In Search of the People’s War

By Matthew Bonner

I arrived in London on May 8th, immediately greeted by a refreshing English downpour and a warm fish and chips. Throughout our class discussions and readings over the Spring semester, we focused our analysis on piecing together the historical memories of England, France, Poland, and Germany regarding World War II. The British remember the war as a “people’s war,” where a mass mobilization of British society was required to fight in the total war. Under this national memory, the war impacted and was shaped by every British citizen, but is remembered as a unified effort of the whole British Empire.

As I wandered through the immense labyrinth of underground rooms that make up the Churchill War Rooms, I was searching for evidence of the “people’s war”. The underground bunker was a home to many British officers ranging from secretaries to intelligence officials who worked in top secret on planning the British war effort. One of the biggest contradictions I grappled with throughout the museum was how the war was a “people’s war” when the museum exhibits attribute so much of the success and focus of the British war effort to prime minister Winston Churchill. However, after exploring the exhibits and getting a sense of the greater British experience, it is clear that Churchill serves as a symbol for the “people’s war” interpretation. Churchill was a leader to rally behind during the war for millions of British citizens and “people”, inspiring officers, soldiers, and civilians in the mass mobilization needed for the war. For example, the museum’s Churchill exhibit traced Churchill’s life through his public speeches and private letters across his extensive career, and the emphasis on the will, strength, and unity of the English people needed during the war was evident.

A map room in Churchill’s War Rooms, where officials carefully mapped out troop movements and gathered intelligence to lead British and Allied war efforts.

As we made our day trip to Bletchley Park, the headquarters for the Allied decryption efforts, preconceived images came to mind of an expansive mansion where Oxford and Cambridge graduates worked together to piece together vital intelligence for the war. Instead, after touring the site, I was able to grasp the full extent of the multiple huts and buildings on the estate where thousands of men and women worked together in secret. The classified work at Bletchley was hidden from the worker’s families and even other members of the decryption efforts, as warning posters littered the various buildings ominously reading “The Walls Have Ears”. A majority of the thousands of workers at Bletchley were women, initially selected due to demonstrated skill and socioeconomic connections, and later expanding to additional women workers through assessments, such as logic tests in newspapers. Most of the men at the site were hand picked from Cambridge and Oxford. In fact, the Bletchley location is tied to these universities, as the site is equidistant between the two universities for ease of access and transportation. The “people’s war” memory exudes from the campus, as brilliant civilians sacrificed individual pride and worked tirelessly at various compartmentalized stations to decrypt German enigma messages and provide key intelligence to Allied forces regarding German troop movements, planned attacks, and intel on invasions such as D-Day. After the war, the Bletchley workers blended into the common historical memory of the “people’s war”, until 1970 when their work was declassified, and with it another chapter of the “people’s war” revealed and definition of “people” expanded.

One of the Bletchley Park huts, where men and women worked to provide valuable intelligence to the Allied war efforts – often for extreme working hours and in isolating conditions.

Ultimately, the “people’s war” historical memory interpretation inherently asks the question, who were the “people”? After touring the various sites in London and museums, such as the Imperial War Museum, it is obvious that the people included any and everyone, ranging from both women to men from London to the colonies. However, it is remarkable that the definition of “who” the “people” were expanded during the war to include group of peoples ranging from women to homosexuals, who were discriminated against, persecuted, and held in second and third class status in peacetime society. Furthermore, as England and the world remember the immense sacrifices and contributions made by the “people” during the war, these key members of the war effort are often left out of the historical memory. The gap between those who served and those remembered is closing, however it is important to understand the full extent of the “people” that served in England’s “people’s war” when considering the war’s legacy and impact.

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