Lest We Forget: Family History, Memorabilia, and World War II Part 3

Dr. Stephen Tate
July 2020

Welcome to the third post on the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generations associated with World War Two.  

In this latest blog I want to examine the idea of oral history. The advantages and some of the pitfalls associated with this method of historical enquiry – a method that might be best suited to the sort of family reminiscences that this World War Two anniversary lends itself to. There’s a sense that oral history, history written or recorded as evidence gathered from a living person, perhaps a family member, can provide us with a direct route to the past, unadorned and unembellished. A means of extending the historical record – what we know of the past – to include the ordinary man and woman, perhaps our elderly relatives and their memories of wartime, or of their parents’ memories as recounted to them many years earlier.

At its most basic, oral history, in terms of this wider heritage project, can be described as talking to elderly relatives about parts of their lives that might otherwise go unrecorded. It involves recording, in some way, their first-hand recollections.

For some historians oral history, the spoken word, is a poor substitute for official records and written sources. They argue that spoken reminiscences leave too much open to doubt and to speculation, too much rests on the whim of the speaker, the person being interviewed, as to what they see fit to reveal and what they wish to remain unsaid. Spoken reminiscences can lack a sense of precision. Memory itself can be elusive and limited, open to forgetfulness and partiality. The order of events can become blurred. There are gaps. And oral history can only take us a relatively short distance into the past. It depends on what people can actually remember accurately!

But proponents of oral history as a means of understanding the past argue that it can deliver a sense of freshness. It assumes that everyone’s memory is valuable, however humble the person speaking or being interviewed might feel. It can certainly expand and extend the range of ‘voices’ from the past, opening the door to those outside elite circles, those living what might be seen as more ‘ordinary’ lives. And the argument that oral history can lack precision is often compensated by the element of emotion and detail that personal memories can deliver. At its best, oral history can deliver powerful insights, it can speak of the lived experience, it can deliver a sense of immediacy, and it can provide colour and drama!

‘Doing’ oral history sometimes involves quite sophisticated techniques, but it can also prove accessible to all. It can deliver a democratic feel to the study of the recent past. Everyone’s testimony can have a value. That is particularly true when, in our case, we might be interested in simple domestic routines associated with life in wartime Britain. The sort of detail that just might not be recorded anywhere else!

One thing to bear in mind if we embark on our own version of an oral history project, is that in recording wartime or as-near-wartime reminiscences as feasible, our presence as an interviewer is bound to affect the person being interviewed. It will influence what they recall and the manner in which they recall it, especially if being led by our questions. Even if we ask no questions and just listen, we are playing a part in the process. As one historian wrote, “the voice of the past is inescapably the voice of the present too”. The memories we are presented with have been filtered through other experiences and in a search for a sense of the past, as in some forensic exercise, we risk ‘contaminating’ the evidence. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

But let’s think of a few rules. Presuming we are looking at family members speaking amongst themselves, it is still important to tell the person you are interviewing what your purpose is – what you will be doing with the interview, whether it be written down or recorded. Will you be circulating it among other family members? Or outside the family? If they are to go beyond the family, you need to know if the interviewee is happy to have their name linked to their reminiscences or whether they would prefer a form of anonymity, say, with just their age and perhaps initials to identify the speaker. We must maintain an air of respect, too, in how we deal with the interview process and the end product. It is important to prepare for the interview, or series of interviews. What is it you want to discover? Have starter questions in mind. Decide how much you are prepared to intervene to guide the conversation if things slow down. Consider a few prompts in terms of events, locations or the names of other family members from the interviewee’s generation that might guide the course of the chat. Be prepared to be flexible. Think of the times on TV chat shows when someone being interviewed has started to discuss a really interesting point only to be annoyingly interrupted by the host (all too keen to hear their own voice) and the moment has been lost. Sometimes it’s good just to go with the flow . . .

A good example of oral history in practice can be found on this heritage website (‘When the lights came back on in Blackburn’). Stephen Irwin, Education Officer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, interviewed Richard Croasdale who was a young child when war broke out. The questions Stephen asked in a telephone conversation had been prompted by children from our area, including Blackburn Children’s University, intrigued by the stories on this website. The details Richard reveals are fascinating, and I was particularly taken with the childhood rhyme for skipping! The ordinary parts of life all too easily lost to the record.

On a personal note, I regret not having engaged in that sort of oral history exercise in my father’s lifetime . . .

