Reviewed by: Adrian Bingham Author: Juliet Nicolson Publisher: John Murray Price (RRP): £20
In recent years there has been a huge amount of scholarly work on the remembrance and the commemoration of war. Historians have investigated the rituals of mourning, examined the influence of veterans’ organisations and analysed the construction of narratives about the horrors and heroism of the battlefield. Most of these studies have sought to illuminate broad processes of political, social and cultural change; the grief and suffering of particular individuals is rarely at the forefront. Juliet Nicolson’s vivid new book redresses this balance by focusing on the emotional realities of “living in the shadow of the Great War”.
Featuring a diverse cast of characters from many different walks of life, this chronological account takes the reader from the Armistice of November 1918 to the ceremonial burial of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey two years later. It took at least this time, Nicolson suggests, for many people even to begin to come to terms with the cataclysmic events of the war years, and she describes in almost unsettling detail the physical and mental traumas that faced the survivors and mourners.
The strength of the book lies in the sensitivity and skill with which the private lives and relationships of the protagonists are recounted. Patient research in the archives, together with the extensive use of diaries, letters, and oral testimony, enables the author to reconstruct the rhythms of everyday existence and to capture the responses of individuals trying to make the difficult transition from war to peace. Nicolson writes fluently and paces her narrative expertly; her historical empathy and command of minutiae allows her to evoke the postwar turmoil as successfully as she captured the prewar world in her well-received popular history of 1911, The Perfect Summer.
We are transported to Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup where the pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies attempted to reconstruct the damaged faces of wounded soldiers; to the homes of those, rich and poor alike, suffering from the influenza epidemic that further devastated the already frail nation; to the dance halls and theatres where the music of Nick La Rocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band offered a temporary escape from the atmosphere of sadness and pain. We learn how Lady Diana Cooper tried to cope with her grief by recourse to morphine, how TE Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) crept unannounced into showings of Lowell Thomas’s With Allenby in Palestine, the film that made him a national hero, and how Lady Ottoline Morrell sought solace in the arms of a young stonemason she employed.
Although wealthy and successful figures inevitably predominate, Nicolson provides plenty of insights into the lives of more ordinary individuals, such as the under-chauffeur Tommy Atkins. This is a social history that moves deftly between classes and around the country. Ultimately, though, it is sometimes difficult to know what to take from this accumulation of anecdotes. For all her descriptive abilities, Nicolson is rarely able to offer penetrating social or cultural analysis, and she makes few connections to the historical literature on related themes. The stories are left to speak for themselves, and, beyond emphasising the terrible legacy of the war on British society after 1918, the book does not make a distinctive contribution to the main historical debates about the period.
The narrative ends with a suggestion that the second anniversary of the Armistice, marked by the burial of the Unknown Soldier, was the moment when the postwar healing process finally started in earnest, but Nicolson does not provide enough evidence to demonstrate that this was indeed a notable turning-point. The lack of any endnotes is a frustration, especially when there are so many interesting incidents that the reader might want to follow up.
This is a book for people interested in personal stories and keen to immerse themselves in period detail; it reads like a novel and offers many of the pleasures of a good biography. Those seeking a searching analysis of postwar social and cultural trends, however, are advised to look elsewhere.
Dr Adrian Bingham is a lecturer in modern British history at the University of Sheffield