Welcome back to Past to Paper! I’m super excited to share this month’s topic with you. Women at the Homefront during both World Wars in all countries is a topic that I love to study and read about. I find it fascinating how the world kept turning during such horrible times. It really goes to show how versatile and strong us humans are.
But first of all – I hope you’re all doing well and having splendid day. If you haven’t gone outside to wave at the sun and jumped on your bed at least twice yet, then I suggest you pause right now to do that. Very important stuff. So, I hope you all enjoy this month’s topic – get out your pencils and paper, kids, it’s time to learn some things!
What it is: Past to Paper is a monthly feature that I do here at Upside-Down Books. I am a student of History at university and I study modern history (which we can roughly say covers from almost the 16th century onwards). Each month I discuss a different topic, period, person, or society that I think is underused in literature. This means I poke a stick at something in the past that I think has so much to offer for writing stories with and look at how it could fit into different genres.
Women at War
This month, we’re going to look at women at war during the Second World War in Britain. Nice and specific. I’ve chosen this because I’ve read a few books (non-fiction) on the topic and I think England’s a really good example for this topic. Of course, if you’re interested for your own reading – places such as America, Australia, Russia, Germany, you name it, that fought heavily during the wars have as good a story to tell of the Homefront, too.
What’s a Homefront? The Homefront is literally where the war was fought back at home in the cities. This is where the flip side to the fighting was happening; people fought back the enemies by not dying. The Homefront was an equally atrocious place to be during war time and we’re specifically looking at WWII because it was different to WWI.
How were the wars different? WWI was fought with slightly less advanced technology which meant that almost ALL the fighting occurred away from the cities, in the trenches and places such as those. However, during WWII planes and nasty guns came into action which meant that enemies could start fighting dirty and bomb out innocent civilians living in cities. London was one of the worst bombed cities during WWII because, well, because it was London (if you’re interested to have a look at other bombed cities check out this website).
Women at war? This is often dubbed “women at war” because the majority of men were away fighting on the actual front. Those at home were children, the disabled, the elderly, and women (and other categories, but let’s not turn this into a shopping list). The women ran the factories, the homes, the schools, the businesses, made food out of nothing, and were, all in all, as badass as they come. To put it lightly. You can see how this is great material already.
A Few Fun Statistics About London, WWII
One of the big things about WWII for the British Homefront was the Blitz. The Blitz was a period time that officially was from the 7th September 1940 to May 1941. The word “Blitz” comes from a German word, blitzkrieg, that means lightning. The idea was to bomb the city of London at a high intensity with a butt-tonne of bombs to completely destroy it and its people.
- The Blitz was carried out by the Germans in German Luftwaffe planes.
- In particular, the docks were targeted (these docks were right along the Thames, they’re no longer where they were during WWII).
- On 7th September, about 350 Luftwaffes dropped bombs that killed approximately 450 people and injured 1,300 others seriously.
- They carried out night-time raids with the intention of exhausting the population who frequently (as in, every single night) had disturbed sleep. These night attacks happens just about back to back for 2 months straight.
- Between September and November, almost 30,000 bombs were dropped on London. Just London.
- In the first 30 days around 6,000 people were killed.
- Sunday 29th December was the worst, with an entire area of London going up in flames (City of London). 19 churches (16 built by Christopher Wren (Google him)) were destroyed.
- Even more importantly, this night saw the loss of 5 million books.
- On the 16th and 19th April in 1941, both nights saw +1,000 people killed.
- On 10th May 1941, bombings killed around 3,000 people.
And a Quick Look at WWII
- WWII started officially in 1939 after Germany invaded Poland. This was not the first country Germany invaded but it was the final straw for Britain (who was sort of like a big brother and sticking up for countries being bullied . . . most of them, anyway).
- The battle of Dunkirk (this is England specific) occurred between May-June of 1940 and the “Dunkirk spirit” originates from this. It is a famous retreat that was extraordinarily successful, saving thousands of soldiers’ lives. It was possible because Hitler messed up. The Dunkirk Spirit is basically representative of the “we can take it” attitude of the Brits during WWII.
- In June 1940, however, France fell. France was under Nazi occupation during WWII until roughly 1944 when the Allies began to liberate it.
- Japan entered the war in 1941. They quickly made progress capturing areas in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. They took many prisoners of war to build the Thai-Burma railway line.
- Deaths – this is a long list, but I feel it’s important to acknowledge, you can’t just forget about how many people died during this period:
- Soviet Union: 25,000,000.
- China: 15,000,000.
- Germany: 8,000,000.
- Poland, 5,720,000.
- Dutch East Indies: 3,500,000.
- Japan: 2,870,000.
- British India: 2,087,000.
- French Indochina: 1,600,000.
- Yugoslavia: 1,363,500.
- Phillippines: 807,000.
- Romania: 800,000.
- Hungary: 580,000.
- France: 550,000.
- Italy: 454,600.
- UK: 450,900.
- USA: 418,500.
- Korea: 430,500.
- Lithuania: 350,000.
- Czechoslovakia: 325,000.
- Greece: 563,500.
- Netherlands: 301,000.
- British Burma: 272,000.
- Latvia: 230,000.
- Austria: 120,000.
- Ethiopia: 100,000.
- British Malaya: 100,000.
- Finland: 97,000.
- Belgium: 88,000.
- Estonia: 50,000.
- Singapore: 50,000.
- Canada: 45,400.
- Australia: 40,400.
- Albania: 30,000.
- Bulgaria: 25,000.
- New Zealand: 11,900.
- South Africa: 11,900.
- Norway: 9,500.
