Steve Bassam pays tribute to the hard work and stoicism of his mother Enid and others of her generation
In recent years there has been much more written about the role of women in both world wars. My youngest daughter, studying for her A levels, told me during her revision that without women's contribution to the war effort we would simply not have won the Second World War. It is a conclusion hard to argue with; but, as she added, the scale of that contribution has only latterly been fully appreciated.
It made me reflect on the role played by women like her grandmother, my mother Enid Bassam. For her, the war was profound in its impact. Enid left school at 14 and went to work in a chemists as an assistant and helped her father with his market garden in Whitby, north Yorkshire. At the beginning of the war she was assigned initially to the Land Army, probably because of her interest in the land.
However, she was then reassigned into different war work – the National Fire Service (NFS). If working on the land was hard, then working on fire engines was far harder. She underwent a short intensive training course at the regional training college. The course taught her about types of fires, the speed of fires, how to deal with incendiary devices, pumping pressures, and much technical detail. Somewhere I still have her note books from those lectures.
The one thing Enid told me that the course didn't teach was courage or bravery. She was responsible for ensuring the engines were equipped and in working order, but she became a firefighter too. By her account she spent terrifying times firefighting, during and after German raids along the coast close to Newcastle, Teesside and Hull. I have a few pictures of her from that time, including one from what I assume was her passing out group and another taken with her Brother Firmin John Bassam. She looks neat, trim and fit in a uniform adapted for women to wear.
The photo of Enid with John is interesting. He looks older than his age. He died at 21, by which time he had fought in North Africa against Rommel and made his way through Italy before sustaining an injury and being sent home to recuperate. My mother told me of her pride in her brother. She was much in awe of him even though he was 8 years her junior. He deliberately joined the 5th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, a Scottish Regiment, because of their tough fighting reputation. Enid told me that he once cycled from his home in Whitby all the way to London to rejoin his unit.
During the war she worked and played hard. It’s what young women did. She lost two young men she was very close too, one she once in a moment of rare emotion confessed to being very much in love with. I think he was an airman. In 1941 her mother died and, having had to help look after and nurse her, Enid had to then care for her father and young brother as he went off to fight aged 18.
Firmin John Bassam having recovered from his injuries sustained in Italy rejoined his comrades in the Seaforth Highlanders and prepared for the D-Day landings. I am not sure if he fought his way off the beaches in the first wave of the Normandy offensive, but it would come as no surprise if he did. Either way Private Bassam played a part in the taking of Caen in July 1944. Sadly, he was blown up either by a landmine or a grenade on 27th July in the heat of the battle.
Following the loss of her mother and her loved one, John’s death hurt my mother and had a lifelong impact. She was a naturally confident and hard working woman with an intuitive intelligence unrecognised or measured by exams. She was also always close to her father – who apart from being a market gardener was also a lay pastor in the Primitive Methodist church, and part of the Whitby Circuit. But the war cost my mother her youth, and her ambition for a family. At the wars end she was 30 and at an age and time where you were expected to be married. She felt at a loss when she was suddenly demobbed from the NFS, and without a job to go too.
Enid like many young women of that time had lost much in the war. Her innocence was gone, her youth lost forever – along with many of those she loved. She had felt exhilarated by some of her wartime experiences. The social camaraderie, the excitement of the job with its dangers and the knowledge it brought. In 1945 she was feeling that life was a bit flat and with just her father to care for I think probably a bit depressed, despite her stoic nature.
My mother's story was a not uncommon one. We should be thankful for the stoicism of women from that generation, their can do approach to life, their courage and commitment. The last Labour government began the task of recognising the work and bravery of the women in the Land Army and the ‘Lumber Jills’ who worked felling timber in the forests. Enid often remarked that NFS personnel felt undervalued. Perhaps this is another issue to put right. It might be one for my daughter’s generation to fight for. I know her grandmother were she alive would appreciate it.
Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is the Opposition Chief Whip in the House of Lords. He tweets @StevetheQuip
Published 13th June 2014