War monologue 6 – Coal

My dad wanted to join the forces. He wanted to fight. He had been in the Air Training Corps and was a qualified radio operator. He was waiting for call-up to the RAF. But instead he was told to go to south Wales to be a coal miner – a Bevin boy. Ridiculous.. It was a completely random selection, no account taken of suitability, or skills which might have been more use elsewhere. They said the names were picked out of a bowler hat. And the worst thing was it was all the result of a cock-up – someone had forgotten to make coal-mining a reserved occupation. So by 1943 they were running out of miners – and coal. So the Minister, Ernest Bevin, came up with this scheme, but couldn’t be bothered to build any common sense into it.

Poor Dad and the others had an awful time, though in one way Dad was luckier than many. You see, the real miners, all a lot older, didn’t trust them. Knew they were conscripts; knew they didn’t want to be there; thought, quite wrongly, that they were draft dodgers or deserters or conchies and so, cowards. But like I said, Dad was angry because they’d stopped him from joining up to fight. But that made no difference. They were all shunned. Given rotten jobs. Found everyone started talking Welsh when they were around. Had tricks played like being made to work with pit ponies that only understood Welsh commands. Dad, like many others was billeted with a local mining family. That’s where he got a bit lucky. The families treated them badly. You know – ignored them, gave them the worst food, made them wait till last to use the water in the tin bath. But in Dad’s house there was a sort of matriarch, the grandmother, who soon put a stop to that when she saw what was going on. Dad used to talk about her a lot. You see, she understood what he was going through. Not least the claustrophobia he suffered from down the pit. He called her Granny Blodwen; the family called her ‘bloody Blod’ behind her back – but they did what she said, with the result that they became quite friendly and sympathetic eventually. Though that didn’t help him cope with the conditions in the mine.

But he did survive his time there. Just. At the end of the war he came home, married Mum, produced me – then, when I was just ten, he died. Partly from pneumoconiosis – miner’s lung. We didn’t get any compensation.

By John Emms

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