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Century of poetry and war

PART 8: women's voices


A Wartime Education by U A Fanthorpe

Lessons with Mam'zelle were difficult.
Le général would crop up in the middle of
The most innocent Daudet. Tears for la France,
La belle France embarrassed our recitation
Of nouns with tricky plurals: hibou, chou, hélas, bijou.

A father in uniform conferred status. Mine,
Camping it up with the Home Guard in Kent
On summer nights, too human for heroics.

Bananas and oranges, fruit of triumphant
Decimated convoys, were amazements
Of colour and light, too beautiful to eat.
(In any case, eating three bananas
Straight off, one after the other,
Was certain death. We all knew that.)

Struggling though adolescence, trying
To accommodate Macbeth, parents, God,
Teachers of mathematics, it was hard
To sustain plain hatred for the Hun,

Known only as nightly whines, searchlights, thuds, bomb-sites.
Might he not, like Aeneas, have reasons
(Insufficient, but understandable) for what he did?
I found it hard to remember which side

I was on, argued endlessly at home,
Once, rashly, in a bus, and had to be defended
By mother from a war-widow. Careless talk
Costs lives warned the posters. I had no secrets

To offer, but acquired a habit of
Permanent secrecy, never admitted
How I hated the wolf-whistling lorry-loaded
Soldiers, passing me en route to D-Day.


  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voice
Come on, come back GO
The Enemies GO
A Wartime Education GO
Tortures GO


'Wartime': this is the Second World War, 1939-1945. Ursula Fanthorpe was born in 1929.
'Mam'zelle': the way the word 'Mademoiselle' (French for 'Miss') is often pronounced by the English. French people have often been employed in Britain to teach the French language.
'Le général': General Charles de Gaulle
'Daudet': the French writer Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), author of 'Lettres de mon Moulin', a text often used in French lessons
'La belle France': beautiful France. Mademoiselle couldn't hide her distress over the fate of France in the war.
'nouns with tricky plurals': some French nouns, including hibou (owl), chou (cabbage) and bijou (jewel) form their plurals unusually (by adding -x). This had to be learned with the rest of French grammar.
'hélas': French for 'alas'
'Home Guard': an unpaid force consisting of men who had not been called up into the army. The Home Guard was founded in May 1940, with the job of resisting any invasion by German troops, and disbanded in 1945.
'bananas and oranges': imported fruit was scarce - to the point of seeming exotic and mysterious - in wartime, when merchant ships carrying supplies, and the warships escorting them, were frequently attacked.
'accommodate': deal with. The poet found it a struggle to make room in her mind - and emotions - for lessons, family life, religion and growing up, all at once
'Macbeth': Shakespeare's play, being studied at the poet's school
'the Hun': Huns were a powerful and savage race from Mongolia who overran Europe in the 5th century, under their leader Attila. During the First World War the Germans were referred to as 'Huns', to both demonise them and disparage them; the practice was repeated in the next war.
'nightly whines, searchlights....' : the poet is referring to German bombing from the air, which took place under cover of darkness. During the 'Blitz' (short for 'blitzkrieg', lightning war) from September 1940 to May 1941 the German air force attempted to demoralise the British by bombing urban areas on a nightly basis.
'Aeneas': the poet would have learned about him in Latin lessons. In classical mythology Aeneas was a prince of Troy who fought in the Trojan war against the Greeks. When the Greeks finally took Troy, Aeneas sailed to Italy (where he was to become, as the gods had promised, the legendary ancestor of the Romans). On the way a storm blew his ship on to the north coast of Africa, where he met Dido, the queen of Carthage. They fell in love, but Aeneas, conscious of his destiny, left her; she committed suicide from grief.
'Careless talk costs lives': text of several posters publicly displayed in the UK during the war. There were fears that German spies were listening everywhere.

At the beginning of the Second World War, German troops invaded neighbouring European countries. One of these was France. The Germans invaded France in 1940, and had occupied the whole country by 1942. A pro-German government was set up in Vichy. A resistance movement was set up secretly, to sabotage German activities and support the Allies against German troops. The French nationalist General Charles de Gaulle set up a government-in-exile in London, from which he sent messages of encouragement to the resistance and organised Free French troops to fight the Germans in strategic areas. On 'D-Day', June 6 1944, Allied armies invaded Normandy from the sea to liberate France; it took nearly a month of fighting to capture Cherbourg. Of the 130,000 troops who landed (using artificial harbours towed across the Channel) 10,000 were killed.    

The poem conveys with subtle wit and evocative detail the wartime life of a teenage British school girl living in Kent, one of the UK's south-eastern counties vulnerable to attack from the continent. Even there, for the reasons she gives, the war wasn't able to distract her entirely from the business of being educated and growing up.

'It was hard to sustain plain hatred': her life as an individual, and the requirements she had to meet as a daughter and a schoolgirl, made nationalism irrelevant. 'I found it hard to remember which side I was on': neither side had the corner in debate as far as this girl was concerned. Even propaganda was received as a direct message to the individual. 'I had no secrets' to reveal to any spy, but the order - 'don't talk about the war, the enemy may hear you' - was obeyed: the poet became habitually uncommunicative. What really upset her, though she told no-one, were the British soldiers and their lewd whistles. In 1944 the poet was 15 years old. (Even nowadays there are men who do this, as much as anything to assert themselves to each other, and still seem to have little idea how much distress such public sexual gestures can give to shy adolescent girls.) If the young Ursula Fanthorpe had known that some or all of those men might soon be dead, would it have made any difference to her feelings? Should it? And what sort of difference?

This poem is packed with ideas to debate, some obvious, others unstressed or even hidden (that 'habit of secrecy' demonstrated). Among the more obvious, what about nationalism? The effects of propaganda? War's disruption of commerce and vital supplies - and the use of that as a weapon in itself?

There are some other things to contemplate. The French teacher's tears, and her class's embarrassment: two sets of feelings, both hard to handle. 'Too human for heroics': a Home Guard father wasn't the same as a professional soldier - but what's heroic in war, anyway? Does that word 'heroics' - not 'heroism' - imply that the poet senses that the wartime kind are somehow wrong-headed? (What might the war-widow have said to her, and why?) Above all, the poem conveys the way war seeps into every part of civilian life, and always doing harm.

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