The National Memorial Arboretum is located at the very heart of England. Just east of the village of Alrewas, and about half an hour north of Birmingham, this 150-acre site is the home of nearly 400 memorials to wars, conflicts, and tragedies throughout British history, all set in a peaceful area of countryside next to the River Tame.
Opened in 2001, the Arboretum is part of the Royal British Legion’s family of charities, but it is also a charity in its own right. Employing around 60 staff and 260 volunteers, it welcomes more than 300,000 visitors annually, including service personnel, veterans, students, families, groups, and individuals.
But these are just the stats I got from the Arboretum’s website. To properly appreciate the place, you really do have to go there in person. Only then do you realise the extent to which it is a working memorial, where more than 250 events are held each year. For instance, just days before I visited, the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales were in attendance for the unveiling of a new statue to the memory of police officers killed on duty.
An exceptional level of detail goes into every monument. For instance, the area surrounding this new memorial is populated with chestnut trees. This was the type of wood used to create the first truncheons for bobbies on the beat, hundreds of years ago.
THE WRAC ASSOCIATION
I was at the Arboretum to attend a similar dedication ceremony, this one for a new statue commemorating the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC), to which almost all women in the British Army belonged for a long period in the last century.
The WRAC has some forebears, such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), established in 1917 during the latter stages of the First World War, when it was decided women would be allowed to serve in the Army in a non-nursing capacity for the first time.
Later, during the Second World War, came the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), formed by order of King George VI, whose eldest daughter Princess Elizabeth was one of over 300,000 members. The ATS also has a statue at the Arboretum, which was installed in 2006.
The WRAC itself did not come together until 1949, with its charter stating that it was to ‘provide replacement for officers and men in such employment as may be specified by the Army Council from time to time.’ The following year, it was decided that women in the Army would not be mere ‘replacements’ but would instead use the same titles as their male counterparts.
Although disbanded in 1993, when women fell into the main-stream element of the Army, the WRAC lives on in the form of an Association, which has over 80 branches in the UK and worldwide.
Barbara Anderson – known to everyone as ‘Babs’ – is the secretary of the Association’s Birmingham branch. It was on her initiative that the statue was first organised a few years ago. She saw the process through from the permission stage right to a sponsored run, on which she was joined by 140 of her fellow members, in order to raise funds for its creation.
Sculpted by Andy DeComyn, the statue’s uniform is symbolic, as Babs explained to me. ‘She wears a forage cap, and a tie, and a number two dress,’ Babs said, ‘Because all of us, in the WRAC, wore that at some point on our passing out parade. So, essentially, she is supposed to be all-encompassing and representative.’
As well as organising the statue, Babs was instrumental in setting up a support network, known as the buddy-buddy scheme, for members of the Association during the pandemic.
‘I realised really early on in lockdown that some of my ladies, especially the older ones, were alone, and would be in their house totally alone,’ she said.
And what began in her local branch, soon spread across the country, with younger members of the Association teaming up to support elderly counterparts.
‘It just worked out really well,’ Babs added. ‘And it will continue, and some really good friendships have been formed.’
ON TO BLETCHLEY
One of Barbara’s best friends is Betty Webb MBE, who was her recruiting officer when Babs joined aged 17. But it was not until many years later, at a meeting of the Birmingham branch, that the two were reunited. Betty was now serving as president of the branch, and was one of the Association’s most distinguished members.
As Babs explained, Betty’s story is remarkable. A student at a domestic science college when the Second World War broke out, she and three of her friends decided to join the army. In Betty’s case, it was the ATS.
On learning she was bilingual in German, her superiors sent her to London for a mysterious interview. ‘And after about an hour,’ Betty told me, ‘they said: “Right, get yourself off to Bletchley.”’
‘I’d never heard of it,’ Betty added. ‘I certainly didn’t know what went on there, nobody did.’
But Betty was soon to learn of Bletchley’s importance, having been made to sign the Official Secrets Act on her first day. This forbade her from talking about her work until 1975, an instruction she obeyed.
‘I just said to myself: you know what you’ve signed, you keep it to yourself.’ Not even her parents were told, although Betty surmised that her father, a First World War veteran, must have noticed his daughter wearing an Intelligence Corps badge and decided not to ask.
Of Bletchley itself, Betty spoke of a friendly atmosphere that resembled life as a student. ‘Many of us have said this, that for those of us who couldn’t go to university, it was the next best thing.’
But it was certainly a very different kind of work, and the discovery that she was skilled at paraphrasing decoded Japanese messages soon got her a promotion – although it came with little explanation as to where the messages were sent.
‘I just had to paraphrase the translated messages for onwards transmission, to where I don’t know for certain, but I believe it was sometimes directly to commanders in the field or perhaps to the Prime Minister… I didn’t even have to know Japanese.’
Betty Webb’s skills must have made a contribution, for after the United States ended the war by dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese in August 1945, she was moved to America. Her expertise had landed her a job along with 32,000 others at the then newly established Pentagon.
Compared to Bletchley Park, the Pentagon was ‘very different’, Betty said. ‘I mean, to start with: there was plenty of food. There was very little rationing in America then – there was some, mostly with meat. And the other thing was that we were able to buy clothes ad lib. So that in itself was a holiday.’
But Betty did not hang around. After helping to ‘tidy up’, as she charmingly put it, in Washington following the end of the war, Betty returned to England that autumn and was demobbed the following February. But not before returning to Bletchley for one final time, ‘to collect her belongings’.
Now 97, she is still extremely sharp and outgoing, ambling around the Arboretum café during the post-dedication lunch and chatting happily to the many other members, including Chelsea Pensioners, who turned up that sunny July day.
Because of the pandemic, this was the first time many of them had seen each other in a long time. During lockdown, they had to rely on Zoom to keep in touch.
Betty quickly mastered the video-calling platform, Babs said, and I suppose we should expect nothing less from a Bletchley Park and Pentagon veteran. Technology, for all its faults, has allowed people to get through tough times – this is as true today as it was during the war.
That, and the Benevolent Fund run by the WRAC Association. As Major General Celia Harvey OBE, Deputy Commander of the Field Army, explained to me just after the ceremony: ‘Comradeship, of course, is absolutely vital within the WRAC and its predecessor organisations, but actually it also has a valuable role to play in grant-giving, in benevolence, to its members.’
‘Not everyone has a happy time in their life and some people fall on hard times, perhaps financially, and fundraising and the giving of grants to people in need is a particular element of the WRAC association, which is immensely helpful.’
‘Just making sure that all its members are well looked after for the decades of service that they’ve given,’ the Major General added.
Members certainly are well looked after. And they are kept busy, too. As Babs told me before we said goodbye, the following weekend there is a picnic planned for members of the local branch, and she fully intends to be there. •
To find out more about the WRAC, please visit their website or call +44 (0) 300 400 1992. The National Memorial Arboretum Open 10am-5pm daily Croxall Road, Alrewas, Staffordshire, DE13 7AR https://thenma.org.uk +44 (0) 1283 245100 Images: National Memorial Arboretum/Curious PR Ltd.