Britain at War: Unseen Archives, by Maureen Hill

Hill - Britain at War cvr

The archives in question are the Daily Mail’s photographic collection covering the home front in Britain during the Second World War, and Maureen Hill has put together a generous selection charting the impact of those dreadful years on the population.  Britain at War’s general introduction states that some were taken to accompany news items, others to go with morale-boosting features, or as propaganda.  In practice any dividing lines between these categories would have been blurred.

The book is divided into nine chapters in roughly chronological order, each preceded by a short introduction.  The chapters have fairly self-explanatory titles: ‘The Opening Moves’; ‘The Blitz’; ‘Protecting The Home Front’; ‘In Uniform’; ‘Women in the Workforce’; ‘Don’t You Know There’s A War On?’; ‘A Wartime Childhood’; ‘Keep Smiling Through’; and ‘Victory!’  There is a degree of overlap in these but together they provide a decent coverage of the people’s war in its various facets.

A number of the images were published at the time (so not really ‘unseen’) while some fell victim to the censor, either in whole or part.  As a result of the regulatory conditions under which they were taken they need to be read carefully because they do not give a complete view of life under the stresses of war, which was not always as optimistic and unified as they suggest, references to the black market and the 1944 bus strike in the text notwithstanding.

Each photograph is accompanied by a brief caption that says something about the image itself and helps to locate it within the wider context of the conflict.  Many of the captions quote from the annotations made on the back of the prints at the time, emphasising their immediacy.  Individuals depicted are often named, which makes the photographs even more evocative: one wonders what became of them, if they survived the war, and what happened to them afterwards.

Many images were posed rather than captured on the fly but that does not diminish their effect.  The most powerful naturally are those taken during the Blitz, with the devastation wrought on London and provincial cities graphically depicted, but there is much here to evoke pride, compassion, awe, distress at the scale of the destruction, even the odd flash of amusement.

The Daily Mail had an unsavourily positive attitude towards Nazism in the 1930s (its proprietor Lord Rothermere, who died in November 1940 – in Bermuda – had been ardently pro-Hitler) but when hostilities broke out it did its bit, and its photographers compiled a remarkable archive documenting the experiences of ordinary men, women and children in those difficult years as they kept calm and carried on.

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