During the summer of 1935 a young woman from Nova Scotia, engaged to be married, went to England to visit her relatives. That young woman was Alice Atherton, the “My Dear Alice” of the letters in this volume. Her father, J.P. Atherton (Percy), still remembered in Amherst for the Grey Cup in curling which preceded the Grey Cup in football and for the 1918 Homecoming, was the youngest of four siblings and the only boy. As a young man, he came to Canada, married and stayed. His three sisters remained in England, married and had families. From the outbreak of war to the end of rationing in 1950, Alice sent parcels to her relatives.
Fifty-six years later in 2006, Alice’s daughter, Clare, shared an old polythene bag filled with letters with her English cousin, Carol. The letters were bundled together with three rubber bands and there was a note attached, in Clare’s mother’s hand-writing, saying that “In case anyone should be interested in family letters written from England during the ’39-’45 war”. These were the “thank you” letters written from England.
“… The War caught me at the beginning of my holiday in North Wales – I had exactly five days, and then had an urgent message from my Air Raids Precautions boss to return at once – that was two days before War was declared. I forget if I told you that during the 1938 Crisis Phyl & I both joined the Women’s Motor Transport Section of the A.R.P. That meant driving Ambulances, First Aid Parties, or Rescue & Decontamination Squads.…
“… Which brings me to “Evacuation”… I think it was a tremendous triumph for the country as a whole ever to have got that Evacuation [of children from the cities] at all – in the two days preceding the declaration of War. It was the most immense social task we’ve ever had to face, [yet] nobody can tell yet what the results will be.…
“The Black out is the blackest thing ever! But you will have read about that. For us Motor Transport people the night driving is a big strain, we are allowed so very little light to drive by – one tiny dimmed slit in one headlight, & hooded at that, so that light is only thrown downwards, and 2 inches of dimmed sidelights. On a dark & wet night it is almost impossible to see anything.
“We get free petrol allowed us for A.R.P. purposes – otherwise we are allowed only 6 gallons a month for private use. We are provided with Gum Boots, tin hats, drill overcoats, and Service Gas Masks – nothing else.…
“One of the most exciting and epoch-making events that has happened lately is this scheme for training the Air Force in Canada. Whoever thought it out has got a brain – it is marvellous. Are you thrilled about it in Canada too?
“Liverpool is completely surrounded by a balloon barrage – as are all the big towns. All the public buildings are sandbagged up to the first floor level, and most shops, and many private houses.”
“Uncle Sep. is mad on the Kraft cheese which is so much superior to anything we can get here now which is very little, very hard and tasteless. Butter of course in any quantity is a great treat to us all as we only have 2 oz. a week each now, & for the rest of our ½ lb. ration we have margarine, very good margarine but it cannot compare with butter of course.
“I am carefully saving the sugar you sent for bottling fruit if I can get any; at present it is very scarce & dear [expensive] – 8 times its ordinary price, but we have nothing to complain about really dear for we never go hungry though we can’t always get the food we like & as for onions, oranges & lemons & bananas, we never see them now! “
“As you imply in your letter – we are doing very well in the Atlantic (touch wood!) and a good deal of success in this respect is due to the Canadian & U.S. navies – don’t think we are not well aware of what we owe in those directions. A merchant captain friend of ours has just come home from a seven months voyage, & has most interesting & exciting tales to tell of the methods used in combating bombers & submarines – nothing secret, you know (or he would not tell us about it)…. However I can mention that he had the good luck to ram a submarine more or less by accident! He was zig-zagging when its periscope suddenly rose up right in front of the ship, the force of the ship’s wash caused it to submerge, and it came up again right underneath his engine room – slap! – and that was the end of the submarine! Of course his ship was damaged but not seriously.”
“Your reference to the feeling in Canada that the people have to push the government, instead of being led by the government, raised a responsive feeling in my mind, for to a certain extent that has been the trouble here. Everybody was ready for the most drastic things long before the government imposed them. I expect that is always the case with eager & spirited democracies. And let me tell you that whatever you think about Canada’s War effort it is considered very wonderful here. I enclose a cutting to that effect.”
“There was a most interesting broadcast 2 nights ago, by an official (I forget his name) who had just come back from Canada – all about Canada’s marvellous war effort, & the extraordinary way she had been industrialised in so short a time. It was very impressive indeed.”
“PS I must tell you what a pleasure it was to open those hair nets, all done up in a piece of tissue paper. After having things handed to you naked over the counter it’s quite a joy to have a lovely big piece of tissue paper again, and every single piece found its use!”
Then there was D-day, the defeat of the German armies and navy, especially the dreaded U-boats, as well as extended post-war correspondence related to the political and social changes in the UK, Europe and much of the world as country after country struggled for independence in the war’s aftermath. The world order had surely changed.
My dear Alice: War letters 1937-1950
by Clare Christie and Carol Wills
$27.95, Paperback, 276 pp.
New World Publishing, October 2015