Our class learned about and discussed multiple aspects of World War Two in seminar all semester, and the term “People’s War” was thrown around a lot in discussing the English experience. The reality of the term “People’s War,” truly did not hit me until I visited London and the Churchill War Rooms. The theme of a “People’s War” in Britain is emphasized throughout the museum. Before visiting London and the War Rooms, I always thought of World War Two as a battle between militaries and leaders, for example, Hitler vs. Churchill, or RAF vs. Luftwaffe. After leaving London, I see how much effort individual people made during the war, especially in England! Getting the support and help of a country is difficult, and it is extremely impressive that Winston Churchill was able to do just this. Each Churchill speech or statement was strategic in that it made the country rally together to fight the Axis powers. In the museum, there was a tablet with around fifty Winston Churchill quotes, broken up by date. The most powerful came in his first speech as prime minister in 1940, when Churchill said, “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.” Thus Churchill conveyed to his people that the war was not world leader against world leader, or even military against military, but a total war of country against country. This quote left such an impression upon me, I even jotted it down in my cell phone. Seeing London and the War Rooms allowed me to fully comprehend the “People’s War” in England.
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.
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.
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.
Churchill’s Oratory in Britons’ Hearts
Winston Churchill’s oratory fascinates me. His wartime speeches, broadcast on the BBC from his underground War Rooms, sound like a bulldog looks. As though unmoved by bombings and setbacks, his voice steadily reassures the listener. The Imperial War Museums (IWM) gave great attention to his steeling of Britain’s will during World War II (especially by those speeches), but their focus on his personage makes me question whether they credit him or the “people” more for surviving the Battle of Britain.
The three IWM museums I visited—the Churchill War Rooms, IWM London, and the HMS Belfast—prominently feature testimonies from civil servants, Holocaust survivors, and sailors. Recordings in the War Rooms tell us that Churchill was demanding, picky, and easily irritated. Every cot in that cramped bunker borders a working room, and one air conditioning pipe connects them all. Anyone with wooden floors and central air may understand the problem: when Churchill took his daily “siesta” (an hour-plus nap), the entire complex quieted down. The museum leaves it unclear whether that silence arose from fear or respect.
Since Hitler hoped to topple Britain by terror and revolution, the War Room exhibit gives great credit to Churchill’s four wartime speeches for redoubling Britons’ will to defend their “island home.” Speech snippets are piped in to a lounge through a vintage radio, as though one is with family in the sitting room. Indeed, the War Rooms exhibition thrives on the “great man” theory of history: Churchill inspired the people to persevere and pushed his staff to excel. Churchill did not do everything, but life in the War Rooms did revolve around him.
The curators make little attempt to critique his policies or demonstrate that his speeches had a significant stabilizing effect on the populace. His speeches very well may have, but the curators, in their enthusiasm, just took it for granted that they did. Clearly, Churchill seared his words into the national memory on those nights, but the population was already steeled against Hitler, without egging-on from Churchill, from the very first bombing of the East End in September 1940. Britain has not forgotten the slight: in London, only the Blitz’s constellation of memorials rivals that of Trafalgar. Fire-bombing a poverty-stricken neighborhood can do that. Britons united through years of collective effort for victory, to be sure, but it is suffering which united them most.
British Imperialism’s Reverberating and Unexpected Presence
As our World War II Study Abroad group explored London, many site visits prompted us to discuss the push and pull between old English customs and newer, modern-day influences. I noticed the juxtapositions in simplicities such as the food, which ranged from Thai and Indian cuisine to full English roasts and high tea, to the museum content, where British imperialism’s impact resonated through almost every piece of the nation’s cultural history. Throughout our studies to prepare for this trip, we discussed how the People’s War affected the British citizenry and the English mentality. Practically every site we visited explored this sense of British perseverance reminiscent of the wartime mindset; however, the persistence of the citizenry seemed inextricably entwined with the troubling sources of the new. I was surprised to see the prominence of Churchill’s imperialistic mindset and be reminded repeatedly that colonialism’s effects are still distinctly present in English society today.
The Churchill Museum presented a comprehensive view of the focus of British political influence outside of the war effort. As an individual, Churchill not only gave the British people someone to believe in and look towards for leadership; he kept a nation that was fading in their influence relevant in the global sphere. But the museum went beyond these leadership qualities and acknowledged his influence outside the war and his policy programs in England, showing that Churchill impacted the Middle East. An entire room in the museum explored Churchill’s unwavering commitment to expanding the British Empire. Among all of his accomplishments during WWII, this room alluded to the negative consequences of Churchill’s decision making. His failure to grant Indian independence and view of colonial people as inferior was a sharp contrast to his commitment to social welfare and the working class of English society.
The Imperial War Museum addressed the impact of British colonialism from the wartime era. The current rotating exhibit explored modern terrorism in the UK and we had the opportunity to speak with survivors of terrorist attacks, hospital workers, and first responders in a roundtable discussion. At first thought English imperialism may seem contained in earlier centuries, strictly within the stolen artifacts of the British Museum and the V&A; however, the Churchill War Rooms and IWM made the effects of the expansive British Empire in the modern era unavoidably apparent. Visiting these museums allows one to trace actions from decades ago to reactions that are ongoing today.
Each site visit presented Churchill’s maintenance Britain’s relevance as a Western world power and the persistence of the British people throughout the war as an important takeaway, but when one visits the sources first-hand, the lasting effects of Britain’s troubling past and commitment to colonialism are increasingly interwoven into the historical narrative. Churchill’s influence not only emerged through his special relationship with Roosevelt and presence in the “Big Three,” but in his dedication to expanding the British Empire and reluctance to grant independence to occupied nations. While colonialism at first thought may not directly connect to World War II, it was a clear stain on every site and museum we visited. Seeing the sites first hand allowed me to create a more comprehensive