I read Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford’s Business as Usual back in the early days of Covid. Wonderfully diverting, it was just what was needed at such an anxious, difficult time. Drawing on Stafford’s experience as an ambulance driver in London’s blitz, Army Without Banners is very different, spanning fifteen months during which London was battered by night-time bombing raids.
I’ve been wondering about you in your nice country cottage; we have had nearly a month of blitz now and it’s horrid.
In October 1940, Mildred Gibson is living a comfortable rural life, familiar with the sound of an air raid siren but safely tucked away from danger. A letter from her ambulance driving cousin pricks her conscience sufficiently to pack up the car and present herself as a volunteer. Once qualified, Mildred joins Penny at Station X2, slipping into a routine of making tea, playing ping-pong and knitting after making sure the stations is spick and span. There’s a lot of form-filling, bureaucracy, and tedium to be got through before the raids begin again in December, the team snatching sleep in between answering calls to pick up casualties. Mildred’s terror gives way to feeling of belonging, moved by the compassion she sees in her colleagues. By March 1941, the blitz has once again receded, boredom has set in and Mildred occupies herself accompanying tea-carts, spending a day with the river emergency services and canteen waitressing before the raids begin again. As the year turns, Mildred has come to value the camaraderie of the service above all else, while Penny acknowledges the paradox of happiness enjoyed during the grimness of war.
They just sat and remembered and waited, and slowly braced themselves to face a new beginning among unfamiliar faces.
Mildred is an engaging narrator, slipping in anecdotes often illustrated with cartoon-like drawings of the characters involved, while never losing sight of the misery inflicted by the war. All-too-believable accounts of boredom induced ennui are offset by heartfelt compassion for casualties whose rescuers’ concerns for themselves are swept away. Mildred’s tour of the various volunteer services – from the Mobile Canteen, which delivers a surprising amount of cake, to the hospital library cheering up casualties with books – reveals an army of female volunteers, highly efficient and organised, all eager for Mildred to join them. A rallying call to readers who’d not yet signed up, no doubt – the novel was published during the war, three years before it ended – but entertainingly delivered and illuminating for me. I hadn’t realised that Civil Defence workers had been despised and resented during the Phony War before the raids set in – tomatoes thrown at the likes of Mildred in the early days which turn to quiet favours by the time the novel closes in 1942 with Mildred (and Stafford) not knowing which way the war will turn.
If you like the sound of Army Without Banners, please consider ordering direct from Handheld Press. They’re a small press who do an excellent job with these beautifully packaged reissues, always including an informative introduction.
Handheld Press: Bath 9781912766789 194 pages Paperback