Home Front life in the First World War

In her autobiography, Youth at the Gate, Ursula Bloom recalls life on the home front during the First World War.

In this extract, she tells of a letter she received from her estranged father. With rumours of German spies circulating, even Ursula and her mother found themselves under suspicion by their neighbours.

Dearest Ursula,
I have got to come down to Walton to see both you and your mother about something which I think is very serious, and the sooner we all have a talk the better. You are in considerable danger. Don’t mention this, or talk to any soldiers, until I have seen you. I have had a long confidential letter from the Bishop of Worcester which I cannot divulge but which deals with your behaviour at Walton, and I think that the best thing I can do is to come to see you immediately.

I ought to be with you the evening of the day on which you receive this, and the train arrives at 6.20. Please meet me so that we can chat before your mother knows. This is most important for your safety.
Your affectionate

DAD

I showed the letter immediately to my mother, and she could not imagine what it was about. She thought my father must have gone mad, and what he meant by ‘our behaviour at Walton’ completely mystified us both. Ours had been the most simple life; we had in fact been so impoverished that there was practically nothing that we could have done.

My routine life had been spent in nursing Mother, in getting her out on to the front about eleven on sunny mornings and sitting there talking to her, or writing stories. After lunch she always had a long rest; in the evening officers and their wives came in for coffee and drinks. Whisky was still mercifully cheap, and I bought ‘The Three Gees’ at the International Stores for three-and-six a bottle. If we went without lunch for a week, we could contrive an evening with drinks.

We could not think that anything could have gone wrong, yet according to my father’s letter it most certainly had. But how had the Bishop of Worcester become involved?

‘It’s no good trying to work it out,’ said my mother, ‘your father must have flown off at a tangent and has got hold of the wrong idea.’

That evening I went up to the station to meet him. It was another of those lovely nacre-coloured evenings, when you could not believe that such a sinister thing as this wretched war even existed. The train was late, it was a single line from Thorpe-le-Soken and never hurried itself too much; when my father stepped off it in his grey flannel suit, I had to admit that he looked worried.

We walked out of the station down to the sea-front, and I showed him the reinforcements on which the soldiers had worked so hard, thinking this would interest him. It had quite the contrary effect, for he stared at me in complete horror and said would I please not mention anything of the sort?

‘But why not?’ I asked. ‘They are here for everybody to see; there’s nothing secret about them, and we all talk about them.’

‘Not now, please. Please not now,’ said he.

When we reached Mr. Barker’s Marine Hotel, an amiable old-fashioned building with the public gardens before it, I think he had come to the conclusion that he had better get the object of his visit off his chest, so we went into the gardens and sat down there to talk.

He said: ‘Ursula, you’ve got to know, but something dreadful has happened. A letter has been sent to the Bishop by someone from Walton who asked that their identity should not be disclosed. They wanted to know if you and your mother were wife and daughter of a clergyman called Bloom in Yeatman-Biggs’ diocese. The Bishop wrote back and asked them why.’

‘But why should anyone write to the Bishop about us?’

‘I can’t think. I begged him to reveal the name, but he refused, I suppose he couldn’t do more. The second letter he received made him send for me, and the upshot was that he felt this was something I must know about and act upon.’

‘What did the letter say?’ I asked, not seeing daylight, and thinking my father was only being silly.

‘Apparently the Special Constables had had trouble with your house showing lights, and once this had coincided with a Zeppelin raid.’

‘Everybody here has trouble with their lights at some time or other. Our curtains don’t fit properly; they’re better than they were, but they’re not right yet. Why?’

‘The letter said that you and your mother spent all the time on the front watching the soldiers, and disguising your real intentions by pretending to do needlework. You wrote down what you saw in an exercise book.’

‘What do you mean by disguising our intentions? Of course I write in exercise books, they’re my stories,’ said I.

He turned his blue eyes round on me, and I saw that he was distraught. ‘They suspect you of being German spies.’

‘But ‒ but how could we be?’ For the first time in my life I found myself stammering.

‘The name, I suppose. Bloom. It sounds German. Then you came down here as soon as the war started, and you seem to have been sitting on the front ever since. When the Zeppelins came over they said your mother tried to force her way past a Special Constable on to the front.’

‘But of course she didn’t. There was a plane pursuing the Zepps, and she ran down the road to see if she could get a better view from the opening by the Albion Hotel.’

‘The Bishop and I are worried.’

At that moment I doubt if either of them was as worried as I was. I remembered with painful clarity that horrible night in London when the crowd had smashed some of the shops with German names over them, and the sausages had rolled into the gutters. I remembered the story of the poor little dachshund who had been stoned to death, and rather haltingly I said: ‘It’s ‒ it’s ridiculous. What about Joscelyn who is fighting with the British Army in France? What ‒ what do we do?’

He didn’t know, for he himself was bewildered by it, and only too anxious that we did not become further involved. ‘We must all talk it out, and decide on what is the best action to take. It may mean that you’ll have to leave the coast.’

I knew that I did not want to leave, somehow I had grown to care for the place, but I did not want my mother to be too worried. We walked home not in the merriest of moods. Supper was waiting and I felt some distaste for it which was odd for I had had no tea. My father told Mother what had happened. Having always been a fighter, more so than my father, her one idea was to get to the root of the matter. He thought we should retire into our shells, never go near the front, or have officers in to share coffee and three-and-sixpenny whisky.
‘They know you speak German,’ he said.

‘So does every woman who has been to school in Bonn.’

‘They know that as well. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to find out everything they could.’

I was nervous, and because I thought they might like to talk about this alone I slipped out into the street on which the pleasant summer night had now descended. I had intended to go on to the beach, then realized that I dare not do this in case someone suspected that I was there to send messages to the enemy! In a single instant I myself had changed! I was afraid. I watched a searchlight playing in a long shaft of light which penetrated up into the sky and was afraid to be found looking. It would be easy to misinterpret my movements, and then I would become more suspect. The more I thought of it the clearer was the fact that it was extremely difficult to act innocently and behave normally.

They shoot people for this, I thought. The situation was exaggerating itself in my mind, not without reason, for at that time in the nation’s history all England searched for spies, and with infuriated vigour.

From Youth at the Gate by Ursula Bloom