The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson

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The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A study of the two years which followed the end of the Great War, in which soldiers returned to what the Prime Minister promised would be 'a land fit for heroes', in which the old social order was changing fast, and in which the Edwardian Age was to be swept away by the 'Roaring Twenties'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2009
Publisher: John Murray
ISBN: 978-0719562563

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As the author says in her introduction, the 'great silence' of the title was that which followed the 'incessant thunder' of the Great War. There are three crucial dates in her narrative, all specific days in three successive Novembers. The first was when the guns fell silent in 1918, the second was that of the first two-minute silence in memory of the fallen one year later, and the third was when the Unknown Soldier was lowered into silence beneath the floor in Westminster Abbey, another year on. These act as a framework around which she tells the story of the silence of grief which affected everyone in various ways during the first two years of peace.

Those soldiers who were lucky enough to return to England after the Armistice, and to do so mentally and physically unscathed, found a land and people which was altered almost beyond recognition. An entire generation of their contemporaries had been killed. Although the Prime Minister Lloyd George had promised them it would be 'a land fit for heroes', assuring them that they had just fought the war to end all wars, few people really had faith in the future in a land where nearly every family had lost at least one member. As if that was not enough, a weary nation was also faced with a virulent epidemic of influenza which carried off old and young alike, among them Susannah Jones, eighteen-year-old wife of an officer in the Royal Navy – after they had been married for just one day.

The disfigured might have had good reason to envy those who had been laid to rest in the huge cemeteries abroad, or what Rudyard Kipling calls a 'Dead Sea of arrested lives'. There was financial compensation for the maimed, the most generous being sixteen shillings (80 pence after 1971) for the loss of a full right arm, a shilling less for the left arm, with a sliding scale for limbs missing below the elbow. No allowances were made for any damage to the face, only a visit to the new hospital at Sidcup specializing in plastic surgery. Nicolson paints a stark portrait of the men who survived 'hell with the lid off' in the trenches (her description of the foraging activities of rats as large as otters almost made even me blench), to come back to a life of disfigurement, or alternatively the shell-shocked who had become 'doddering palsied wrecks', often incapable of sleeping or, in the case of those whose vocal cords had been destroyed, even talking.

The more fortunate recovered, albeit slowly, to come to terms with a world which was less deferential and to some appeared to be losing its moral compass. During the war women had relished taking on many of the jobs left vacant by men who had joined the army, and after the passage of the Sex Disqualification Act in 1919 were loath to give up their hard-won emancipation from being simply housewives and mothers. Many of the young generation loved jazz music, described by conservative sections of the press in terms that would almost certainly result in prosecution on charges of incitement to racial hatred today, while increasing recreational drug use and venereal disease were indicative of increasing promiscuity. (One cannot blame hippies and the swinging sixties for everything).

Even older children and teenagers at home revelled in the new material goods now suddenly available to them. At least one angry father, discovering his daughter's bag of 'forbidden cosmetics', accused her of polluting the house and threatened to throw her out if she did not dispose of 'this muck'. She stood her ground – and won.

Through the eyes of the rich and famous, the not so privileged, and through interviews with elderly survivors who were children in 1919 and could vividly recall the era, Nicolson (granddaughter of the diplomat and politician Sir Harold Nicolson and Victoria Sackville-West) has built up an evocative portrayal of what life was like for the well-off and the less so during those two years. Occasionally her sense of proportion, particularly an interesting but very detailed and perhaps tangentially relevant account of the demolition of Paxton's severely weakened glass conservatory at Chatsworth, may be open to question. Even so, this is an enthralling and scrupulously-researched read.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp, or the anthology For King and Country: Voices from the First World War by Brian MacArthur.

Buy The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson at Amazon.com.

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