Life during World War Two

What follows is a short story from Rosemary’s past. After talking with her, I have taken our discussion and turned it into a series of small stories highlighting the incredible life that she has led. Direct quotes from our discussion are highlighted in quotation marks. All else is a retelling written by yours truly.

When World War Two began, Rosemary was just a child. She had no idea what it meant, nor any scale of its impact. For Rosemary, the war meant suddenly diving under their great big dining room table at seemingly random times during the day. Her family didn’t have a bomb shelter to rush off to and they weren’t anywhere close to the main targets so a big, heavy dining room table was good enough.

Truth be told, Rosemary thought it was quite fun, a change from the normalcy of life. And she much preferred it to the drills done at school. Some of her worst memories of the war had little to do with the fighting or the death. They came from the gas masks she had to practice putting on each day at school.

“I never really enjoyed school but it was ok. And then the war started and I do remember having to try on our gas masks. It was terrible. They are really frightening.”

Gas masks look bad at the best of times and when you are a young child the bulging, lifeless eyes and the strange protruding snout of the mask can be a truly terrifying experience. And it only gets amplified when you look around and see all your friends wearing these strange contraptions, marching towards the shelter with the sirens blaring.

Speaking of which, alongside the gas masks that distorted the human face came the screams of the sirens as they erupted from the silence each day, signalling the beginning of the drills. Upon hearing them, each student would don their mask and make their way towards the shelter, not knowing if it was real this time or just a drill. They always had to practice as if the threat was real, and this meant constant fear.

“They were horrible sounds and I’m sure many people had nightmares later on after the war finished hearing these whining noises. It was eery. And of course it meant real fear for some people and dread, not knowing whether they would lose their lives or homes or loved ones.”

Then there were the hordes of children who were sent from the cities to the countryside when the war got really bad. At the beginning of the war things were tense in Britain but the country had yet to feel really threatened at home. But as the war escalated and Britain’s involvement increased that all changed. Rosemary was too far from London to experience the bombs dropping, but she did see the response from many parents as they sent their children to live with different families in the relative safety of the countryside.

“They were mostly younger children. You can imagine train loads of these [children]. And they’d feel like orphans because they were being sent away from their parents – their homes – to complete strangers. Some of them really had a hard time. Some of them loved it. It depends on which family they had. But it must have been very hard for the parents and the children.”

The war was a strange time for Rosemary (we’ll continue with the war next week too). It was a time of great intensity, but also a fair bit of naivety too. As a child, Rosemary couldn’t fathom what was going on. She didn’t lose anybody directly; her family were farmers and so weren’t sent to war. Instead they simply continued with life on the farm more or less as normal. Her dad had to occasionally head out to the highest point on the farm so see if he could see any trouble. But that was it as far as Rosemary was concerned.

“As a child you just make life.”

It’s true. As a child, Rosemary was more concerned with having fun and exploring and learning than she was with war and death and violence. Later in life she learned more about the war and began to reflect more, realising its intensity and understanding what really went on. But as a child it wasn’t like that. She just got on with her life, far more interested in life on the farm than what was happening in a place she didn’t know and couldn’t possibly fathom.

Stay tuned for more stories from the life of Rosemary. Please note: these stories will not necessarily hold any chronological grounding. I chose to begin with the journey to Sicily because travelling played a major part in the life of Rosemary. There are also more stories from Sicily which might crop up. But these stories are designed as snippets of understanding into the life of Rosemary and while some will hold chronology, others may not.

Photo Credits: The image in the logo is provided by Museums Victoria, an Australian organisation dedicated to learning and cultural understanding. The photo features Nell Duncanson and Isabel Plante wearing gas masks during WWII. For more information on the organisation, click here.