On the last web posting I said I would continue my late father’s story, following his ‘archive’ in chronological fashion, from the surrender of British forces in Hong Kong in December, 1941, where he was posted in the Royal Artillery, and the means of families finding word of those missing in the pandemonium of war. If you recall, I went out of sequence in the last blog and wrote about a powerful, recurring image of my father’s end to captivity after three-and-a-half years, prompted by the letter home that he wrote to his parents mentioning Lancashire songstress Gracie Fields entertaining the troops in Manila in the Philippines.

I want to return to the months following the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese army in late December, 1941, and consider the trauma my father’s family must have experienced on the Home Front. The mood is captured in a handful of newspaper clippings and official letters. The first, of January, 1942, a tiny news-cutting from a Burnley newspaper, carries under a small headline, ‘MISSING’, the fact that ‘Gunner Arthur Tate’, who had enlisted aged 15, had been ‘posted missing’ after the surrender of Hong Kong. The nine lines of print are accompanied by a head-and-shoulders pre-hostilities portrait photograph of an incredibly young-looking and proud teenager in uniform. In the same month, his Burnley-based father and step-mother received an official typed letter from the Royal Artillery in Rugby. It was clearly in response to an earlier enquiry seeking news of their son. The letter informs the couple that, ‘I am sorry to say that just at present I am unable to state Gunner Tate’s exact whereabouts. You will appreciate that the recent developments in the Far East have delayed and interrupted the receipt of routine information. It may lessen your anxiety however to know that under present conditions the location of a man or even a Unit may be unknown for a time to the military authorities in England. If you do not receive any news of Gunner Tate within the next few weeks and you will write again to this office, I hope I may then be in a position to be of more help to you’.

Gunner Arthur Tate

It is clearly a standardised letter, the sort being received at thousands of homes across Britain as the war began to take its toll. Some six months later, in July, 1942, the same Burnley newspaper among its reports of local men missing in action from various theatres of war, carries equally brief news of Gunner Tate, announcing he, ‘is now officially reported to be a prisoner of war’. That, too, is accompanied by a photograph but, intriguingly, one different to the one printed earlier in the year.

There is a postcard among my father’s ‘archive’, unfortunately undated, written in pencil, faded by the years, from ‘Hong Kong Prisoner of War Camp’. In half-a-dozen lines my father writes to his parents, ‘I am quite well and in good health and I hope you are the same. We are being well treated so please don’t worry . . . hoping we will meet again very soon’. Prisoners were allowed to write only brief remarks, approved by their captors. How long it had taken the card to reach Burnley is not known, but presumably it was the first word of his whereabouts, of his survival, since the colony fell months earlier. The mood of his family when the card arrived can only be imagined . . .

In the next blog I want to concentrate on my father’s wartime ‘archive’, and consider the means of staying in touch during the long years of captivity.

I will close this blog by once again using one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History and this time it’s from a book on the sporting past, although the context is not really relevant. Here the author cautions against present-day readers imposing their own ideas, their own world view, on individuals from the past, or of attempting to explain their actions merely in terms of our own experiences. It’s quite a lengthy extract, but it is central to a reasoned understanding of those who have gone before.

It is worth stepping back from the discipline and its attendant debates to remember that what we call ‘history’ or ‘the past’ was the present for other people. An appreciation of this simple fact is useful when faced with debates about the nature of history. The people who lived through what we are studying were not thinking of themselves in the historical terms that we use for them, but were simply getting on with their lives: fighting their wars, having their families, worshipping their gods, working in their fields, or whatever. Keep this in mind whenever you come across historians using shorthand terms such as ‘between the wars’ or ‘before the industrial revolution’, and remember that the people who lived then could not have known what they were between or before. The period we now call ‘medieval’ or ‘the middle ages’ was, for the people living through it, nothing to do with the middle of anything: to them, each day was the present. Remembering this can also help you to avoid anachronistic judgements about past people’s behaviour, beliefs, or motives. Burning women accused of witchcraft, voting for a dictator, or basing an entire economy on a single crop may all strike us as foolish things for people in the past to have done: but those acts must have made sense or been viable options for the people who did them, and to criticise them only in the light of later evidence or opinions does not make for good history.– Martin Polley, Sports History. A Practical Guide (Palgrave Macmillan), 2007, p.6.

