Oh, how I should have enjoyed this. Social history is one of my greatest interests and I find it endlessly fascinating to learn how life was in previous centuries from the point of view of ordinary people. I was so pleased to find The Great Silence in a local charity shop because my reading of Testament of Youth had made me aware of how little I knew about the early 20th century and the aftermath of WW1. It seemed almost serendipitous that I should find it, and so cheaply too, just as I had developed an interest in the period, and I was looking forward to understanding more about what it was like for British civilians and demobbed soldiers after the guns fell silent.
There are some absolutely fascinating snippets of information in the book. For example, I had no idea that when the Armistice was signed, the soldiers weren’t instantly sent home. Many were held for several months in demobilisation camps, as the government wanted to stagger their return to make it easier to get them all back into employment. Some were forced to stay on as Peacekeeping troops; others were made to go and join the White Army fighting against the Bolsheviks in Russia. American soldiers had to continue fighting in some areas, as news hadn’t yet reached them that the Armistice had been signed. I was also enthralled by the description of the marvellous facial surgeon Harold Gillies and his hospital built especially for soldiers who had suffered terrible facial injuries in combat. Embarassingly, this hospital, Queen Mary’s, was my local hospital for the first 21 years of my life, and I had no idea of its previous incarnation. In 1919, Sidcup, which is now a busy London suburb, was a rural village and the gateway from London to Kent. It was here that soldiers came to be kept away from the averted eyes of the public and be given new hope of a normal life. The government’s compensation scheme for lost limbs did not extend to anything above the neck; they didn’t acknowledge the paralysing emotional affects of facial disfigurement and the often devastating consequences it had for those whose appearance now produced a mixture of horror and revulsion in those who saw them. Some men had lost the ability to speak, swallow, see, or even breathe normally through the injuries they had suffered to their faces. Many men had needlessly been wounded because in the early years of the war, leather hats rather than metal helmets had been standard equipment, and offered little protection for those whose heads were the first to peer over the trenches and be ravaged by shells or machine gun fire.
Harold Gillies, incensed by the government’s treatment of these men and powerfully moved by their plight, worked tirelessly to repair these shattered faces and give the soldiers a chance of a fulfilling life. His skill was second to none, and his methods were pioneering in the field of facial reconstruction surgery. A compassionate and dedicated man, his patients adored him, and many reported that his work was so successful that other people had no idea they had suffered such terrible facial injuries. Even more fascinating was the treatment of soldiers who didn’t have access to Gillies; American in Paris sculptor Anna Ladd was also moved by the plight of those whose facial injuries prevented them from living a normal life and had even caused them to consider suicide. She made painstakingly accurate tin masks to cover these men’s faces, so exquisitely painted that even in broad daylight it was difficult to tell that the masks were not real flesh and blood. The only give away was the lack of expression on the faces, but they gave the men who wore them a new found confidence and an ability to walk around freely without being stared at. Many chose to eventually be buried in these masks, so humiliated by what was underneath that they allowed no living person to ever see their mutilated features.
Other interesting stories were about the public’s desire to express their mutual grief; the first ever national silence was held on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and the entire country came to a complete standstill to remember its dead. The imposing Cenotaph, still standing on The Mall in London, was designed by Lutyens to represent a coffin, in which every grieving Briton could come to mourn their dead. The book closes with the burial of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ in Westminster Abbey in 1920; a random unidentified British soldier was brought back from the muddy killing fields in France to be buried as a representative of all those men who had died leaving relatives with no bodies to bury and no place to mourn. The crowds that turned out to watch this young man go to his final resting place were overwhelming, and not even the stolid Queen Mary was able to suppress her grief as he was lowered into a tomb packed with mud from France. Afterwards, the Cenotaph was literally buried in flowers from the amassed crowds, all of whom had lost someone they loved in the war. I choked up a little at this quote from a little boy, who reportedly said to his mother as he looked at the flowers around the Cenotaph: ‘Oh, what a lovely garden Daddy has got.’
