Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson

"In 1919 there were ghosts in every town and village of the country - the ghosts of those who had fought for their country and who had been denied the burial and homecoming that their relations knew was their due. The Silence had aroused old feelings just as receding memories had begun to settle. Some wished for a more permanent silence. Others chose to carry on dancing." The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson, p 149

Throughout the long years of World War I, many in Great Britain held out the hope that if the war would just end, their lives could once again be as they had been. As Juliet Nicolson recounts in The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age, this wishful thinking was in vain. Too many men had died and the social fabric of the country had been torn. Former butlers, stablemen, and gardeners were no longer willing to spend their lives in service to landed families. Maids, cooks, and nannies had enjoyed better pay in munitions factories, hospitals, and dance halls. Wartime shortages continued. Many laborers were out of work. Too much had changed for Great Britain to turn back the clock.

The Silence mentioned above was a planned national two minutes of quiet to be observed on the first anniversary of the end of the war. It was to be simple and dignified. Prime Minister Lloyd George had hoped it would signal the end of the period of mourning. His hopes that people would turn their attention to the future, however, were dashed. Not enough had been done to help the country heal.

Uncertainty and lack of closure were serious problems for many. Early in the war the British military had decided for logistical and sanitary reasons that bodies of the dead would not be returned to their families. Instead, many would go into the fields near the battle trenches in France. Reporting was slow. Many bodies were unidentified. Having seen no bodies of husbands, brothers, and sons, many family members refused to believe them dead.

Some battle survivors wished that they had died. Many soldiers suffered severe facial injuries that required they wear masks or go through years of cosmetic reconstruction. Others lost arms and legs. Some felt guilt for surviving. Use of alcohol, morphine, and opium rose, as did suicide. Amid the hardships, some people, including the author's grandparents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, still enjoyed the privileges of having big houses and gardens at which they entertained members of their class. According to the author, many of their parties were very elaborate and went well into the night, as celebrants tried desperately to be happy again.

Nicolson knows her topic, having heard stories from her family and interviewed many of the subjects or their children. While she profiles many celebrities, writers, soldiers, and politicians of the time, I particularly liked reading how several more common women coped with their losses. The author packs a lot of issues into this fairly quick reading book about the consequences of war. Recommended to readers who enjoy books about short historical periods.

Nicolson, Juliet. The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age. Grove Press, 2009. ISBN 9780802119445


Citizen Reader said...

Wanted to read this book but it came due at the library before I could get to it. Darn it! Now I have to get it back--it looks good.

ricklibrarian said...

CR, I thought it sounded like your kind of book. I hope you enjoy it when you find the time.