Laura Clouting – of the Imperial War Museum London – explains how a chance discovery uncovered a distinctive and insightful new perspective on World War One…
Reading someone else’s diary – without their consent or knowledge – is an awkward business. Nosey at best? A shocking violation of privacy at worst? In normal circumstances, perhaps a bit of both. But when that diary contains first-hand revelations about arguably the most important event in modern times, perhaps it is more forgivable.
Being nosey is a core requirement of my job. In 2011, I first came across a diary that nearly tipped the balance and became a gluttonous feast of snooping. I am part of a curatorial team working on Imperial War Museum London’s new First World War Galleries, which will open this July. We were up to our eyeballs in a trawl of IWM’s extraordinary collection from the First World War – from weapons and uniforms, to posters, paintings and photographs. Letters and diaries have a special compelling immediacy, and surveying them is intense – sometimes unyieldingly so. But we had tight deadlines, so the trawl hastened along in a satisfying romp.
One afternoon, with a daunting tranche of collections before me, I began reading Mrs Ethel Bilbrough’s diary. It upended my day. I read it once. Then I read it again. And again. I felt fleeting worry over this prodigious consumption of Ethel’s creation. Was it satisfying simply because her words were immensely legible (rarely the case) and the pages, plastered with clippings and little charity flags, incredibly colourful (also rarely the case)? It was both of these things. But the deeper reason for the irresistible draw was found in her satiating opinions.
Ethel Mary Bilbrough lived in Britain during the war. In class-divided Britain, the wealthy, well-connected Ethel and insurance executive husband Kenneth Bilbrough were nearer the elite. The couple, who had no children, lived in the grand Elmstead Grange in Chislehurst, Kent.
Ethel, now in her mid-forties, was also a keen writer to national newspapers. Her wartime diary is interspersed with cuttings from pieces offering strident advice about how the conflict should be conducted and endured. “Real time” entries in the diary kick off from 1915 through to the war’s end in 1918. From rationing and recruitment to air raids and animals injured on military service, Ethel’s covers the big issues of the day. Her intense patriotism is conveyed through sweeping criticisms. The government, conscientious objectors who refused military service, and Britain’s Allies are all subject to her wrath if they threaten victory. Her even more forceful views on Germany come as no surprise. Kaiser Wilhelm II is branded the “slayer of millions”.
Ethel died in 1951. When her diary was found in a clear-out and offered to IWM ten years later, the colourful charity pins stuck within its pages were presumed to be the main interest. But, for me, Ethel’s opinions are the real draw. In her own view, “It seems to me that everyone who happens to be alive in such stirring epoch-making times, ought to write something of what is going on!” But she is clear that the diary “will merely be my own personal impressions”. These impressions are sometimes provocative, sometimes exceptionally biting, but never dull. Some may query what right she had to pontificate about the war. Ethel wasn’t a soldier or a war worker. But her diary captures something of a fundamental moral purpose that drove millions of British men, women and children to volunteer as soldiers, work in factories, donate money, and help war-related charitable organisations. Such endeavour was driven, for the majority of people, by a belief that the nation was right to fight. Ethel’s diary makes plain this sense of righteousness.
This August, one hundred summers will have passed since the war began. It can be tricky to tap into exactly how this destructive and transformative “great”, “world” and, in one memorably succinct description I recently came across, “big” war affected people. How did it really feel to live through it? Can we ever know? Probably not entirely: Ethel’s diary can certainly only answer how she alone felt and it is not any kind of public record. We certainly don’t have to agree with her.
Ethel’s diary also reminds us that there is a greater breadth of vivid, individual and opinionated response out there beyond her own. Read as a vivid whole, we see the strength of one response provoked by a war that affected everybody. I don’t think she would mind us delving into her ostensibly private thoughts. In fact, I suspect she would have been pleased for this diary to now be published in full. Letters and diaries which survive today help break down much broader questions around how the First World War changed Britain forever. They are precious evidence to relish reading.
Laura Clouting, Curator and Historian, Imperial War Museums, for Waterstones.com/blog