Charlotte Tomlinson, University of Leeds
Everywhere you look, it seems that discussions about COVID-19 are flooded with analogies of the Second World War. The language used to describe the pandemic, and particularly how society should respond to it, has made heavy use of allusions to the war through militarised language – NHS workers are described as being on the ‘frontline’ and those who have signed up to the NHS Volunteer Responders have been described as an ‘army’ of volunteers. Earlier this month, the Queen’s broadcast to the UK and the Commonwealth was saturated with direct and indirect references to the Second World War. The Queen compared the broadcast to the very first that she made to the public in 1940, alongside her sister Margaret, during a period of intense bombing in Britain. When she reassured the public that ‘we’ would be remembered as being as strong as any generation, possessing ‘attributes of self-discipline, quiet good humoured resolve and fellow feeling’, the Queen clearly and deliberately evoked the mythology of the war and advocated for a return to a sort of ‘blitz spirit’. The speech ended with a nod to one of the pillars of this ‘blitz spirit’ mythology – Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
As a historian of Second World War Britain, at times these references have left my head spinning. It’s both fascinating and frustrating to see how the mythology of the Second World War is being repurposed to understand and influence the current situation. For lots of reasons, the challenges posed by COVID-19 are hugely different from those posed by the war. Yet it seems impossible to escape the links between the two. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been making my own, countless, comparisons between the 750,000 volunteers who have signed up to join the NHS Volunteer Responders, and the million wartime members of the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) that I study in my own research.
The WVS launched in 1938 to help Britain prepare for a future war, a conflict which would no doubt cause wide scale disruption to daily lives of ordinary people. By 1943, the WVS had assembled an ‘army’ of more than a million volunteers across the country, from a range of walks of life and doing all sorts of jobs. Many of the tasks asked of the NHS Volunteer Responders today are mirrored in those performed by the wartime WVS. Through the WVS women supplemented healthcare services by staffing first aid posts during the blitz, driving people to hospitals, or creating hospital supplies. WVS volunteers helped to keep Britain fed by operating mobile canteens, communal feeding centres, delivering food to rural areas and later, organising a ‘meals on wheels’ service for the elderly. The WVS gave emotional and practical support to people through Citizens Advice Bureaus and Incident Enquiry Points during bombing, and by operating advice centres or distributing government literature throughout the rest of the war. The Women’s Voluntary Services itself, now known as Royal Voluntary Service, is today overseeing the NHS volunteer scheme.
The comparisons go further. Last week I saw a tweet which I found striking. A colleague of mine had joined the NHS Volunteer Responders after being told about it by a friend, and was sharing a link to their followers so that they could sign up too. It was a relatively ordinary tweet, a message repeated by thousands of people across different social media platforms, in group messages and through phone calls – I’ve signed up, why don’t you sign up too? But it was striking to me as it echoed so many of the stories of wartime volunteering I’ve studied over the past few years. Members of the WVS often became volunteers because of, or even alongside, their friends and family members. Sisters joined up together, friends joined up together, and women recruited their neighbours or colleagues when more help was needed. Potential recruits were canvassed on their doorsteps by existing volunteers and women were encouraged to volunteer by strangers while doing the shopping or walking the dog. Although they answered a national call and joined a national volunteer organisation, wartime volunteers were often motivated by and recruited through their own local, social networks.
A few minutes later, another tweet struck a chord. Hull City Council were tweeting about the ‘Hull Helpline’, a new initiative which has been created to support the city’s most vulnerable residents. It will be staffed, in the first instance, by a pool of existing volunteers from Absolutely Cultured, an organisation which continues the legacy of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture in 2017. These volunteers will move from celebrating the city, to protecting it. The tweet reminded me of the ways in which the WVS membership drew on a range of existing volunteers during the war too, and perhaps more importantly, the way in which wartime volunteering was intimately connected to the local spaces in which volunteers lived. It was in the neighbourhoods, streets and homes of ordinary women that most wartime voluntary action took place. For example, the Housewives’ Service, a significant branch of the WVS, focused solely on women who could service their local communities from their own homes, offering support to their neighbours, checking in on the vulnerable, or performing tasks like sewing hospital supplies from their own living rooms.
Our local communities in 2020 are very different to those of 1939 or 1945. The fact that I’ve reflected on tweets and WhatsApp chats here is indicative of how technology, and social media in particular, has transformed the social groups many of us belong to and how we interact with them. It’s through these new community networks that many people are being recruited into voluntary service and keeping in touch, sometimes across huge geographical distances. At the same time, it seems that lots of us are returning to what we might think of more ‘traditional’ community networks, and offering voluntary service along more informal, local lines. The media has reported on cases where individual streets have created initiatives for checking up on one another, by placing red or green cards in the window of houses, while ‘street angels’ have offered to do shopping for those in the local area who are ‘shielding’ from the virus. Engaging in the NHS clap or placing a drawing of a rainbow in your window is largely a way to send messages of solidarity to those living in close physical proximity to you. By requiring us to stay home and socially distance from one another, COVID-19 has pushed many of us back into our homes, our buildings, our streets, or the places we live more broadly, and towards the sorts of localised, often informal voluntarism that I write about.
All of this poses important questions for historians. In the past few weeks there a number of excellent articles have been published outlining the important differences between COVID-19 and the Second World War, and the potential dangers posed by conflating the two events. There have also been some insightful and thought-provoking discussion by historians on the lessons that can be learnt from Second World War history, especially for our current policy makers. How, and how much, should we be leaning on the Second World War for guidance in these new and very different times?
But it also has me wondering – how will COVID-19 volunteers be remembered? Will our current volunteers, and the wider volunteering so many of us are engaging in, be forgotten in the same way as the WVS? While it’s clear that Second World War cultural memory is alive and kicking, memories of wartime volunteering certainly aren’t. Popularly we tend to reimagine the wartime woman as young and boundary-pushing, a heroic Wren or a Rosie the Riveter type, women who offer a more exciting, even glamorous image of what wartime Britain was like. Voluntary work is, by contrast, more mundane and easily forgettable, because it’s more ordinary, quotidian work, and because it’s work that often takes place under the radar or off the record. It’s remarkable, though not surprising, that NHS Volunteer Responders are being described with the same military language as wartime volunteers once were, performing similar tasks, and being overseen by the very same organisation, but without direct comparisons to the WVS.
As we live through this moment in history, it’s hard to imagine that the NHS Volunteer Responders or those engaged in informal voluntary work will be forgotten in the same way. But I’m sure that the same could have been said in 1943, when one in ten women were involved in the WVS and many thousands more volunteered through other organisations. The key is how we value this work and crucially, how we record it. Already I’ve seen lots of groups springing into action to capture this history as it’s happening, such as the Mass Observation Archive, who are calling for new observers to answer COVID-19 directives or donate their reflections on the pandemic, or the handful of more local archives and museums on my Twitter timeline who’ve launched initiatives to record local responses. As a historian this fills me with hope. Voluntary effort will be central to how Britain gets through this pandemic, to how ‘we’ll meet again’. I hope that once we do, stories of volunteering and voluntarism are not forgotten.
About the author: Charlotte Tomlinson is a historian of modern Britain based at the University of Leeds, where her PhD research focuses on the experiences of civilian women who volunteered during the Second World War. She has worked on public history projects with the East End Women’s Museum, London, and during Hull UK City of Culture 2017, and she also sits on the advisory board of the IHR’s Centre for the History of People, Places and Communities.