William belcher (1884-1961) – Memory and War Part One – Writing Lives

William belcher (1884-1961) – Memory and War Part One

William Belcher’s untitled memoirs are pervaded by a sense of fear and trauma that comes about from his experiences of war. His recollections of war are somewhat minimal in description. Instead he describes his thoughts on the concept of war rather than on his initial combat. Having served in the navy from 1914-19, he played an important role in the First World War and the British defence. His experiences, however, left Belcher disillusioned about the good of man, the purpose of war itself and the true motives behind the people who order atrocities. Due to the importance of memory and war in the memoirs I will be splitting this post into two parts: the first addressing his memory on the events and how the trauma of war effects his narrative, and the second focussing on his personal journey at war and how it both challenged and strengthened his faith.

World War 1, Naval War – the experiences of war that Belcher found himself engaged in

Belcher’s recollections of his past throughout the memoirs, are often overshadowed by the fear and reality of war. The trauma produced from war effected Belcher’s retelling of his past, even in moments unassociated with war itself. Dawson helps us to understand this concept by using the term ‘”composure” to describe this process through which the stories of the personal past are fashioned’ (Roper, 2000, 183) . This ‘composure’ is a technique used throughout Belcher’s memoirs:

‘Composure…refers to the use of narrative in order to create a past which can be lived with ‘in relative psychic comfort’ (Roper, 2000, 183)

This psychic comfort is what Belcher seeks in the recollection of his past. His reserved, almost unemotional tone throughout the memoirs, in describing his past, reflect this composure that he is attempting to reveal. However, this composure and reserved tone is often disturbed and the trauma of war seeps into his narrative. This is evident when he describes, in moments, this fear ‘What has this year in store for me. Death. War strikes play their disastrous part. Marriage as well’ (53). Belcher displays the anxiety produced from war. His marriage, a momentous, loving and happy occasion in his life, is overshadowed by this deep psychological fear.

When Belcher begins to address the war itself and his memories of that time their is a pivotal shift in tone:

‘1914 starts: the year to remember – when the nations went mad…when the devil worked overtime…the devilish monstrosity of crime, blood, suffering and anguish’ (52)

Fallen British soldiers in a mass grave

Belcher has transitioned from a reserved and composed tone to an angry and bitter  one. Unable to control his emotions, he describes the war and his feelings toward it in this critical way. With the First World War continuing for over 4 years – 1914-1918, Belcher chronicles his views on it as the years go by. By then end of 1914 he describes how the year left ‘its trail, death on land, sea and air, touching those who should have rightfully had many years yet to live’ (62), displaying the injustice of death that he feels towards this futile endeavour.

‘Millions of men have died on both sides, thousands of millions of money have been blown sky high…and soon the fear comes. The bombing of cities is continued but everything is hushed up, pain, vice, cruelty lust’ (75)

Map of London, highlighting the air raid bombings between 1914-1918

Belcher critiques the patriotic aspect of war describing how some men are ‘patriotically mad’ (75)  and describes how others like himself are ‘only a pawn unable to move, only at the … of the powers to be’. His disdain for the act of war is clear throughout the memoirs and he describes it as a futile and evil endeavour, that serves only to destroy the lives of the working-class.


Belcher, William Untitled Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.53

Roper, Michael. ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War’. History Workshop Journal. 50.3 (2000)

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