Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Book Review: “Menus, Munitions & Keeping the Peace The Home Front Diaries of Gabrielle West, 1914 - 1917”

Gabrielle West was born in 1883 and lived to celebrate her 100th birthday.  Her diaries were written as letters to her younger brother Michael, who worked for the Education Service in India and joined the 49th Bengal Regiment in 1918.   

 
Gabrielle’s diary begins in June 1914 and gives us a valuable insight into life in Britain just prior to the conflict.  Gabrielle worked in a variety of kitchens in convalescent hospitals and munitions factories and her diaries include details of how to feed a large number of people in wartime, which I found particularly interesting.

 
The munitions factories were targets of Zeppelin raids and Gabrielle describes some that she witnessed in great detail.    She also explains the layout of the factories and what each department produced, taking us on virtual tours – all illustrated with diagrams and drawings - which I found fascinating.

 
There was a brief period when Gabrielle was out of work. Her efforts to find paid employment are described in detail up to the moment when she and her friend responded to an advertisement in the women’s magazine “Home Chat” for women to join the newly formed Women’s Police Service to work at munitions factories. On 4th December 1916 Gabrielle became a woman police officer.   The Government's main concerns were the moral behaviour of the women workers who were doing dangerous work and being paid more than they had dreamed possible.  In the early days of their formation, women police did not have powers to make any arrests, in spite of some very hair-raising moments involving large numbers of women workers.   There is a wonderful photograph on page 127 showing Gabrielle and her fellow women police officers in their uniform, complete with tin helmets.

In 1917 the air-raids became more frequent, as did the problems with the workers in the factories, so Gabrielle and her colleagues had their work cut out to ‘keep the peace’.   The diaries end in May 1918 with a description of an explosion in the munitions factory in which Gabrielle was working at the time.  

Gabrielle’s Great Niece has added an Afterword that tells us that Gabrielle ran a successful tea room for a time after the war and though, like so many women of that generation, she never married, she had a full and happy life.   Also in the book you will find photographs of Gabrielle and her co-workers and background stories of Gabrielle’s family. 

 
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it very highly – it is a very important contribution to the history of the First World War.  

“Menus, Munitions & Keeping the Peace The Home Front Diaries of Gabrielle West, 1914 - 1917” Edited by Avalon Weston and published by Pen & Sword, Barnsley, Yorkshire, 2016.

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