Grim up north: Harry Leslie Smith grew up in coal-mining Barnsley, Yorkshire. Photo: Getty
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“Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS

Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran born into an impoverished mining family, recalls a Britain without a welfare state.

Over 90 years ago, I was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to a working-class family. Poverty was as natural to us as great wealth and power were to the aristocracy of that age. Like his father and grandfather before him, my dad, Albert, eked out a meagre existence as a miner, working hundreds of feet below the surface, smashing the rock face with a pickaxe, searching for coal.

Hard work and poor wages didn’t turn my dad into a radical. They did, however, make him an idealist, because he believed that a fair wage, education, trade unions and universal suffrage were the means to a prosperous democracy. He endured brutal working conditions but they never hardened his spirit against his family or his comrades in the pits. Instead, the harsh grind of work made his soul as gentle as a beast of burden that toiled in desolate fields for the profit of others.

My mother, Lillian, however, was made of sterner stuff. She understood that brass, not love, made the world go round. So when a midwife with a love of gin and carbolic soap delivered me safely on a cold winter’s night in February 1923 into my mum’s exhausted arms, I was swaddled in her rough-and-ready love, which toughened my skin with a harsh affection. I was the first son but I had two elder sisters who had already skinned their knees and elbows in the mad fight to stay alive in the days before the social safety network. Later on, our family would include two half-brothers, after my mother was compelled to look for a more secure provider than my dad during the Great Depression.

By the time I was weaned from my mother’s breast, I had begun to learn the cruel lessons that the world inflicted on its poor. At the age of seven, my eldest sister, Marion, contracted tuberculosis, which was a common and deadly disease for those who lived hand to mouth in early-20th-century Britain. Her illness was directly spawned from our poverty, which forced us to live in a series of fetid slums.

Despite being a full-time worker, my dad was always one pay packet away from destitution. Several times, my family did midnight flits and moved from one decre­pit single-bedroom tenement to the next. Yet we never seemed to move far from the town’s tip, a giant wasteland stacked with rotting rubbish, which became a playground for preschool children.

At the beginning of my life, affordable health care was out of reach for much of the population. A doctor’s visit could cost the equivalent of half a week’s wages, so most people relied on good fortune rather than medical advice to see them safely through an illness. But luck and guile went only so far and many lives were snatched away before they had a chance to start. The wages of the ordinary worker were at a mere subsistence level and therefore medicine or simple rest was out of the question for many people.

Unfortunately for my sister, luck was also in short supply in our household. Because my parents could neither afford to see a consultant nor send my sister to a sanatorium, Marion’s TB spread and infected her spine, leaving her an invalid.

****

The 1926 General Strike, which began just as my sister started her slow and painful journey from life to death, was about more than wages to my dad and many others. It was called by the TUC in protest against mine owners who were using strong-arm tactics to force their workers to accept longer work hours for less take-home pay. At its start, it involved 1.7 million industrialised workers.

In essence, the strike was about the right of all people, regardless of their economic station, to live a dignified and meaningful life. My father joined it with enthusiasm, because he believed that all workers, from tram drivers to those who dug ore, deserved a living wage. But for my father the strike  was also about the belief that he might be able to right the wrongs done to him and his family; if only he had more money in his pay packet, he might have been able to afford decent health care for all of us.

Unfortunately, the General Strike was crushed by the government, which first bullied TUC members to return to their work stations. Eight months later, it did the same to the miners whose communities had been beggared by being on the pickets for so long. My dad and his workmates had to accept wage cuts.

I remember my sister’s pain and anguish during her final weeks of life in October 1926. I’d play beside her in our parlour, which was as squalid as an animal pen, while she lay on a wicker landau, tied down by ropes to prevent her from falling to the ground while unattended. When Marion’s care became too much for my mother to endure, she was sent to our neighbourhood workhouse, which had been imprisoning the indigent since the days of Charles Dickens.

The workhouse where Marion died was a large, brick building less than a mile from our living quarters. Since it had been designed as a prison for the poor, it had few windows and had a high wall surrounding it. When my sister left our house and was transported there on a cart pulled by an old horse, my mum and dad told my other sister and me to wave goodbye, because Marion was going to a better place than here.

The workhouse was not used only as a prison for those who had been ruined by poverty; it also had a primitive infirmary attached to it, where the poor could receive limited medical attention. Perhaps the only compassion the place allowed my parents was permission to visit their daughter to calm her fears of death.

My sister died behind the thick, limestone walls at the age of ten, and perhaps the only compassion the place allowed my parents was permission to visit their daughter to calm her fears of death. As we didn’t have the money to give her a proper burial, Marion was thrown into a communal grave for those too poor to matter. Since then, the pauper’s pit has been replaced by a dual carriageway.

****

Some historians have called the decade of my birth “the Roaring Twenties” but for most it was a long death rattle. Wages were low, rents were high and there was little or no job protection as a result of a postwar recession that had gutted Britain’s industrial heartland. When the Great Depression struck Britain in the 1930s, it turned our cities and towns into a charnel house for the working class, because they had no economic reserves left to withstand prolonged joblessness and the ruling class believed that benefits led to fecklessness.

