Sacrifice in the Second World War

Probably few readers left of this blog, since I’ve been writing the book rather than updating this. So to keep things ticking over, I’m going to use it to put up some interesting quotes about perceptions of the equality of sacrifice in Britain during the Second World War. Then when I’ve got time, I’ll link them together to make some wider points.

Let’s start with a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Randoph Churchill, 26 September 1941, from M. Amory, ed, The Letters of Eveyln Waugh (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980), 154.

‘England is very uncomfortable and everything is being done by the bureaucrats to aggravate the discomfort. There is a splendid new idea called ‘equality of sacrifice’ which means that life is reduced to the level of a pre-war unemployed miner – in every sense for extreme idleness is combined with privation.’

And that was before the advent of many of the most severe austerity regulations in 1942.


6 Responses to Sacrifice in the Second World War

  1. Alice says:

    Equality of sacrifice in a gender and class context.
    Went the Day Well (1942) a propaganda film dealing with the possible threat of invasion. The film has women in a prominent role, taking arms against German invasion ready to fight just like ‘our boys’, sacrificing their prescribed female roles, but also the gentility of their village life.
    We see two women bravely giving their lives; the postmistress in an attempt to contact the neighbouring village and the lady of the manor to save the children. The vicars daughter shoots the squire as he is a 5th columnist, whilst two young women of the village shoot Germans from the manor window.
    I suggest that a class difference can be viewed in these sacrificial acts. The postmistress calculatingly throws pepper in the German’s face before killing him with an axe. A brutal part of the film emphasised by the jarring score. The young girls take up the guns and without thought go to the shooting. One takes a moment as she realises that she has killed a man, whilst the other encourages her by suggesting they ‘keep score’.
    In contrast the vicars daughter slowly selects a gun and slowly makes her way to the dining room to confront and then shoot the 5th columnist. The Lady of the manor, quickly picks up the grenade from the nursery room floor and exits stage left to be blown to bits behind close doors.
    Although men also take part in the defence of the village, it cannot be ignored that women’s acts of bravery are given equal if not more prominent screen time. However, it is a young boy who, even though wounded, who finally makes it out of the village to fetch help.
    It also shows that ‘silly’ women can be our undoing; the visiting cousin who uses the letter to stop her window rattling, the telegraph girl who dismisses the postmistress’s call with ‘she can wait’.
    The film shows that in a time of war our sense of morality and gentility must be sacrificed, and if we are to truly beat them we must vigilant against our selves.

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks Alice,

    Well – exactly what my eventual point was going to be! Public representations of sacrifice, especially those sponsored by the state, almost inevitably emphasised equality. And that is echoed in many post-war accounts, which suggest that Britain was more united during the First than the Second World War because suffering was more equally spread, both across society and between civilians and the military. This myth of equality of sacrifice draws out of contemporary events and experiences – it’s not absolutely wrong – but it does tend to obscure the complexity and variety of the past. What I hope to suggest in this series of posts is, first, that the loss of life (the greatest sacrifice) was not equally spread, and was seen not to be so by some at the time; second, that there was a substantial gap between combatants and those who did not experience combat; and third, that not everyone welcomed, or bought into, ‘equality of sacrifice’. In part, it was because war sparked so many anxieties about whether everyone was playing their fair part – as Adrian Gregory has highlighted about the First World War in his brilliant The Last Great War – that films such as Went the Day Well had to emphasise that they were.

  3. Alan Allport says:

    If I can be so undignified as to blatantly plug my upcoming book (out in October at all good retailers – a great Christmas present!!!), I have a chapter on this – how confusion about what ‘equality of sacrifice’ had meant in practice during the war complicated the civilian attitude towards returning servicemen.

  4. Chris Williams says:

    Dan, have you checked out the evidence about perceptions of equality of sacrifice from the Mass Observation archive? There’s some interesting stuff there.

  5. Richard J says:

    There’s a fascinating little graph tucked away in the corner of one of the display cases in the Cabinet War Rooms that shows how one of the conscious choices made in raising income taxes during WW2 was to equalise the post-tax income across a very wide range – such that a man earning £30,000 a year, and someone earning £1,000 would end up with roughly the same post-tax income.

    (Surprisingly many WW1/WW2 tax cases are still valid today, as the excess profits tax introduced for companies focussed people’s minds for the first time on certain tricky issues about measuring and timing profits that had hitherto been brushed under the carpet.)

  6. trenchfever says:

    Chris – much belatedly – I’ve looked at the File Reports, and at the boxes on finance and budgets, which have fascinating material in them, particularly on taxation. I can’t post any of that up, I think, owing to copyright. Any other suggestions?
    Richard – thanks for that, I’d missed that graph. The effect of increased taxation on lifestyle is worthy of another post in itself – but bear in mind that the war also saw a huge increase in tax avoidance.

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