The Second World War was, above all things, a civilian war, measured in the miseries of ordinary people. Three quarters of the world's population took part - 1.7 billion people in 61 countries - and it was ordinary men, women and children who suffered most. Approximately 52 to 63 million died world wide, of whom two thirds were civilians. Looking at the war from the bottom up - through the stories of ordinary people rather than via great men and battles - the overwhelming smell of war is not cordite, but the stench of rotting potatoes, raw turnips and chickpeas – a dream diet for a pétomane.
Researching my fourth novel, The Children’s War, I wanted to know about the smells, tastes and sounds – the feel of war for civilians in Germany and France. The smells, inevitably, were bad. Inside German air raid shelters where the quality of air was already very poor, people made jokes about farting because the bread they got was made of bran and caused terrible flatulence. Each month in Germany, people with ration cards were issued with a sliver of soap the size of a matchbox. Inevitably, they stank. They seldom washed their bodies and certainly never their clothes: where was the fuel to come from, to heat the water? This was a hardship for Germans, who loved cleanliness: when GIs finally entered Germany, they felt how paradoxical it was that, that of all the territories they had fought over, it was the German houses, with their toilets and bathrooms, that most reminded them of home. On packed trains – and trains everywhere were crammed full, for there was no petrol ration for civilians - the stench was as sharp as ammonia and even grown men regularly fainted. There was no toothpaste. Starved of vitamins, teeth tended to rot suddenly and all at once and foul breath was commonplace; as war progressed and the food supply shrank, so did people’s skins, turning yellow and pimply.
People craved sugar and fats and coffee, men dreamt, not of girls (starving men lost their sex drive altogether) but of roast goose and pork with apple sauce. A German kitchen smelt of Mukafuk : coffee made of ground barley or acorns and of the obligatory weekly Eintopf, a cheap casserole consisting of leftovers all cooked together, the money saved being collected by the Winter Relief workers. In France, people drank Café National, another ground up barley concoction, sweetened with saccharine which left a bitter aftertaste; sugar, like eggs and flour, being an unobtainable luxury.
In the country, where people kept animals, they could still eat; it was a very different matter in the towns. There was a certain Galgenhumor (gallows humour) on these subjects during air raids, the strength of feeling that comes from despair. Even a disciplined, obedient German crowd which had stood in line for hours could lynch a butcher who cheated them by giving 80 grammes of meat instead of 100. Towards the end of the war, every train leaving a German city was crammed with civilians going out with their knapsacks full of possessions to barter for food : they called it ‘hamstering’. In France, during the last bad winter and spring of 1943/44, the harvests failed. There was despair and misery everywhere, children developed rickets and there were major outbreaks of carbuncles. In the bitter cold, the old and young died first. Yet, throughout Europe, if you had money, you could eat well: black markets flourished where luxuries such as meat and butter and real coffee could always be obtained by those with cash. Virginia tobacco was particularly valuable; among the arms parachuted into France for the Resistance were tins of real coffee and cartons of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes.
During the long occupation of Italy, the Wehrmacht set up brothels wherever they went; the army’s prostitutes (often appropriately named Caramela and Bonbon) were the only civilians to be fed properly, supplies of durum wheat spaghetti, meat, tomatoes and olive oil being obtained specially for them. Starving peasants went foraging in the fields for sorrel, for nettles and dandelions indeed anything that grew – desperately hiding their animals from this, latest barbarian army to sweep across their often-conquered lands. For it was a favourite outing for paratroopers (the heroes of Monte Cassino) to sally forth on midnight sorties and round up all the animals they could find, slaughtering them for a mass feast.
When not suffering the hellish noise of bombardments – the ack-ack of the anti-air raid batteries, the thunder and ear-splitting boom of bombs - towns were relatively silent in the absence of private cars. The sounds of war were the scrape of wheels with no rubber left on them – tyres for bicycles or cars being an undreamt of luxury – and the clatter of wooden soled shoes across the cobblestones, leather for shoe repairs having long since run out. Everyone listened to the radio. In Germany, the authorities issued every household with a paper wheel that fitted over the radio dial and was marked with the forbidden zones; this piece of paper reminded people that the penalty for the crime of listening to foreign radio stations was death. Though this was rigidly enforced – ‘block wardens’ listened at every door and children even denounced their parents for the crime - people desperate for news still tuned in to the BBC. Music could not be controlled either: in Germany, even late in the war, illicit jazz clubs drew a small but enthusiastic clientele and rebellious ‘Swing Boys’ grew their hair, dressed in special gear and clashed with Hitler Youth.
War was endless darkness and icy cold. Fuel was always scarce, by the end virtually unobtainable. The winters were bitter everywhere. Every scrap of fabric was saved and reused. The rough fabric that substituted for wool was scratchy and seemed to absorb, not repel moisture. Certain basic necessities : shoes, rubber teats for babies’ bottles, light bulbs, were simply unobtainable, anywhere. In Germany, fur coats – so prevalent during the early years of the war, as part of the spoils of war from Norway – gradually disappeared. They were all gathered in, along with every kind of warm clothing, for the desperate troops in Russia. Women who wore fur would be spat upon, by other, more ‘patriotic’ women. Everywhere, the blackout was a menace, especially for women. Rape and crime statistics were – and remained – horrific, all over Europe. There were no batteries for torches. In Germany, for 20 pfennigs you could have magnesium rubbed on the soles of your shoes, so you gave out sparks when you walked. That might stop other people bumping into you, but it would not protect you from craters in the roads that had opened up overnight, nor from marauders. Otherwise, your only protection was the tiny fluorescent buttons people wore on their chests, a mere pin-prick of light. When the German army occupied the South of France directly after the Italian Armistice, soldiers took pleasure in shooting at any chink of light visible until those who had violated the blackout were silenced for good.
The recent atrocity cannibal story from Germany is a reminder of the vivid rumours that circulated at the end of the war, when millions living troglodyte lives starved in the rubble without the barest necessities of life. One story, which one hopes is apocryphal, has a blind man standing at the roadside, requesting help from the sighted to deliver a note: the girl who finally opens it reads a sinister message : this is the last body I am sending you today. Certainly, in Germany in those dark post-war years, you could buy any woman for a cigarette; real wealth was to actually light up and smoke a Lucky Strike (but that’s another story).
Monique Charlesworth The Children's War
Published by Knopf, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, Presses de la Cité, France Loisirs, Ulisseia, Thorne