These were the good bits. But I wanted to know more. What were the consequences of having significant injuries? How did soldiers adjust to life back home? What was it like for women, used to running their own homes, to have their husbands back? What were the political and social effects of losing the majority of the next generation of the ruling classes? How did people’s ambitions and beliefs change as a result of four years of worldwide carnage? What was done to provide jobs and homes for widows? I didn’t get any of this. Sadly, Juliet Nicolson has written a book filled with random anecdotes, mainly from the lives of aristocrats, used to illustrate her sweeping and frequently obvious generalisations about life after the war. Much of these anecdotes are poorly researched and have nothing really profound or relevant to add. Lady So and So took morphine to lessen her depression after the war (but she’d also taken it before the war, so how is this relevant?); therefore this shows everyone was depressed after the war. Poor old Duke of Devonshire had to sell off a few houses because they’d gone to rack and ruin and his finances were in a mess; this demonstrates how badly England had suffered and how poor the economy was. There are pages of faff about Tom Mitford, who was 10 during the war; what did his experiences of getting to eat nice food at school while his sisters had to make do with rationing at home have to do with anything? There are also reams of pages describing the disintegration of the Duke of Devonshire’s estates and the affairs of society hostess Ottoline Morell; all lazily used as metaphors for the general depression of spirits and financial difficulties faced by Britons in the years after the war. I’m sorry, but a multi millionaire having to sell one of his many estates has absolutely no points of comparison with how ordinary people suffered. There was just no coherence, and no discernable point, to much of the information included. It read like Juliet Nicolson had just shoved everything that happened to a bunch of random people in 1918, 1919 and 1920 in a book and expected it to somehow form a logical and informative impression of post WW1 Britain. It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.
By the end I was just really annoyed with it. Juliet Nicolson, granddaughter of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson, is not a historian, and I’m sure she only got this published because of her family connections. This book consists of nothing but a series of disconnected and largely irrelevant vignettes of random people, mainly aristocratic friends of her grandparents whose papers I presume she had easy access to, using them to make clumsy generalised statements about how everyone suffered from a sense of grief and depression after the war. You know what, I could have guessed that most people were feeling pretty down after the war, actually. I don’t need to buy a book to tell me that. What I wanted was more factual knowledge, like the stuff about Harold Gillies and Anna Ladd, about the demobilisation programme, about the reassimilation to normal life. These interesting tidbits are too few and far between and not developed enough to redeem the rest of the irrelevant and frankly boring anecdotes of poor aristocrats having less champagne to drink. So, I’m sorry to say that I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. It’s no better than an average undergraduate history essay. It’s a shame really, and rather disappointing; a better editor and a bit more actual history would have made this a much more fascinating and rewarding read.
A bit of positive news, though – I’ve finished my Reading America reading list! It has a special page all of its own and you can access it by clicking here or on the tab at the top of the page. Thank you so much to everyone who made such wonderful suggestions. I tried to include them all, along with books I had picked up from my own research, but it came to so many books that inevitably some didn’t make it to my final shortlist. I’ve gone way over the 50 books I said I wanted as it is; there were just too many amazing books for me to narrow it down to 50! I’ve chosen books that either define America or have defined Americans; many books suggested were written by Americans but not set in America, and most of these I cut out. I want to read about Americans in America and I want to explore the landscape of the different regions. That was my decision making process, and I hope you will agree that I’ve got some fantastic reading ahead of me! You may notice that I haven’t included any slave narratives or much literature by African Americans; this is because I studied these topics at university in an American Literature course and rather than going over what I have already read, I am keen to read books that are new to me. Some on the list are rereads, but I read them so long ago I have forgotten them, and they are so important to the history of American Literature (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby), that I don’t want this year to go by without having revisited them.
It would be lovely to have some people read along with me over the year; I don’t want to make it into a formal ‘challenge’ as such, but if you want to include some of these books in your own reading, it would be fantastic to get some discussions going.