John Sawyer (b. 1914) : War and Memory (Part 1) – Writing Lives

John Sawyer (b. 1914) : War and Memory (Part 1)

My very early years were spent in Beeston, four miles from Nottingham, and commenced in 1914 – as though the Great War weren’t enough!’

War surrounded John’s life from the moment he was born in 1914; the commencement year of World War 1, or, as John refers to, the ‘Great War’. John expresses how his infantile self could not comprehend or accept the hardships of the time. In place of those memories ‘were mainly pleasant things’, as he explains how ‘the young mind rejected the unpleasant ones.’ (p. 1). Instead, he writes light-heartedly of his joyful childhood memories of his uncle, a driver in the Royal Horse Artillery, ‘carrying shells up to the front line’ (p.1). John explains that despite his uncle’s harrowing experiences of war, ‘he was always laughing and joking and bringing happiness to others’ (p.1). The jovial attitude of John’s uncle is reflective of his own comedic, light-hearted attitude towards the war. This attitude is evident within the first chapter of his memoir, as he writes with irony about his birth and jokingly states that ‘as though the Great War weren’t enough!’ (p.1)

Royal Horse Artillery

And as if being born and bred in war conditions wasn’t enough, John was plucked from his job as a clerk to join the H.M Forces stationed in Glasgow in June 1940 to fight in the Second World War. He writes of the drastic change to his surroundings and lifestyle during training, such as the temporariness of their ‘billets’, otherwise known the houses in which soldiers were lodged [1], and his new bed, being a ‘paliasse’: a straw mattress, in which they would fill themselves, sparsely. He emphasises the changes that war had forced on his life by comparing the atmosphere to his childhood: ‘this was different from previous camping experiences with Boy Scout Troop. […] The sergeant would have said “You’re in the army now O.K. – someone nicks your kit, you nick someone else’s, O. K.”’ (p.30). John also explains that if they were short on kit during inspection, they’d be put on a fizzer, which was a disciplinary charge.

Despite listing the harsh changes that he had to adapt to, John expresses how he initially excelled in his training. The three most ‘promising’ members of each platoon were treated with a visit to the Theatre Royal after the first month of training, and John ‘was one of the chosen, despite painful blisters from my army boots’(p. 31). He was transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals in North Wales, his preference. Yet, his experience here was short-lived.

John suffered from vaccine poisoning in his left arm. This was a result of an overzealous medical orderly that severely affected him to the point where he was unable to lock the bolt on his rifle. He then became a Grade II Clerk to Brigade Headquarters in Prestatyn, which required him to decode messages. He excels in this role, due to his natural typing talent, as he is able to type sixty words a minute, double of what was required. He writes gratefully of this change within his life, confessing that ‘we were a privileged body and life was easy. No drills, no guards, no patrols, no training’ (p. 35). The drastic change of his battalion, combined with his gratitude for his new ‘privileged’ and ‘easy’ life, emphasises the strenuous physical commitments required daily for war training, and therefore the harsh realities of the Front line.

British Forces (1939)

With his new job came a new billet; a chalet within a new holiday camp that was taken over by the War Department for the entirety of the war. John expresses how ‘extremely fortunate’ he feels and explains how ‘Brigade HQ retained the box spring mattresses instead of reverting to paliasses’ (p. 34). The simple change of mattresses, paired with his appreciative attitude towards these small changes, represents the difference that John feels between his role as a soldier and his role as a clerk. He is relieved with his new job away from the Front line, which reflects the devastating, life-threatening dangers of war.

Chalets in Prestatyn Holiday Camp.

However, John also appears confessional when writing about his clerk job on the Home Front, admitting that he ‘made the most of our cushy billet. Who can blame us? The job had to be done, and if not, by someone else’ (p. 35). He omits an underlying sense of doubt through his resolution on proving the importance of his job, implied through his insistent questioning to the reader. His self-inflicted, retrospective guilt regarding his ‘easy’ life during the war portrays the severity of the Front line, as he feels guilty that he did not physically fight.

Overall, John is not hesitant to speak of his time and experiences during the war. He simply recalls it, both vividly and without emotion. This contradicts Herbert Read’s perspective, as he believes that ‘all who had lived through the war years, had for more than a decade refused to consider their experience.’ (Read, p. 111)


John Sawyer, One man in his time, or, the first sixty years; an autobiography. 38,000 words. Born 1914, Beeston Nottingham


Hammond, M. (2011). British Silent Cinema and the Great War. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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