There must be any number of saviour-hearted organisations from both the world wars getting unintentionally overlooked in all the commemorating. One of these is – or rather, has been until now – the splendid VADs. The what, you may ask.
Personally, I would have no excuse for ignorance on this front since my mother was a VAD, and the mere sound of these initials conjures a picture of the Britain, particularly the southern England, that existed a few years before I was born. They stand for Voluntary Aid Detachment, which strikes my ear as strangely formal and bloodless by comparision.
Yet the words are an accurate enough description. The young women formed a detachment, even if they could hardly have been more attached to their work; they were all volunteers, and my goodness didn’t they aid. High time they got themselves memorialised in the words and music of a stage show. Thanks to director John Drewry and his Virtual Theatre Company’s team of some dozen players, singers and technicians, this has now happened and Memories of War has been mobilised.
Where better to catch the crack troupe than at the home of the Second War’s star player, Winston Churchill. Here, in the Mulberry Room in the grounds of Chartwell, Drewry and his team have just completed a well-attended three-night run. It’s a game of two halves, first one devoted to First War, second to Second. Their morale high after such a series of engagements, Virtual plan to move their offensive a few miles across the ancient theatre of conflict which is the Kent countryside. The objective: Tenterden, HQ of the redoubtable Ellen Terry Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place. The projected date for the operation: late June.
Apart from reprising the songs, the public writing and private recollections of the two epochs, Memories of War performs an interesting function in a field that was still in its infancy when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria stopped that fatal, fateful bullet in Sarajevo in June 1914 – sociology. By showing us the stark contrast between the class origins of the VADs in the two wars, it reminds us of how radically British society was starting to change since the high noon of Victorian hierarchy. The 1914 girls volunteering for nursing duties were predominantly from the upper and the upper-middle classes. Their 1939 counterparts came from a far broader spectrum. In total, taken over the two wars, well over 100,000 young women served with the VADs.
“No Way Back,” as the first half of the show is called, draws much of its humour, and its poignancy, from the spectacle of genteel shire girls and daughters of the manse turning up for duty as they might for the onerous game-playing at country house weekends. Naturally this world was far more complex and, since the government of Lloyd-George, far more threatened than it liked to let on. The resulting strange English composite of grit, wit, feigned insouciance and moral backbone is beautifully evoked here by Suzanna Rickmann, Marie Kelly, Diana Scougal and the Drewrys John and Eunice.
Drewry sensibly recruits the poems of Wilfred Owen, still startling in their mixing of formal elegance with graphic front-line rage. Sensible since it gets us away from the elegaic, narcissistic cloy of too much officer class verse and reminds us that Owen, academically thwarted by parental poverty, was below the salt and all the more clear-eyed for being there. On the day I went down to Chartwell I happened to be reading Guy Cuthberston’s thorough new biography of the poet. Like Drewry and his company, he encourages us to treat appearances as potentially deceptive. Enjoy the nostalgia, yes, even enjoy the polish of the verses’ composition, but never forget the wickedness of so many lions being led to unspeakable deaths by their nations’. donkeys.
By the second half, “Through A Glass Darkly,” and the Second War, it’s all changed. Sort of. You don’t go off to war. War comes onto you. There’s no more terrifying sound than the sudden silence of the Doodlebug as its motor cuts out right above your street and it goes into free-fall. The producer Sonja Curtis recorded the stories told by people who had been children during the Second War. As she says, you couldn’t really write this stuff yourself. But then there’s no need to; transcribe it, learn it, enact it and you have an astoundingly live report from the home front and the knee-high vantage point.
Whatever the reasons for the Second War not throwing up as much good poetry as the First – and it’s an interesting area of speculation – it did enable the making of some immortal songs. It may be that the two things are linked. Impossible to compare trench poets with popular singers, but as reporters on the state of the nation’s emotions, the search stops at Vera Lynn and her insuperable recordings; while not forgetting Anne Shelton, Noel Coward, Gracie Fields, Arthur Askey and more. The players, joined by the excellent Brian Withstandley and Henry Wyrley-Birch, do them proud. As do the big-voiced Malcolm and Claire Banham.
My mother died a few years ago at 93. When she turned 90 I took a tape recorder with me when I visited her, switched it on and said, “OK, Ma, off you go.” And she did. Clear as a bell, despite a dreadful stroke which had left her impaired physically for the last 33 years of her life. Did she ever complain? Not once. She was a VAD, remember.
In a sense she remained one all her days and freely told anyone who asked that it was a life-changing experience. She had come over from her native Brazil in the late 1930s, trained, enrolled at the big military hospital at Chartham in Kent, and the next thing she knew she was changing dressings on grievously hurt young men, following the surgeon briskly round the wards as he passed the beds and said “That one’ll do, Nurse Duder. That one won’t do.” Do meaning live.
She nursed the Germans who’d been shot out of the sky, as well as the British ones who’d shot them. She had enough German to know that dunkel meant dark and hell meant light. The surgeon heard her asking a German patient if he wanted his beer dunkel or hell, and said “Give him hell, Nurse Duder.”
When she died her service book from Chartham tumbled out of a cupboard. It was impeccable, not a day missed, not an hour or second. Commendation the whole way. I was so proud I could have wept at not being able to tell her as much, and had to settle for the guests at her funeral.
During her VAD days at Chartham, there was a British paratrooper who’d lied about his age to join up. He’d been shot in Italy and invalided out via an American field hospital. At Chartham he used to run the classical record appreciations on Saturday evenings. She’d been a dance teacher in Brazil. They went ballroom dancing; in fact he ended up as editor of The Dancing Times and The Ballroom Dancing Times. His name was Arthur Franks, which is the same name as his grandson, my twelve-year-old son. Last summer he was Willie Beech in the London West End production of Goodnight Mr. Tom. Willie is the neglected little boy who is evacuated to the Dorset countryside and ends up being adopted by a kindly old widower. Dreadful business, war, let’s not forget. But we’re talking of silver linings here, “through the dark clouds shining….” and if they’re good enough for Dame Vera, they’re good enough for the rest of us.
Review by Alan Franks
Memories of War
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