This is the autobiography of Anita Leslie, a distant relative of Winston Churchill, who was raised in the home of her Baronet father in Ireland to join the ‘upper crust’ of British Society, marry well, and breed. Luckily for her, the Second World War intervened, and provided an escape, allowing her to find in herself qualities she didn’t know were there, and to help many wounded soldiers whilst she did this. Initially I formed the impression that personal development and ‘putting one over’ on the British Authorities were her main objectives, but as the book continued I saw that there were complexities to her reasoning and I cannot deny the massive good she did working as an ambulance driver in Africa, Italy, France and Germany. Most of this was done serving in the French Army, as the British would not allow female drivers so near to actual fighting.
- Anita Leslie
The book is written in an easy style, in the idiom of the time, which will not go down well with modern tastes, for example references to Moroccan and Senegalese soldiers in terms we wouldn’t use today. Anyone grown up to understand that you can’t judge yesterday’s views by today’s standards won’t mind though.
The author is blessed with very good observation of human nature and shows an enlightening understanding of the feelings of French soldiers’ shame as their country surrendered, their pride in how they fought across Africa, Italy, France and Germany to recover it, and their patience in waiting for acknowledgement of their efforts from the British and US press at the time. Her descriptions of life in Libya, Syria and Palestine, driving ambulances, running a newspaper and enjoying the social life are interesting and an echo of a lost time. Her frustrations show at working in an environment where ‘first-rate women are subordinate to second-rate men’ how she worked to change it, and her description of daily life as a Private in the French Army where good taste, rather than Military Regulations, provided the framework for men and women working together in battle zones, and the daily allocation of wine and cigarettes was a most important element of fighting morale.
She gives some insights into the behaviour of German soldiers and civilians as the French Army fought through to the Rhine, and I learned a lot about the survival instincts of humans as well as the beastliness of certain individuals. She doesn’t mention the number of lives she must have saved, talking more about the men and women she served with, their personalities and what happened to them. I would love to have met her to talk about her experiences.
I enjoyed the book very much, and would give it four mushroom heads. A good read for anyone interested in the Second World War, in human nature, and in ladies battling to overcome prejudice and discrimination to achieve great things.