Even now, when I look back to those gaslight days of my boyhood and youth, all I can recollect is hunger, filth, fear and death. My mother called those terrible years for our family, our friends and our nation a time when “hard rain ate cold Yorkshire stone for its tea”.

I will never forget seeing as a teenager the faces of former soldiers who had been broken physically and mentally during the Great War and were living rough in the back alleys of Bradford. Their faces were haunted not by the brutality of the war but by the savagery of the peace. Nor will I forget as long as I shall live the screams that fell out of dosshouse windows from the dying and mentally ill, who were denied medicine and solace because they didn’t have the money to pay for medical services.

Like today, those tragedies were perpetuated by a coalition government preaching that the only cure for our economic troubles was a harsh austerity, which promised to right Britain’s finances through the sacrifice of its lowest-paid workers. When my dad got injured, the dole he received was ten shillings a week. My family, like millions of others, were reduced to beggary. In the 1930s, the government believed that private charities were more suitable for providing alms for those who had been ruined in the Great Depression.

Austerity in the 1930s was like a pogrom against Britain’s working class. It blighted so many lives through preventable ailments caused by malnutrition, as well as thwarting ordinary people’s aspirations for a decent life by denying them housing, full- time employment or a proper education.

As Britain’s and my family’s economic situation worsened in the 1930s, we upped sticks from Barnsley to Bradford in the hope that my father might find work. But there were too many adults out of work and jobs were scarce, so he never found full-time employment again. We lived in dosshouses. They were cheap, sad places filled with people broken financially and emotionally. Since we had no food, my mum had me indentured to a seedy off-licence located near our rooming house. At the age of seven, I became a barrow boy and delivered bottles of beer to the down-and-outs who populated our neighbourhood.

My family were nomads. We flitted from one dosshouse to the next, trying to keep ahead of the rent collector. We moved around the slums of Bradford and when we had outstayed our welcome there, we moved on to Sowerby Bridge, before ending up in Halifax. As I grew up, my schooling suffered; I had to work to keep my sister, my mum and half-brothers fed. At the age of ten, I was helping to deliver coal and by my teens, I started work as a grocer’s assistant. At 17, I had been promoted to store manager. However, at the age of 18, the Second World War intervened in whatever else I had planned for the rest of my life. I volunteered to join the RAF.

****

My politics was forged in the slums of Yorkshire but it was in the summer of 1945, at the age of 22, that I finally felt able to exorcise the misery of my early days. In that long ago July, I was a member of the RAF stationed in Hamburg; a city left ruined and derelict by war. I had been a member of the air force since 1941 but my war had been good, because I had walked away from it without needing so much as a plaster for a shaving nick. At its end, my unit had been seconded to be part of the occupational forces charged with rebuilding a German society gutted by Hitler and our bombs.

It was in the palm of that ravaged city that I voted in Britain’s first general election since the war began. As I stood to cast my ballot in the heat of that summer, I joked with my mates, smoked Player’s cigarettes and stopped to look out towards a shattered German skyline. I realised then that this election was momentous because it meant that a common person, like me, had a chance of changing his future.

So it seemed only natural and right that I voted for a political party that saw health care, housing and education as basic human rights for all of its citizens and not just the well-to-do. When I marked my X on the ballot paper, I voted for all those who had died, like my sister, in the workhouse; for men like my father who had been broken beyond repair by the Great Depression; and for women like my mum who had been tortured by grief over a child lost through unjust poverty. And I voted for myself and my right to a fair and decent life.

I voted for Labour and the creation of the welfare state and the NHS, free for all its users. And now, nearly 70 years later, I fear for the future of my grandchildren’s generation, because Britain’s social welfare state is being dismantled brick by brick.

****

My life didn’t really begin until the end of the Second World War. I fell in love with Friede, a German woman, whom I married and brought home to Halifax. My wife gave me emotional stability while the welfare state gave me economic stability. When I was demobbed, I didn’t have many prospects, except using my brawn over my brain. I took factory jobs while my wife and I studied at night school. But I am forever grateful for the foundation of the NHS, because it allowed my wife to receive first-rate treatment for the PTSD she acquired by having witnessed both the atrocities of the Nazis and the firebombing of Hamburg, which killed 50,000 people in three nights of intense RAF bombing in 1943.

My experiences of growing up in Britain before the NHS, when one’s health was determined by one’s wealth, and after 1948, when free health care was seen as a cornerstone for a healthy economy and democracy, convinced me that it was my duty to share my family experiences at this year’s Labour party conference. I agreed to speak about the NHS because I know there are few people left who can remember that brutal time before the welfare state, when life for many was short and cruel. I felt that I owed it to my sister Marion, whose life was cut short by extreme poverty and poor health care, along with all of those other victims of a society that protected the rich and condemned the poor to miserable lives. In many ways, making that speech freed me from the suffering of my youth. 

Harry Leslie Smith is the author of a memoir: “Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down and What We Can Do to Save it” (Icon Books, £8.99) 

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the Second World War, and post-war austerity. Join Harry on Twitter @Harryslaststand.

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle