Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Alan Allport
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £20
It is one of the most endured images of our wartime history: the demobbed ‘Tommy’ returning home to his joyous wife and family, kit bag on his back, wreathed in smiles, reverting to his peacetime role as a husband and father and reintegrating effortlessly into a grateful society. It is a charming image, but – as Alan Allport’s masterful study of the subject demonstrates – it is one which often conceals a darker truth.
At the end of the Second World War over five million Britons were serving in the armed forces. Most were conscripts, many of whom had been away from home for many years and had experienced both the camaraderie of life in uniform and the searing intensity of combat. Though the majority yearned to return home, many of them had little idea of how much the war had changed them, or indeed, how much ‘home’ itself had also changed.
As Allport demonstrates, many British soldiers returned to a world that was at best disappointing, and at worst confusing and disorientating. Far from the homely image of the Tommy returning to the bosom of his family, the reality was that family breakdown was rife in the years after 1945, with divorces reaching ten times their previous level, spurred by wartime affairs and the ‘irreconcilable differences’ caused by six years apart.
Society at large could also be distinctly unwelcoming. In ‘civvy street’ many soldiers found themselves almost treated with contempt by ungrateful civilians, who juxtaposed their own wartime suffering with an imagined life of ease and luxury for the serving soldier. For some, it seems, the famed ‘demob suit’ almost became a badge of shame. In addition to such resentments, there was an upsurge in crime, often committed by volatile and brutalised ex-soldiers, who had become accustomed to solving problems with violence. If one adds in to the cocktail the very real psychological damage that many soldiers had sustained from six years of warfare,
it is easy to see how postwar society appeared – to some contemporary commentators – to be disintegrating before their very eyes. Demobbed is a detailed and sympathetic examination of this difficult story. Making imaginative use of contemporary court and press accounts as well as the holdings of the Imperial War Museum Archive, it outlines the tribulations of a damaged generation, intertwining personal testimony with the author’s thoughtful and cogent analysis. Though the research behind the book has clearly been prodigious – it is the product of a doctoral dissertation – it nonetheless manages to wear its erudition lightly and has a pleasing, easy style.
Its subject matter is darkly troubling, however, not least because a new generation of young men and women will soon be returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to face similar problems. The term ‘demob-happy’ will never sound quite the same again.
Roger Moorhouse is a historian and writer. He is the author of Killing Hitler (published by Vintage)