80th Anniversary of Phoney War Marked

The Oldie in anticipation of the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII next month, has an article by literary critic Michael Barber entitled “What was the Phoney War?” As he explains:

Eighty years ago, on 3rd September 1939, that bizarre interlude variously known as the phoney war, the bore war and the Sitzkrieg got under way. People braced themselves for Armageddon. But nothing much happened – except to the nation’s pets, thousands of which were swiftly put down. And, except at sea, nothing much continued to happen for the next seven months.

He goes on to explain other immediate emergency preparations that proved to be less emergent than was anticipated. These included evacuations of children from cities likely to be bombed, mandatory blackouts and gas masks, etc. There was not a lot of literature inspired by this period, but Barber mentions what is probably its best known book:

[…] evacuees exposed the gap between town and country, rich and poor. People were shocked to discover how the other half lived. Theatre critic James Agate was told by a friend that he and his wife so loathed the evacuee children billeted on them that they had decided to ‘take away’ something from them for Christmas. Bored to tears in the sticks, evacuee mothers told their children to wet the bed so that they’d all be sent home, a ploy Basil Seal exploits in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942), the definitive phoney-war novel.

Waugh also mocked the cack-handed Ministry of Information. Few official bodies can have taken so much flak from so many people in so short a time. Staffed by bureaucrats rather than journalists, the ministry turned out such uninspiring stuff that, according to Aneurin Bevan, people were more likely to die of boredom than from bombs.

The Phoney War ended with the invasion of France and the Dunkerque evacuation in June 1940, followed shortly by the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Waugh wrote the book in summer 1941 on the return voyage from the Battle of Crete. This trip proceeded around the Cape of Good Hope and the West Indies, providing quite a lot of time for writing. When he arrived home the Blitz was over after the Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union.

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