By Maggie George
I had intended baking a new Herman-the-German Friendship cake yesterday. As many of you will know, I frequently make these delicious cakes and they have become a firm favourite amongst my friends and family, especially the grandchildren who love to help me, stirring the mixture and scraping out the bowl afterwards.
The kitchen was warm and snug, the radio was tuned to my favourite Classic FM and I hummed happily away to the strains of Elgar’s Nimrod while gathering all the cake ingredients together. However, all hell broke loose when I opened the egg crock to discover one solitary egg lurking in the bottom. My Herman cakes require the use of two eggs and in a moment the serene domestic goddess made way for the shrieking harridan because the rain was lashing down outside and a trip to the shop for half a dozen eggs was definitely not on my Saturday afternoon agenda.
Suddenly, mid-rant practising my best Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, I realised the radio was playing the Warsaw Concerto which was written for the 1941 wartime film Dangerous Moonlight. I’m a big softie for old black and white films and as I love that particular piece of music my bad mood swiftly disappeared. I remembered instead how my grandmother had frequently told us about the hardships of the war years when she was a young mother in the 1940s, and she had said that each person got just one egg per week when rationing was brought in.
Here was I, bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t make a cake without a trip to the shop. At least I knew the shop would have lots of eggs! It made me realise how frustrating it must have been for her to have to queue for hour after hour for basic provisions, often finding the shop had sold out before you even reached the counter. As Gran had told me, they had egg powder made from reconstituted eggs, but that was universally loathed. My mother said she could still remember the taste of it years later and it had put her off eggs for life.
Mind you, Gran had said it was amazing what could be done with that one egg per person. A recipe which she used to make long after rationing ceased was the egg-in-a-nest for breakfast. This comprised two slices of National Loaf (Hitler’s Secret Weapon as it had become known), with two small circles cut from the middle of each slice. The precious egg was beaten and divided into the holes in each slice of bread, which had been pre-fried in lard and then flipped over. The bread and egg were then fried until golden, with the small cut-out circles fried separately and the whole thing served as a warming breakfast for two people.
Up until the war years we had been a nation of white bread lovers. The dirty-looking National Loaf, with added calcium to prevent rickets and made with wholemeal flour as most of the white flour had to be imported, was not an instant hit. However, it was the only loaf bakers were permitted to produce.
Besides the deprivations caused by food rationing during the dark days of the Second World War, there were also the general shortages of pretty much everything else which we take for granted nowadays. I think nothing of putting on makeup before venturing out to the shops but I spare a thought for my poor mum. As a young fashion-conscious girl she told how she had had to keep her precious scrape of patriotic scarlet lipstick in its little cardboard tube for special occasions. Although not rationed, lipstick had certainly been hard to come by. She had tried to obtain a lipstick when word got out that the chemist had some new stocks in, but by the time she got there the last supplies had long run out. Even when the lipstick tubes were practically empty, they would be scraped out and melted down and moulded into little pots of colour. “Waste not, want not” was the motto to be lived by.
It was her patriotic duty to try to look her best, she knew that. Why, even Mr. Winston Churchill had said that being well turned-out was a positive morale booster, so who was she to argue. And she knew that the girls who worked in the munitions factory were actually encouraged to wear make-up as the chemicals they used in the production caused their skin to turn yellow. Not for nothing did they earn the nickname “canaries”. Why, Max Factor officials had even visited the munitions factories and handed out special make-up which they called pan stick and Ponds Cold Cream was suggested to keep their skin healthier by acting as a barrier cream.
However, when the real thing wasn’t available, like most of her friends Mum became extremely adept at making do (although if she heard the phrase “make do and mend” once more, she thought she might scream!). The Board of Trade were responsible for ensuring that everyone in the country got their own fair share. Hence rationing was introduced in the first place, to stop people stockpiling supplies. But when lipstick wasn’t to be had, then she and her friends turned to using beetroot juice to give their cheeks and lips a rosy glow. It was always red lipsticks they wanted as they sought to emulate the film stars such as Joan Crawford, with her perfect “hunter’s bow” lips which Max Factor had created for her back in the 1930s and which was still much copied during the war years for the young girls all wanted to look glamorous, sexy not yet being a word in their vocabulary!
