The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

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The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Charlie Pullen
Reviewed by Charlie Pullen
Summary: A genuinely fascinating rendering of three women's experiences in the military during the Second World War. It is a book which must be called eye-opening, and will make you ask, 'How much do I really know about the War?'
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Harper Element
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0-00-750122-9

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Everyone learns about the Second World War in school, many people read about it in biographies, encyclopaedias, and historical novels, and perhaps even more watch it in television documentaries and period dramas. The War, so it seems, is everywhere, but there are aspects of the conflict that remain in the background and out of the spotlight. With The Girls Who Went to War, however, Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi bring forward those who have long remained in the background, seeking to illuminate some stories and lives which many people do not immediately associate with Britain's fight against fascism.

The Girls Who Went to War takes on the admirable task of addressing a section of world history that is so often overlooked; it centres on the many varied contributions women made to Britain's armed forces. It tells, therefore, a different tale of the War effort, placing women as key players in history rather than the nonexistent or passive bystanders beside men. We get stories that might run the risk of being overly familiar – even repetitive – to us, since the Second World War is such a popular source for historical writing, cinema, and television, but coloured through the eyes of women, Barrett and Calvi's book really is remarkably fresh in its telling of the conflict.

As the result of extensive interviewing, Barrett and Calvi offer up the stories of three women, Jessie, Margery, and Kathleen, who stood alongside over half a million other women joining up across the country. These are classic tales of youthful civilians thrust into strange – and often deadly – situations, where we learn so much about their characters by how they manage (or fail) to adjust to military life and all the danger, austerity, and toughness that comes with it. These women are real, but central to this book is the theme of a character facing a struggle and, subsequently, altering and growing, something which lends the book the well defined narrative we would expect from good fiction.

The book takes on some of the jolly, stiff-upper-lip Englishness associated with the troops of that time, with one woman remarking while shooting bombers out of the sky: 'This is bloody dangerous, you know'. Cracking lines like this, which are scattered throughout, mingle some humour and sweetness into a book that is, naturally, replete with misery, hardship, and pain. Unexpectedly, perhaps, very little of the painful sequences in the book concern the physical wounds of the body, but – maybe it's not so surprising – are more to do with the travails of love and personal relationships. Barrett and Calvi do well to show Jessie, Margery, and Kathleen's lives from various angles, that is, by paying attention to their crushes, their families, and their lives outside of the War. It is, for me, the time spent revealing different shades of these figures through their careers and interests before and after the War that makes them really complex and fascinating.

The Girls Who Went to War remains, however, a history book, and it is effective as such. Pieces of factual information relating to the War at large and around the world are skilfully implanted into the stories of these women, and it's certainly worth reading simply to discover the bare details of the factions that made up the women's forces: the ATS, the WRNS, the WAAF. There are, it's true, various acronyms, which take some effort to keep in mind as you're reading, but it is genuinely and enjoyably informative.

For all its freshness, though, the book in some senses remains too gentle and coy. It could, I think, be grittier, and revel a little more in the darker aspects of the War: only once is the Army's panic around lesbianism mentioned, descriptions of injuries that come anywhere near harrowing come few and far between, and, for the most part, the widespread sexism which the women's forces face is shown to be little more than rudeness and teasing perpetrated by cheeky soldiers.

The Girls Who Went to War does deserve to be read. It is an exemplary case of what I hope will be a growing body of studies attending to those experiences of the War which have been made marginal.

Readers may be drawn to another history of the Second World War, Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing, but for more women in another conflict try Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One by Kate Adie.

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Buy The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Girls Who Went to War by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi at


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