Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Memoir of a Family: Part Five

This is episode five of the serialised journal, written up by my wife's great aunt, entitled, ‘Memoirs of my family and my parents, George and Louisa’. This hand-written journal offers a wonderful personal account of family life spanning more than 100 years from around 1863 onwards.

'On August 4th, 1914, war was declared on Germany, and that altered our lives in every way. Bert was on the ‘reserve’ list and was called up immediately. A telegram arrived to say that if he did not report at the Royal Engineers Quarters at Chatham, by midnight, he would be termed a deserter. He was at Portsmouth, visiting his future wife, Lily. 

Evidently, he managed to get there, and spent the whole of the war in Flanders. His job was to help with bridging rivers. He had two horses to ride and look after. He had one horse shot when he was riding it; he sustained a broken leg.

He was sent to a hospital in Sheffield, which meant that no one could visit him from home. Mum used to post a parcel of Woodbine cigarettes every week to him. He had an awful time in France and his letters told of the horrors he saw and suffered. There was very little food and everywhere was mud, wounded and dead lying together until the ambulances came to take the wounded to the field hospitals. It altered Bert’s outlook on life considerably.

Meanwhile, at home, there were food shortages and substitutes were used for things which we used to import. Sugar was very scarce, and dad had a ‘sweet tooth’. I remember going to Eastleigh to get some treacle, which was also scarce, and I had to take a jar. If I managed to get some, I felt as though I had found a treasure. Butter was also scarce and it was the first time we bought margarine. Nobody liked it, especially my sisters, when they came home on their afternoon off.

Of course, butter was available in the houses of the rich, as was other foodstuffs and, as usual, the poor people suffered most.

I remember the troops passing Otterbourne school on their way to Southampton. Miss Collins allowed us to go into the playground and cheer them. They were marching four abreast. The Cavalry went through with two or three horses to each soldier. They camped on Southampton Common before they sailed to Flanders.

At school we had schemes to collect herbs which were used by the medical services.

Mum found it very difficult to get enough food for us all. She used potatoes in every possible way. Ted took potato cakes to work. The flour was a dark grey, and the ‘Roly-Poly puddings’ didn’t look very attractive. We had home-made jam with them until mum’s stores ran out. I remember she bought a large tin of elderberry jam, which was awful. Rice was unobtainable, so our puddings were made out of maze flour, which was a bright yellow and not very nice.

Pritchetts, the local baker in Allbrook, provided the bread, huge cottage loaves; they were very good. They were the people who had the houses built in Allbrook for the railway workers, who had come down from Nine Elms when the Southern Railway was constructed.'

Continued next week

To read from the beginning - click here

© 2010, copyright Martin T. Hodges 


  1. Its the detail that is so unique.A great insight into the reality of The Great War At Home.
    Margarine became the staple afterwords, rather than a temporary measure.Much like Income Tax!!
    Oh, &I loved you Postcard on Saturday.'Sorry for my late reply.Regards.Tony.

  2. What an amazing treasure, this journal! It's hard for an American, of my generation to imagine what food shortages would be like. We are so spoiled.

  3. You Brits have known food shortages a lot -- I was amazed to learn how long rationing went on after WWII. As Willow say, we Americans are spoiled.

    So glad you are sharing these journals -- the words of an eye witness are better than any number of history books.

  4. It's easy to forget what was endured at both ends of the spectrum in the wars. The food restrictions must have been nearly unbearable. It's just so much we take for granted, being able to open the fridge and find what not only what you need, but what you desire is in there.

    Your "treacle" is our molasses and my mom's family practically lived on the stuff. To this day, a piece of bread with butter and molasses tastes like a slice of heaven!

  5. Tony

    Even though I've read these recollections through and through, I'm fascinated by them. Glad you like them too.

    Hope to see you at the new Sepia Saturday blog.

    Willow, Vicki and Kat

    Luckily, I've never experienced food shortages, but there have been plenty in the family who have. Tales of whale-meat and makeshift alternatives to those ingredients that were scarce. The BBC screened a programme, a few years back, called Wartime Kitchen and Garden. A real eye-opener. Imagine mayonnaise made with potato, among other such delights!

  6. Times of war can only be appreciated by those who have had to endure them. But I think it does those of us who've never had to suffer them a great service to have such records of history that can deliver the facts to us. We need to know...

    BTW, Martin, I apologize for missing your short story when you posted it. I did go back and leave you a comment. I would not have missed that for the world!


  7. Nevine

    I agree. There's no substitute for an eye-witness account. The media-driven world we inhabit today, has a tendency to get such information spinning until it's unrecognisabe. Future generations need to know the truth, if they are to retain any kind of perspective.


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