What was the war really like?

That’s a question I was asked by kids at school when they were learning about WW2 and realised that I had been in it. And it’s the same question that I asked to a relative who served in WW1. It taught me quite a lot. For a start, that when you’re talking about war you mustn’t overplay the answers you give. You must be factual and truthful and you should never, ever, romanticise. The Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko was right, ‘telling lies to the young is wrong’. 


It irritates me beyond words when politicians say crass things, calling the war dead ‘the fallen’ and proclaiming ‘they laid down their lives, that we might live.’ They didn’t. They were killed. Brutally and painfully. And when the first starry-eyed voluntary recruits had been massacred and the Generals were running out of cannon fodder, the politicians brought in ‘recruitment’ to replace the first victims. It was universally hated, as I know from the things one of my relations told me, but there was nothing that any of the young men could do about it.

His name was Jessie Garnsworthy and he had spent three years in the trenches in WW1 and emerged miraculously unscathed. I lived with him and his wife in London during the buzz-bombs and the rockets and learnt more from him about life in the trenches than I did from any textbook. He told me about the obscene stink of the mud, the way the rats ate the faces of the dead, about the terror of going over the top and about the ‘morning hate’. I made notes about it at the time in my diary and used those notes when I was writing book 29 which I called ‘Everybody’s Somebody’. That terrible picture above is the truth of war and I knew it and tried to be accurate.

The second world war was rather easier for me to write about in one way, although more difficult in another. For I was in London from the start of the blitz until I was bombed out and came back to the city in 1944 neatly in time for the onslaught of the buzz-bombs and the rockets. And once again I kept notes of the things I’d seen in my diary, which I used in book 30.

ww2 bomb sight

I saw so many bomb sites I became almost blasé about them. Piles of rubble like those in the picture above were everywhere you went in London. And during the raids those funny little ram-shackled WVS vans arrived to dispense tea at very nearly every incident. Take a look at the map below, every red dot is where a bomb fell. The statistics for the Blitz make very sober reading. 61,000 people were killed and many more seriously injured. The Germans dropped 50,000 tons of High Explosive bombs and 110,000 tons of Incendiaries. It is not something anybody who was in London during that time will ever forget.




And now it is the centenary of the anniversary of the end of WW1 and next year it will be the 80th anniversary of the start of WW2.

And on a personal note, in January 2019 I shall be 88! I should live so long!!

And here is a picture of me in 1940 in London aged 9, writing an excruciatingly bad poem to school friends whom I’d left behind in Felpham where I was evacuated on the day before the war broke out. Looking at it now, it feels unreal, but I know the truth of it.

2 thoughts on “What was the war really like?

  1. It seems odd to think that fiction (or ‘making things up’) so often feels more truthful than non-fiction. I agree with you, and will admit to a deep unease these days at the vocabulary used at almost every commemoration of wartime.

    As for bomb-sites: well, my friends and I were young enough to consider them adventure playgrounds! Only learning the truth a little later on….


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