Lest We Forget: Family History, Memorabilia, and World War II Part 2

Dr. Stephen Tate
March 2020

A vast transit camp of military tents 15 miles outside Manila in the Philippines just 18 days after the ending of the war in the Pacific. A sultry heat touching 30⁰C (86⁰F). The distinctive voice of songstress Gracie Fields drifting through the canvas, singing on a concert stage ‘to the boys close by’. A 22-year-old Lancashire lad composing the letter home to his parents he had ‘been waiting years to write’ . . .

Welcome to the second post on the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generations associated with World War Two.   

In composing this latest blog entry I found myself undecided as to how best proceed in recounting my own experience of family memorabilia and World War Two. In particular, my late father’s small ‘archive’ of material relating to his time as a prisoner of war in the Far East.

My original plan was to work briefly through an overview of dad’s collection of letters, documents and ephemera in as near to chronological order as possible as a means of highlighting the nature of family memorabilia, official sources and memory in the telling of history. And that is something I will do . . . on the next blog.

But for today, I want to jump out of sequence with that ‘archive’ because my original intention faltered as one powerful, recurring image came to mind again and again, prompted by perhaps the most distinctive-looking of the letters dad had been able to send home to Lancashire after the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1941.

The letter is postmarked September 20, 1945.

It is just 21 centimetres by 16. About 200 words long. Written in a very neat, careful, deliberate hand. Small lettering in black ink on red-ruled, lightweight paper now faded by the passage of time. It is well crafted, well ordered. For a young man whose basic schooling had been interrupted by a variety of circumstances it shows clear signs of careful composition. It is a letter that had been several years in the making, mentally and emotionally.

Indeed, my dad’s letter to his father and stepmother opens on that very point.

“This is the letter I have been waiting years to write and I know you have been waiting just as long to receive it. A Free Man. Right through to the last I still retained good health also my spirit.”

He goes on to briefly recount a journey he and his comrades made by British destroyer-class warship from his final prison camp in northern Japan and then by air to the island of Okinawa and then on to Manila. He mentions the gradual arrival in Manila of “pals” from his regiment, scattered to different prison camps after the surrender of the colony four years earlier and now being reunited for transport home . . . “but I am very sorry to say only a few came through this hell”. In an aside, he reveals, “As I write this letter I can hear Gracie Fields singing to the boys close by”. He ends with a touch of humour, with a postscript to his father, saying he “can’t come home just yet I’ve got no hair on my head”.

I don’t recall seeing the letter I feature here in his lifetime. I worked as a journalist and now class myself as a historian – both trades seemingly reliant upon a questioning, enquiring mind. But I never asked dad about the practicalities of his repatriation from the prison camps. The mechanics of trans-Pacific movement. How could that be? Over the years I asked him very little about his wartime experiences. Again. How could that be? Perhaps a sense of avoiding risking memories too painful for him to relive? A silent, uneasy arrangement with the past within the family? Or, on my part, just the casual arrogance and thoughtlessness of youth before raising my own family took precedence?

And so, on reading the letter I had to do my own research about the repatriation of the Allied POWs through Manila; about the transit camps; the camp set up by the Australians where my father recuperated briefly; the onward journey home to West Coast America and Canada, and beyond. I checked singer, film actress and comedienne Gracie Fields’ role as troop entertainer and her Pacific odyssey in September, 1945, including concerts in the Manila troop hospitals and camps. I had half wondered if dad’s letter had meant he was listening to Gracie on the radio, but no, she had been performing for the ex-POWS just a stroll away. How much richer would that episode have been in the recounting if I had simply asked my father to tell me his wartime stories? I wonder what it would have meant to him for me to ask. Properly, with time set aside just to talk.

And that is a point I think that this blog encapsulates. It is the need, while opportunity presents itself, for us to know more of the older generation around us. To know their memories of childhood in the war years and their impressions of their own ‘elders’ . . . that past World War Two adult generation, my father’s generation. How much better to have that conversation now instead of, in my case, with time as an intermediary as my father speaks to me by means of a letter written on a scrap of paper 75 years ago?

On that note, I pose again a question or challenge I set in the opening blog:

What’s stopping you checking what you might have in the house that might provide a link with the wartime years? Why not have a root around? It’s good to talk. Start a family chat. Who knows what you might turn up, what surprises a relative might deliver up of childhood memories of the 1940s, or stories passed down to them by their own parents and elderly relatives? Perhaps saving them for posterity, either as an audio recording, video or as handwritten notes. It could be an enjoyable experience. Something for the family as a whole to combine in and enjoy.

