Memoirs & Diaries - The Story of a W.A.A.C.
This is a girl's contribution. It has few thrills.
First, as to why I went: At home, my father was too old to go. Also, he had the farm. My sister and I have no brother. Many relatives lived near us. All had men-folk who could go to fight-and did. Uncles, cousins, and cousin's sweethearts were all in the trenches or in training for the trenches.
Three or four times a week an aunt or a cousin would bring in her letter from the Front, and read it proudly. They were anxious of course. One cousin was killed. One uncle was wounded. But they were proud, above all. They said that Father and Mother were lucky, to have no one about whom they need be anxious. Yet even my young sister could see that they pitied us, too.
I do not know what Mother felt. I quickly discovered that Father did not count himself lucky. Their pity hurt his pride. With him, it was not only pride. The farm had been the family's for two hundred years. The country meant more to Father than flags waved and glib patriotic cant uttered. The old sorrow that he had no sons had become, I guessed, a new bitterness.
To be brief, there you have the reason why I joined the W.A.A.C.'s. I joined first and told my home-folks afterwards. (I had to call myself twenty-one. They would allow no girl under twenty-one to go to France. I meant to go to France. But I was not nineteen.) Mother was upset. Father said little. Yet I knew that he was glad.
I was sent to camp near Oswestry. My humdrum training days are of no interest to Everyman. Here are two impressions which remain. How good it was to wear (unofficial) riding breeches! How queer in the small villages of the Glynceiriog Valley to feel myself the foreigner that I was! I had not left Britain: yet I was a stranger in a strange land, with strange speech in my ears.
We went to France, via Folkestone. Our billet was a big hotel by the sea. I liked its luxury. It had not occurred to me before that riches have their good side. I seemed to grow taller in those lofty rooms. The many bright lights and the soft, thick carpets made me feel quietly content. I think that I must have had the feeling which our cat has when it purrs on the rug before the fire at home.
Our draft was posted. The end of Folkestone was excitement and inoculation and leave. That last English leave of mine was rather wonderful. Mother cried. Daddy took me down to the pig-sties and talked. He told me that he was proud of me. He knew, he said, that I should be good. He wanted me to be kind as well as good. The Tommies were heroes, but they were men, too. I had only to respect myself, and they would respect me, also.
I did not understand all this at the time. I did later. Daddy scratched Dolly the sow's back while he talked. The old sow grunted. Months afterwards, those grunts came back to me. A Tommy who wasn't a hero, and not much of a man, tried to make love to me.
He was the exception to Daddy's rule: I had respected myself, and this man wanted not to respect me. I got away from him, and ran. He ran after me. I could run better than he. Soon, he was grunting much like the old sow. No other Tommy behaved like this one. They did as Daddy said they would do.
The Channel brought my first real war thrill. Like the other girls, I was, I think, both sad and exalted at the thought of England behind, and of France in front. The zigzag course we kept was because of German submarines: with these our destroyer escorts were there to deal.
Foolishly, I wished that the submarines might be there with which to be dealt. I had my wish. A torpedo missed us by a few feet. In a flash, I discovered that I did not want to die. Especially, I did not want to die in that horrible green water that was under and on every side of us.
The excitement died away. Our course grew less erratic. Our escorts became sedate once more. I had never heard bells more cheerful than those which rang below-deck as we entered harbour at last!
I had got to France, but I had not got to the War. I was never very near the line. The devilish guns rumbled day and night. By day, the click-clacking of my typewriter keys drowned the rumbling of the guns. In that, I see now, lay a parable. I saw only unheroic monotony, then.
By night, the rumbling grew louder and seemed nearer. Wakeful, I would make impossible plans to get hold of a Tommy's uniform, in it to break camp and to make my way to the line. There I was to be a second Lady of the Lamp, or something equally ridiculous. It was all very schoolgirlish and absurd, I have no doubt. But, then, I was absurd, and I had been a schoolgirl not so very long before.
I did not get to the War. But twice the War got to me. On each occasion it was at Etaples in 1918. Let me tell of one of the two.
The bridge at Etaples meant much to the Allies: in consequence, the enemy made incessant attacks upon it from the air. Near it, in the sunlight of a spring day, I saw half a company of men blown to pieces by bombs. Some of the latter fell into the adjoining cemetery.
Coffins and dead men were blown from their graves. Into those graves limbs of living men and fragments of shattered dead men were flung. Our N.C.O. shouted: "Quick, girls, quick! The dugouts." In the shelter and comparative safety of one of them, found myself laughing hysterically, and crying: "The quick and the dead; the quick and the dead."
I remember that I was very sick. I said my prayers; I thought of Mother. I wished that I were home.
A few days later I had a letter from our curate. In it he talked about war as noble discipline. He said it purged men of selfishness, and by its pity and terror brought men nearer to God. I felt sick for a second time. He put with his letter a printed Prayer for Victory, and told me to say it every night.
I remembered that my prayer in the dug-out had been just this, said over and over again: "O God, stop this war; stop it, and let me go home." At home the curate had been rather a hero of mine. He wasn't my hero any more.
Soon after this my chum and I thought that we would go to the cinema. In the town we came upon a queue of Tommies. One of them was shouting out: "This way for the one-an'-thruppennies." We tacked ourselves to the end of the queue. The Tommies tittered.
For some reason we seemed to amuse them very much. Then one rather nice boy came to us, and said: "Missies, this performance is for men only". He blushed as he said it. We did not understand, but we went away.
Afterwards, when we did understand, I wondered what the curate would have said about that queue.
In the "office" I had, as part of my work, to translate into English letters written in French. (It was my knowledge of colloquial French, rather than my white lies as to my age, which had got me to France.) A number of these were from the parents of French girls who were with child.
