My book Posted in Wartime includes at the outset a quotation from Annette Kobak’s excellent book Joe’s War: ‘After a bad war… the officers stammer and the ranks become mute.’ My father was emphatically ‘other ranks’ and ‘Posted’ explores his silence. This is an extract from the book’s opening:
I had always believed that he was a bespoke tailor before the war, living in the English Midlands, an ordinary man plying an unremarkable trade in one of England’s less green and pleasant towns. More than six years after he died, the publication of the 1939 Register revealed him to be a ‘Forge Labourer. Shell Factory.’ It was, dare I say it, a bombshell. That revelation did not, however, alter the basic question: how different, I wondered, would his overseas service have been from others like him; and, more tellingly perhaps, how much of a contrast would the experience of the more celebrated have been in similarly distant situations? At much the same time as I was contemplating that comparison, I was loaned substantial bundles of letters written by two men whose war involved long journeys and prolonged absences from home. Their evidence begged the question which would not go away: why would some write at such length while my father seemingly remained so silent? Those letters and my father’s reluctance to communicate comprise a major strand in this book. Woven into that story are the wartime experiences of three celebrities for whom the war also meant periods of exile: the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton; the playwright Noël Coward; and the traveller and writer Freya Stark.