DAY 25
Rebecca Dowman

Sister-in-arms

100 days
100 lives
100 words

My kid brother, locked in a guardroom.
Barely 21; he should be in college now, learning to live. (As should I, but this hateful war degrades wisdom too.)

“When I switched my original centena focus from a Belgian refugee to Oxford undergraduate Leila Davies, with the source materials being her handwritten letters, I felt as if I knew her.” Rebecca Dowman

‘Research’ has dry, dusty connotations but the 26 Armistice Project showed me – once again – that the more we find out about the past, the more we realise that people’s experiences and preoccupations remain the same, whenever they lived.
Rebecca Dowman

This morning, the Today programme was dominated – once again – by migration, and how Europe will repel refugees. Migration was also a major topic in the West Sussex press of the early months of the First World War, which I sourced via the county council’s online archives. A century ago, however, there was a more welcoming attitude towards asylum seekers, as 250,000 displaced Belgians fled to Britain to escape the advancing German line.

Then, people clamoured to help and house the migrants. An Arundel optician offered free eye tests and glasses; Chichester City Grammar School pledged free books and education to older boys, and a Bognor Regis concert raised funds for the Belgian Relief Fund. The cuttings hint, however, that such generosity reflected an assumption that the Belgians would be short-term visitors who, with the war ‘over by Christmas’, would soon go home. Landlords offered migrants free housing for just three or six months and, by early 1915, relief fund chairmen were lamenting the falling off of promised subscriptions.

Newspaper articles, particularly those written in the formal style of the early 20th century, rarely provide the intimacy of personal correspondence. When I switched my original centena focus from a Belgian refugee to Oxford undergraduate Leila Davies, with the source materials being her handwritten letters, I felt as if I knew her. The candour and vivacity of her writing, and the informal language and syntax used, make Leila (an extremely likeable) Everywoman of any time.

She could be a friend, a niece or a girl overheard on a bus. The letters are a time machine that enable you to travel with her.
Rebecca Dowman

Leila was the older sister of a conscientious objector (CO), Philip Taliesin (‘Tal’) Davies, who was also studying at Oxford. In the two letters I downloaded from the Europeana Collections website, she writes to a family friend and CO Joseph Dalby about her visits to see her brother in Cowley Barracks, where he was detained in 1916 awaiting court martial. These daily visits became the focus of her life: “I hurry through the early part of the day till I get to him, and I seem to sleep through the rest – the time we have together seems the only vivid and normal one now, strangely enough.”

Another factor that makes Leila – and Tal – so real is that, marvellously, they are still within living memory. A friend, Bridget Davies, is the daughter of Tal (who spent three years in prison for refusing to serve in the war) and the niece of Leila. Her recollections mean that they are not just frozen in time but are of our time, too.

1. www.westsussex.gov.uk/leisure-recreation-and-community/history-and-heritage/west-sussex-past-portal, accessed 29 June 2018.
2. www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/contributions_19473.html?q=Leila+Davies, accessed 29 June 2018.

Leila Davies at Somerville College, Oxford. © Bridget Davies

Lives of the First World War

Discover Philip Taliessen Davies’ life story on Lives of the First World War

About the Writer

Rebecca Dowman

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With special thanks

This centena was researched with the help of Europeana and the West Sussex Past Portal

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About 26

26 is a group of writers whose purpose is to inspire a greater love of words in business and in life.