At first, this seemed very terrible to me. It shocked me most that my superiors should be shocked so little. "Another Mamzelle like it," one would say. "Damned little fool!" a second would answer. That was all. They looked upon it as natural and normal, a necessary nuisance of war. They called it a "beastly bother" when I was about. They used stronger terms when they thought I was out of hearing. Never once did I hear an expression of pity or sorrow or indignation.
Sometimes, one of these girls would come to the office, alone or with her parents. One was Helene. She came alone, at midday, when I was in sole charge. She was frantic. She said that her father would kill her: she said that she would kill herself.
She implored me to help her find the man. She would kill him when she had found him, if he would not marry her. Suddenly her rage left her. She sobbed like a child. She refused to tell me anything but her Christian name, and went away. For weeks the sound of her sobbing haunted me. I never knew what became of her.
There was, too, the old grandmother of another girl. Her back was bent, but not her spirit. She cursed me; she cursed the Colonel; she cursed the British Army; she cursed England and all the English. She went away, cursing. I sat shivering and ashamed.
In the beginning I condemned these girls and their men in my heart. Later, I learned not to judge. I myself became very friendly with a young sergeant named John. He had been in France for over three years and had been several times wounded.
Gas and shrapnel had left him fit only for a job at the Base. When the big German advance began in March, 1918, however, he was put on draft for the trenches. He had to report at ten o'clock. At seven o'clock he asked me to go for a walk with him, as I had done several times before.
We went into the woods. The stars were clear. The night was very beautiful. There were rustlings at our feet, and twitterings over our heads. The guns rumbled in the north, and the ground shook slightly beneath us as he talked of his Surrey home and the woods near it, which he loved.
He said that he was afraid - more afraid than he had ever been in his life. He was sure that this time he was going to "collect some-thing worse than a packet". He wanted to know what I believed about death. I forget what I told him. He made me promise to write to his mother if anything happened to him. When I promised he said that I was a "dear kid". I was very near to crying.
He asked me if he could kiss me. I said, "Yes". He kissed me many times, and held me very tight. He held me so tight that he hurt me and frightened me. His whole body was shaking. I felt for him as I had never felt for any man before. I know now that it wasn't love. It was just the need to comfort him a little.
I am an emotional girl. I might have forgotten what Daddy had told me by the pigsties, if John had not been so decent. Before he need have done, he took me back into the town, saying: "This won't do. You shouldn't get so sorry for a chap. It's risky for you. You're only a kid."
It was not till later that I realized how decent John had been. Yet Daddy, I know, would have called him "common", and "not my sort". He was killed before March was out.
It was in April that my own great grief came to me. A telegram was sent, telling me that my Mother was very ill. They gave me leave, and I went home. When I got there, Mother had been dead six hours. Influenza had killed her in three days, as it had killed many thousands more.
The sun shone when they buried her. The cherry trees were white. "It is God's will; His will be done; for He is good," the Vicar said. I thought of the men blown into pieces at Etaples, and of the corpses blown from their graves. I thought of John, dead near Arras, and of Mother dead in our quiet churchyard. I thought of Daddy, who had cried because Mother was dead, and of Helene, who had cried because her unborn child was alive. It set me wondering whether the Vicar knew any more of God than the Curate did of war.
My leave ended, and I went back to France. One of the first letters I received was from a boy friend of mine. He was a Quaker, and he had written his letter from prison. He had been put in prison because he had shown in times of war that he had meant what he had said in times of peace.
Till then I had abominated his opinions. At least, I thought I had. Yet his letter was a queerly happy letter. He said that, thinking of France and the Tommies there, he had been miserable until they had put him in prison. He said that he wasn't miserable any more. He was sure that he was doing his bit for England.
I read that letter, written on blue prison paper, many times. I had begun to doubt whether there was any God, or, if there was a God, whether He was good. In some way and for some reason that letter made me doubt my doubts. I wondered what Sergeant John would have thought of it.
The spring and the summer went on. The Germans began to go back. The Allies began to go forward and to take prisoners. Part of my work had to do with prisoners quartered in a camp near to our own. Those Germans were friendly men.
They were clever with their hands, and would give me little carvings which they had made. One of them had a look of Father about him. He talked a little like Father, too. He said that he was sure that I was as good as I was kind. (A few packets of cigarettes quickly made one a paragon of kindness in the eyes of prisoners of war.) I found it strange that he should seem so genuinely concerned for me.
These German prisoners would sing in the evenings. They would often sing hymns. Many of these hymns were the old, familiar hymns which, or the tunes of which, I had sung in church at home. They had rich voices. They put much feeling into their singing.
It must have been at about this time that I found I could say my prayers again. Or, rather, not my prayers, but this one prayer: "O God, stop this war; stop it and set all us poor prisoners free". That seemed to cover the Tommies and me, the German prisoners and my friend in prison in England.
The day of Armistice came, and the War stopped. I remember that I drank four glasses of champagne, and afterwards had a very bad headache. Later I felt ashamed. Demobbed, I went home. There they wanted to treat me as a sort of heroine. Their talk hurt me, even Daddy's.
They praised me for all the wrong things. When I tried to tell them what the War had taught me, they were hurt in their turn. When I went to visit my friend, not yet released from prison, they were angry. When he and I - but that is another story.
The War Office sent me two medals after many months.
Mrs. A. B. Baker joined the W.A.A.C. in mid-1917; trained at Kimmel Park, Oswestry, etc.; went to France late 1917, Etaples, Rouen, Dieppe; demobilized 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
"Wipers" was the British nickname for the Belgian town Ypres.
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