here mostly rely on recent interviews, which is a great pity considering the enormous amount of sound material from the Second World War which has survived—yet probably most of it is covered by copyright which the Imperial War Museum does not control, hence its exclusion from the project.

Still, the CDs also have an unquestionable educational value as aids for Oral History courses and the books’ illustrations are all extremely well selected, and most have a great educational potential for classroom use. There can be no doubt that in the hands of a skilled practitioner of ‘active’ teaching-from-documents methods the books and the CDs would provide ideal material on their respective subjects.

Foreign historians of contemporary Britain can only be astonished at the continued interest in ‘Their Finest Hour’, with the unabated output of books and videos (and now books-with-CDs) on the Home Front, but of course they rejoice since it provides them with ample material for their own research. The two books under examination here will add fresh material to the historian’s toolkit in two ways: by adding to the known iconography of the two World Wars and by providing easily accessible oral records by participants. In their own way, therefore, these two books have their usefulness even for the academic historian and they deserve to be stocked by University Libraries—although this was probably not the public intended by the editors of the series.

1 Cf. Marwick, Arthur. Britain in the Century of Total War. London : The Bodley Head, 1968.

2 His reputation will not be helped among ‘serious’ scholars by the slogan which catches the eye of the person who consults his site, ‘The UK’s No.1 Humour Publisher’, and by the sentence which closes the presentation of the company, ‘From Madonna to the Little Books, and Busy Day Train to farting books, we really do have an eclectic list!’

3 Newcomers to the subject might like to know that the Imperial War Museum produces an excellent free 48-page catalogue of its publications. Details on

4 The Merlin engine, built by Rolls-Royce, powered the legendary Spitfire fighter aircraft.

5 Readers interested in trans-Atlantic cultural differences will not fail to compare Ruby Loftus screwing a breech-ring with Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter (also 1943).

6 Lord Woolton was Minister of Food in the Second World War.

7 A popular light-hearted BBC television series on the Home Guard. See Pertwee, Bill. Dad’s Army : The Making of a Television Legend. Newton Abbot : David & Charles, 1989 and Webber, Richard et al. The Complete A-Z of ‘Dad’s Army’. London : Orion, 2000..

8 ‘London Letter to Partisan Review, 15 April 1941’. In Angus, Ian & Orwell, Sonia [Editors]. George Orwell : The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. (2) : My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943. London : Secker & Warburg, 1968. (Penguin 1970, p.141)

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