In the next blog I will examine the issue of oral history. The methods and ideas behind that most immediate of historical sources. The advantages and some of the pitfalls. And I will resume my father’s story, following his ‘archive’ in chronological fashion, from the surrender of British forces in Hong Kong and the means of families finding word of those missing in the pandemonium of war.

Incidentally, I watched a fascinating Channel 4 documentary in which actor Mark Rylance investigated his grandfather’s experience of captivity in the Far East – also in Hong Kong, although he remained in the former colony and wasn’t shipped to Japan. My Grandfather’s War, series one, episode two, was available on catch-up TV when last I checked.

In addition, for those wanting to know more about the end of World War Two in Europe, on May 8, 1945, I found the Imperial War Museum website a fascinating starting point, with information, links and powerful imagery on the Home Front celebrations. It can be accessed here.

I closed the first blog in this series with one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History and thought I would make it a regular feature. So here’s another observation that encapsulates so much of what I consider to be the essence of good history. Eric John’s remark, below, from his study of early England, is relevant for all periods. It cautions against too easy an assumption that an understanding of the past can come without a recourse to empathy, consideration and an awareness of context.

“If a historian does not understand the bounds of the social space within which the events he is studying occurred, all he is doing is to paint a picture of his own society in fancy dress”
– Eric John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (MUP), 1996, p1

Lest We Forget: Family History, Memorabilia, and World War II Part 1

Dr. Stephen Tate
March 2020

Welcome to the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generation associated with World War Two.

A further aspect of this monthly feature will be a consideration of how historians use artefacts, the raw materials of their trade, to build a picture of past lives and societies. These can include the sort of objects some of us might come across in our own homes, from the official to the personal . . . even ephemera – material never designed to be saved or to have a lasting value, but which, by chance, carries with it a resonance of the past, an echo of other lives.

In addition, on a personal level, I want to use the blog to share my own experience of family memorabilia and World War Two. My late father, Arthur, served in the Royal Artillery as a teenager. He was taken prisoner when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese Army on Christmas Day, 1941, and endured almost four years as a prisoner of war in the Far East, he and his comrades used as slave labour in Japan’s heavy industries. He had joined up in Blackburn in late 1937, claiming to have turned 18, the minimum age for recruitment, a week earlier, when, in fact, he was still 15 and six weeks short of his 16th birthday. Desperate for adventure and to join older pals who had already signed up, family lore has it that it was his second attempt to escape Civvy Street as a 15-year-old!

Dad and his parents kept what might be termed now a small ‘archive’ of objects that stand testament to his and his comrades’ ordeal. There’s a brief local newspaper cutting of him being missing in action in the confusion of the colony’s fall. A series of brief letters home from captivity. Campaign medals. Service documents. A prayer book distributed on his First Communion which survived the war years with him, within which he wrote the names of friends, fellow prisoners of war, before they became separated upon liberation and repatriation. A further prayer book dropped on his prison camp by American Air Force transport planes in August, 1945, as the business of signalling the end of hostilities in Asia, and of finding, saving, and transporting Allied prisoners of war home began in earnest. Ephemera associated with that long journey home across the Pacific, then by rail across Canada and another ocean crossing, this time the Atlantic. There are gaps in my understanding of the small collection. At times a lack of context and information that robs me of a greater understanding. And this is an issue, a pitfall, I hope this blog will develop and help others avoid in their own attempts to better appreciate  their own family’s World War Two associations.

For those of us aware of the fast-approaching VE Day 75th anniversary in May this year, there will surely be a realisation that whatever link we have with the World War Two generation is, unfortunately, fading. Many of us will have no, or very little, recollection of direct contact with family members, grandparents, perhaps, who lived through the war.

Maybe the forthcoming commemorations offer a fitting opportunity to reassess what we do know of our own family’s involvement in the war. A chance to dig out an old photograph, a newspaper cutting, letters, trinket box or ornament, a ration card, a postcard, the discarded wristwatch, a faded birth or marriage certificate, a battered and frayed favourite book of a grandparent, a commemorative coin or mug, a birthday or anniversary card, a piece of embroidery . . . Or perhaps, if we are lucky, a wartime diary, an Army pay book, certificate of service, record of discharge, a campaign medal, a souvenir of service or of a homecoming, a local newspaper obituary.

