Saturday, 16 August 2014

Ellen’s People by Dennis Hamley

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Ellen’s People is a book with hidden depths. On the surface it is a simple story of one girl’s perception of the life of her family in wartime Britain.

It starts with a recruitment drive for young men to join the army in the early days of the First World War, when Ellen’s brother Jack joins the army. Through Ellen’s eyes we follow the jingoistic speeches which whip up enthusiasm for the war, and her fears for her brother. There is a sense of patriotism, a call to the colours, and war fever. But this leads to mob violence reflecting hatred for ‘The Hun’ with sympathisers being given short shrift. This sets off a series of events which become quite nasty.

However, things settle down and life goes on as normal with the impression of the war being far away. Ellen’s life follows it’s usual pattern which is the norm for women at the time. She lives at home and engages in domestic duties, although there are hints that changes are afoot for women.

Ellen goes into service against the wishes of her parents and gradually starts to become more independent. It is a gradual process although, through the passage of time, she trains to be a nurse and eventually goes to Abbeville to nurse soldiers.

The effect of the war on the villagers seems negligible at first, and there is a normality to the lives of the family. It is as if the war is a far distant thing that does not impact on them, until Jack comes home with only one leg after an amputation. But, even then, the full horrors are not apparent, and this reflects the propaganda stance the government took on the Home Front, where the realities of the conflict were not shared with the populace.

Slowly the realistion of what the war is all about dawns on Ellen, although it does not really prepare her for the full horrors she will experience when she goes to Abbeville in Belgium to nurse dying and wounded servicemen.

Ellen is an engaging character with the ability to draw the reader right into her life. The normality of that life in the beginning, and the blinkered view people had to the war, contrasts with the reality of the war’s impact. The class system at the time and the powerlessness of servants is obvious, as is the gradual shift of power to women who want to work. There are many threads to this story, but none more so than Ellen’s gradual awakening to the full horrors of what war entails.

This is a book well worth reading, and one which will draw the reader in with a firm grip, and not let go until the final paragraph.

Chris Longmuir

You can buy the book here: