Handheld Press (which I run) will be publishing a novel in March 2020 called Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford: it was originally published in 1933. I’ve been working on this since August last year. While researching the lives and careers of Oliver and Stafford I worked out that they published at least 97 novels together and singly (their story, as far as I can piece it together, is in my Introduction to the Handheld edition). With so many to choose from, where do you even start? One of Ann Stafford’s later solo novels caught my eye: Army Without Banners from 1942, because I noticed a snippet of information about it in a review of another book, describing it as a novel about the volunteer ambulance service in the Second World War. I also managed to find an inexpensive copy through abebooks.co.uk.
It’s very good. Stafford (and Oliver), then both in their late 30s and unmarried, though Oliver had recently been widowed, both drove ambulances as volunteer drivers during the war. Stafford’s other talent was illustration: we’ve reproduced almost all of the delightful line drawings that she did for Business as Usual, and she’s filled Army Without Banners with them as well, because this is a novel that cries out for pictures.
It is 1941. Mildred Gibson is living in Surrey. Her husband and son are both in the armed services, and she is keeping their home ready for their return but not doing very much herself. Then a letter from her cousin Daphne Pennington arrives, telling her about the ambulance unit she volunteers for, and how they need good drivers. The letter basically tells Mildred she should come to London and be useful. And Mildred does. She arranges to let the house, and pays off her maid (and presumably her cook and char as well: she’s that kind of middle-class woman).
She packs her cases with what she usually takes to London (her smartest clothes, hats and evening dresses), then she rereads Daphne’s letter, and unpacks them to start again. Daphne had mentioned that the gas in her street was often cut off due to bomb damage, so Mildred packs her oldest and warmest tweeds and woollens, especially a jumper that her husband dislikes but which has far too much wear left in it to be thrown out. She fills a packing case with dried and packet food that won’t go off, and she remembers at the last moment to take the metal washing-up bowl, as the retired major in the village had warned her about shrapnel. Neighbours supply her with vegetables and potatoes, three dozen eggs and tannic jelly for burns. And she drives to London, feeling terrified, but also knowing that she can’t go back now, and that she has got to help Daphne.
Daphne’s house is still standing, and she takes in neighbours whose homes have been destroyed. Belinda, for instance, was in the pub with her husband when their flat was bombed. He’s a pilot in the Air Force now, and she works in a mobile canteen, sleeping in Daphne’s dining-room when she can, along with all the other guests of the house, since the upstairs rooms are a lot noisier in a raid.
‘Daphne’s dining-room had been a period piece – red tapestry curtains, Heplewhite and elegant prints. Now it was a forest of pit-props, and between the pit-props were half a dozen bunks, gay with check dust-sheets, and from the pit-props hung more coats, civilian-duty respirators, a spare tin hat, pick-axe and saw. There was a medicine chest in a corner, and a galvanised bin marked Water in red. A cheap gate-legged table stood in the middle of the floor, with stools round it.’
Mildred learns to drive a clanking bus of an ambulance for Daphne’s unit, and after her first night out in a Blitz is rewarded by her team with the name of Gibsy. All the women in the unit are called by an abbreviation of their surnames – familiar but not too familiar – once they’ve done service. And what service! There were horrors, and great sadnesses, but the most impressive thing about this novelisation of Stafford’s experiences in the war is the phenomenal organisation behind the volunteers who drive the ambulances, served as fire-watchers, were street and borough wardens, who arranged the telephone system to make sure that the right services were sent to the right places for what was needed, as soon as possible, during and after the bombing.
Stafford’s interest in the organisation of civil defence and her own experiences of it change the novel to a straightforward account of what it was like, to a kind of tour of all the ways that women can serve their country by volunteering. On one of her hours off Mildred goes to see ‘the little woman warden who had come about an unexploded bomb. She must have been nearer sixty than fifty’, and she gives Mildred a full explanation of how wardening works. One night Mildred and Bilson get a shelter call, because a woman is about to give birth and needs to be taken to hospital, and the shelter and its inhabitants and workings are described (and illustrated). When Mildred picks up a shell-shocked victim of a raid and takes her to a First Aid Post, she can’t help worrying about her and so goes to visit the Post the next time she has a long enough break. Then we have the workings of the welfare system described, showing how the people who have been bombed out of their homes and need advice, address, forms for compensation, and so on, are supported by competent and trained staff and volunteers.
The original novelisation of the experiences disappears about two-thirds of the way through, and the threads of plot and characterisation that had been developing are forgotten as Mildred travels from one voluntary service to another, showing the wartime reader the extraordinary wonders that were happening all around them, in which they too could participate. Because Army Without Banners is most definitely a rallying cry for the women of Britain to get stuck in and do their bit, a prospectus of all the service opportunities out there that might suit them, described with nicely judged humour and delicately placed moments of heart-stopping pathos. Stafford is never heavy-handed in her writing, and her illustrations are just marvellous. This is a highly recommended book for those interested in the social history of the war, in London’s war, and in how women worked as volunteers.