The chances of these objects’ survival are often slim, especially in our increasingly throw-away culture. They might be on the verge of that once-and-for-all domestic clear-out as the memory of their significance is finally lost or deemed too tenuous to justify house room. And if, on the last occasion, they managed to escape the clutter purge (just), what chance of their value being appreciated or hinted at for the next generation when, sadly, it’s their turn to weigh up what to keep and what to discard? It’s a common, if distressing, rite of passage. But it can be overcome and decisions made easier with a little foresight and planning.

If you are lucky enough to have material that links your family to one of the most momentous events of the Twentieth Century, then make time to write down what you know of it. Who you think it belonged to and why you think that. Jot down all you know of that person or that event and who told you about them or it. What was their relationship to the person connected with the object? What was their relationship to you? Provide as much detail as you can.

Not surprisingly, when we take time out to think about something, with a little focus and free of distractions, we often find we recall more than we originally thought possible. Perhaps there might be an opportunity to check your own impressions with those of a brother or sister, aunt or uncle, cousin, parent. Add their recollections, too. And, most importantly, keep the information and ideas you collect and jot down together with the object under consideration. Make sure they won’t become separated.

The History students I teach will confirm that a constant plea of mine when they are answering questions or planning assignments is that they add context to the topic they are considering. Nothing happens in a vacuum. A knowledge of what went before and what occurred at the time of the topic or event under review helps our understanding of it. It gives it added meaning. It helps us make sense of it. The time you take to mull over, discuss and write down your thoughts on the objects you find or rediscover, will provide your own context and help others interpret and enjoy them now and at a later date when the links in time are even more distant.

All is not lost, however, if you find yourself bereft of actual World War Two-era objects. What about a spot of oral history? Why not make time to chat to an elderly relative who has some childhood memories of the 1940s, or who can recall stories passed down to them by their own parents and elderly relatives? Saving those for posterity, either as an audio recording or as handwritten notes could be an enjoyable experience. Something for the family as a whole to combine in and enjoy. This is a particular idea I will develop further in a later blog.

By the way, as the blog develops I will be keeping an eye open for other internet sites, museum exhibitions and archive events touching on family memorabilia, World War Two remembrance and the nature of History and will, where appropriate, provide links to, and information about, them.

Rather ironically, the material I have chosen to illustrate this opening blog (above) is not from my late father’s ‘archive’. I decided to use a couple of newspaper editions acquired by me a few years ago to help provide that vital research ingredient, context. They are newspapers – the Lancashire Daily Post, December 20, 1941, and the Daily Mail of March 11, 1942 – printed as the Hong Kong garrison made its last stand, and then after a few months of troop internment. They are of their time – written in the uncompromising and bruising language of war. They were read at breakfast tables and in works canteens across Britain. They would have been read by my grandparents as they awaited news of their son, the man who would become my father. They provide a sense, however limited, of the psychological horrors they, too endured in time of war.

In later postings I will be returning to the themes raised in this opening blog, suggesting further ideas, considering how both professional historians and family enthusiasts tackle the job of recording the past. But before closing, I would like to pose a question or, if you like, set a challenge to the readers of this blog!

What’s stopping you checking what you might have in the house that provides a link with the wartime years? Why not have a root around? It’s good to talk. Start a family chat. Who knows what you might turn up, what surprises a relative might deliver up?

I’ll call an end to this first blog (hoping it has provided food for thought) with one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History. It’s by Jonathan Clark, in his book Our Shadowed Present (London: Atlantic Books), 2003, p.13. It considers the place of the past in the present. The way our lives and expectations are governed by what has gone before. You may or may not agree with the sentiment, and it took me a few readings before, I think, the concept sank home, but its eloquence is undeniable and, for me at least, it seems a fitting spur to reflection on the topic of this opening blog.  

The future is a blank, the present a fleeting moment in which we cannot stay. We live in the past, and our only choice is between alternative pasts which might supply our mental furniture. We walk backwards into an unknowable future, and what distinguishes us is only whether we are myopic or long-sighted as we do so. What makes the future recognizable as we enter it is nothing substantive in the idea of “the future” itself, which recedes continually beyond our grasp, but rather the continuities in ourselves and our contemporaries, continuities established by our historical sense. To look forward, to display foresight, to show prudence is not to penetrate the future, for the future is and must always remain to us a featureless silence; it is to reflect intelligently on the past, and to understand what lessons can and cannot be learned from it.– Jonathan Clark, Our Shadowed Present. Modernism, Postmodernism and History (London: Atlantic Books), 2003, p.13