Burnt cork worked quite well as mascara and talcum powder could be used in place of face powder, although Mum said the look was more zombie than film star when she had tried that particular trick. In fact, the young man she had gone to the pictures with had asked her if she felt queasy and used the excuse to put his arm around her shoulders, although she had soon put him in his place for being so forward!
Mum had learned too that if you burnt a candle under a plate and mixed the residue with petroleum jelly you could get quite a nice shade of eye shadow (although Gran had forbidden her from trying that again after she had cracked one of her best bone china saucers). Besides which, too much make-up made you look “fast” Gran had said.
However, nothing much in Gran’s kitchen was safe from Mum’s inventive ways to keep fresh and attractive looking. The bicarbonate of soda served well enough as a substitute deodorant and had become a firm favourite even with Gran. Although Gran didn’t think much of the idea of using gravy browning on her legs in the absence of stockings, not since she’d had to run the gauntlet of a rain shower last time she’d tried it. Not to mention, Mrs. Hall’s dog had taken a fancy to her legs when she’d walked past. She could still feel its fetid breath on her thigh where it had stuck its nose up her skirt and tried to lick her leg.
In the absence of real stockings, Mum had become very accomplished at drawing a pencil line up her legs. From a distance it had looked just like a stocking seam, although she hated having to use a soapy pumice stone to keep her legs free from stubble. Quite a few of the girls had been really fortunate in that they managed to meet a friendly American serviceman who supplied them with stockings and even chocolate. Some of the local children thought nothing of going up to the G.I.s and asking “got any gum, chum?” More often than not, they were rewarded with a stick of chewing gum from the friendly Americans for their troubles.
More than two million American troops had come through Britain en-route to Normandy and very popular they were too with the girls. Inevitably some of the girls discovered too late that their American beau, with his lovely smart uniform and film star accent had left her with a little more than she had bargained for.
Having said all that, Gran used to recount how a lot of the local girls had befriended the Canadian soldiers who were stationed at Shorncliffe army camp during the First World War. Thousands of Canadians soldiers had passed through Folkestone on their way to fight on the Western Front. They used to parade down Slope Road (as the Road of Remembrance was called in those days), on their way to ships waiting to take them to France. The Canadian Expeditionary Forces sent over 40,000 men to train at Shorncliffe camp.
They were better paid by far than our boys and local families were actively encouraged to show them hospitality by welcoming them into their homes. It would appear that some of them enjoyed a little too much hospitality for their own good though, as by 1917 a Canadian venereal disease hospital had been set up at nearby Etchinghill.
Gran said it was quite a sight to watch them leave for France. Lord Kitchener and even the King himself had inspected a parade before the troops left the harbour, although Lord Kitchener hadn’t had to travel too far, as he lived at Broome Park which was only a short journey away, on the road to Canterbury. Of course, everyone thought it would all be over by Christmas anyway.
September 1914 that had been. So many thousands of those brave Canadians didn’t return, or else they came back broken in body and all too often, broken in mind and spirit too. Those who survived had to be nursed back to health, often or not at the same Shorncliffe camp from whence they had departed so full of optimism and patriotism in their valiant attempts to fight for the Mother Country. Little by little the air of optimism had turned to black despair as the death tolls rose and horrendous stories of life in the trenches had begun to filter through back home.
Canada Day sees a Remembrance Service held each year at the Shorncliffe Military Cemetery. It’s the most moving occasion, with a school child standing by each fallen Canadian soldier’s headstone, holding a little posy of flowers which they then place on the grave. I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed during this ceremony, I certainly wasn’t able to. That same service of remembrance has been held without exception each year except during the Second World War.
Of course, it wasn’t just the Canadians who marched off full of hope that the battle would soon be over. But it’s so hard to comprehend that literally millions of troops made their way through Folkestone to the battle fields. The command “Step Short” would ring out to the soldiers as they marched down the steep Slope Road to the harbour below. The song, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” would cheer them along and the patriotic call to arms of the song “Your King and Country Want You” were fresh in their minds.
We still know the words of those songs now and long may it be that the memory of those days lives on lest we forget all that those brave men gave for us. Not to forget also, the suffering that the ordinary women went through each and
every day while their men were away. After all, not for them the text messages or emails we are fortunate enough to have now.
So what if I didn’t have an egg. My Herman-the-German cake can wait another day! Long may the memory of those brave men who gave their last days live on. Join me in raising a glass to each and every one of them.
Hythe & Romney Life July 2014
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