Reading an “in memoriam” notice, there is a moment’s awareness of having passed the years of my own life without having done anything more than drink tea; nothing dramatic, nothing heroic, nothing of record.
I remember growing up in England when memories of World War II were still very fresh. The heroes from the memories were always those who had been in the armed forces. Those who had not enlisted, or been called up, were not quite seen in the same light. Their role was always seen as somehow less. Only when I grew older did I come to learn of the huge effort demanded of those who were not in uniform.
Many men who had been conscientious objectors were amongst those conscripted by Ernest Bevin’s Ministry of Labour to work as coal miners, taking the place in the pits of those who had gone off to fight. However, it became an assumption that to be a ‘Bevin boy’ was to be a conscientious objector.
Only later did I learn that the majority of the so-called Bevin boys were quite willing to serve in the armed forces, it was a Government decision that they should work in the mines. The miners were expected to make superhuman efforts, the shifts were long, the conditions appalling, the dangers great. It was their efforts that sustained the war effort, keeping the steel mills, the munitions factories, and the power stations supplied with the energy necessary for the nation’s survival.
The Home Front, as it was called, was critical – feeding 40 million people; strengthening the army, navy and air force; producing the materials needed by allied forces facing enemy forces in the four corners of the world. Maintaining morale at home was important and one of the slogans that became popular was, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
The point being made was that service on the Home Front was as critical as service overseas I always assumed that ‘They also serve’ was part of a quotation from some contemporary speaker or writer. You can imagine Winston Churchill standing up and saying in his gravelly voice, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.
Only when I looked it up did I discover that the words came from the poet John Milton. As he grew older and his physical faculties failed him, Milton became frustrated that he could do so little, but he also came to realise that accepting one’s lot brought contentment.
Having done very little, and certainly falling far short of the efforts of the Bevin boys, Milton’s words are cheery,