- Thailand: 7,600.
- Denmark: 3,200.
- Brazil: 2,000.
- Luxembourg: 2,000.
- Iraq: 500.
- Ireland: 500.
- Iran: 200.
- Turkey: 200.
- Iceland: 200.
- Mexico: 100.
- Switzerland: 100.
- That’s a total of 72,468,900 people, military personnel and civilians, who died in 6 years. Have a think about that.
- WWII officially ended in 1945. Japan actually surrendered after Germany. Fun fact. To be fair, this was because Hitler killed himself and then the Americans came in with the atomic bomb. Which you’ve probably heard about (I hope you have).
The Homefront in Literature
I, for one, have really not read very many books on this topic. It comes up every now and then in general fiction often as more of a backdrop to the rest of the novel. I think someone should start writing books that specifically tackle the issues and hardships of being a woman during this time.
Firstly, it’s always great to have a leading lady in a book. But secondly, it’s a unique situation where women were still not accepted as leading ladies in any shape or form but because of desperate times people were willing to let women put the pants on. Quite literally. During the War, women worked in positions traditionally taken up by men: they prepared ammunition, flew planes, did deliveries, did hard, manual labour, and much more. You’ve probably seen this poster before:
I mean, it’s pretty damn iconic. There was heaps of publicity around this time encouraging women to get involved to keep the country running. Because that’s the important thing: keep the country running and the people alive, and that’s how you know the enemies haven’t won.
These are all genres that could do with a boost in this setting. I’d love to see more literature really take this era apart and create a powerful and thought-provoking piece of work that gets people thinking about this and shows us what we’re capable of.
But aside from that, I’d love to see the Fantasy and Sci-Fi genres have a whirl and sprucing this up, inserting some unreal enemies, magical weapons, portals, parallel universe wars (ooh, now that’s an idea). There’s so much fun to be had here. Fantasy in the medieval world are great, in imagined kingdoms they’re great too, but there really is so much opportunity here. I’m particularly fond of the fact that the Queen said she was glad when the palace was bombed, because it meant she had more in common with her people and wasn’t on some sort of unaffected plane in regards to suffering.
Dystopia and YA would be great contenders for this, too. I would really love to see some YA books create and place a heroine in this time. Something to really drive the point home – make history actually relatable for young people today. I’m a firm believer in that you learn from your mistakes, but how can people learn from society’s mistakes and move forwards if they don’t understand or know about them in the first place? I find it mind boggling to think that I would’ve been one of those women doing this hard work in a world that changed so unrecognisably, if I’d just been born 80 years earlier. It breaks my heart to think that at the end of the war the men and authorities simply asked them to stand down and go back to their family duties, etc. Can you see me rolling my eyeballs? Can you?
But yes, Dystopia could have a heyday here. Apart from the fact that WWII was probably about as close as we’ll get to the apocalypse, there are so many places it can go. For example, Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf nearly fits into the category that I’m creating here with imagining a world where Hitler won the war. However, it’s obviously not about the war itself or the Homefront (but you get the idea). I’m not even going to go into what fun Horror could have, *shudders*.
I think there’s great potential for some excellent romance too. In some cases, towns to remove post-signs or switch them around to confuse the enemies, but imagine if there are a pair, say a girl from one side and a boy from the other (or any other pairing of your choice) and he’s lost because of this. Maybe that sounds crazy and almost offensive but it’d be an interesting point to play with because whilst soldiers were trained well to kill first ask questions later, that didn’t necessarily mean they had anything at all against the people their guns were pointing at (obviously I’m not including the Nazis in this). There’s a horrible moment like this in the TV series Gallipoli where the main character shoots a man from the other side, only to realise it was someone who, during a truce, he’d helped and exchanged items with. Oh, it doth break my heart in twain.
So often we get a lot of books that look at people who left the Homefront (smart cookies) – but I want to see a narrative following those who didn’t and couldn’t leave. I can’t imagine how difficult it would’ve been to live in London during the Blitz and try and get on with life. Imagine doing the roll call for schools. There really are just so many possibilities to develop this story of the Blitz into something else mind-blowing when you apply it to different genres.
Whilst I think some people could potentially see that as offensive, especially if it makes light of the situation, but I’ve always held the opinion that as long as history is portrayed accurately and educates people as to what happened – maybe even gets them excited to find out more – then that’s fine. History is, nine times out of ten, portrayed far to dryly to people. It’s important and fascinating, so you betcha I’d be buying a Dystopian retelling of the London Homefront if ever one was published.
I think there’s a lot of fun to be had from playing with this setting. I think authors could make it eye-opening but still fun or they could destroy your heart by shredding it to pieces and leave you in a dark corner of misery. It could go either way. I would really love to see more literature of any kind that revolves around the setting and difficulties of living on the homefront at this time because it breaks my heart to think that so many people probably don’t know a lot about this unless they were specifically taught at school.
So here’s to hoping for more books set on the Homefront with that as their specific focus (with the possible addition of dragons).
Books Looking at the Homefront
One particularly fabulous reflection on this is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. This is set between Germany and France and the homefront elements come from the French side. Whilst it’s not quite what I’ve been discussing, it certainly gives you a taste of the hardships.
A non-fiction appraisal of the time that I’ve read, and enjoyed, was Carol Harris’ Women at War 1939-1945: The Home Front. In fact, it was the book that got me thinking about this topic because there was so much that I learnt from it, and I honestly had thought I knew most of the homefront business.
City of Women by David R. Gillham is one other book that I stumbled across. It’s not in any of the genres I’d like to see this written it but it does sound good as a representation of the time anyway.