The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

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.

45 comments

  1. You told me all I needed to know in your first sentence. “Oh, how I should have enjoyed this.” It appears to be that you did glean enough out of this disappointing book to seek better reads about the aftermath of WWI. I almost wept for the conditions all those soldiers were left in and, like you, I want to know more about the dimobilization camps, Gillies and Ladd and their efforts to help those disfigured by the horrors of war.

    You write so eloquently, Rachel, and often move me with your words.

    Something you may find interesting has to do with war in a roundabout way. My husband is a Type I diabetic. It used to be called Juvenile diabetes. He has endured, heroically, for more that 40 years, having developed it when he was a teenager. Treatment has improved dramatically since then and he has always taken good care of himself. Still, more than 40 years of it ravaging his body has taken its toll. He recently had a foot ulcer that took 8 months to heal. Years ago, the foot would have just been amputated. It was 12 years since he last foot injury and medical procedure has changed since then. The fact that he went so long is a testament to his vigilant care. This time, we had to insert tiny threads of a silver into the wound to promote granulation and stimulate new tissue to grow. As I was doing this I said that this treatment must have come from war, probably burn injuries, thinking perhaps from the Iran crisis some 20 years ago. Sure enough, his doctor concurred, only it wasn’t Iran, it was the Vietnam War. It took this long for the military to release the patent to be used on citizens. Our soldiers, all, fight for us in ways we know and it ways we never realize.

    Thank you, Rachel.

    1. Bless you Penny! Thank you for your kind comment! I did get some great information from this book – it’s just a shame it had to be weeded out from the rest of the fluff! What a wonderful story about how war does have some uses – it’s just a shame such developments have to come from such sad beginnings. I’m sorry about your husband’s foot though – that must be awfully painful. What a brave man he is!

  2. Thank you so much for this review! As soon as I saw the cover, I thought, ‘Aha!’ and nearly went straight to amazon, as I’m so interested in and moved by this period. (I read most of your review aloud to DH, but couldn’t read him the bit about the unknown soldier as I was beginning to cry just reading it myself.) However, I’m so glad I read what you’d written, first.
    I love Virginia Nicholson’s book, Singled Out, about women after WW1. Is this a relative of hers? Trying to do the same sort of thing and failing?

    1. You’re welcome Penny! I thought I would save others from the same disappointment as myself!

      Yes I love that book as well – absolutely fascinating and not in the same league as this one at all. Virginia Nicholson, is, interestingly, the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. So Virginia and Juliet’s grandparents would have been friends, but they’re not relations…though of course, with the Bloomsbury group, you never know!😉

  3. Oh, unfortunate. This book is on my wishlist, but I think maybe one that I would enjoy more is Demobbed- have you read that one? It is post WWII, not WWI, but I think some of the same issues would probably be confronted.

    1. I know, it was such a shame. I have heard about Demobbed and am very interested to read it – I’m sure the circumstances wouldn’t be much different. One to put on my list of books I’d like to read when I get the chance!

  4. Too bad about this one. I have it on my pile as it sounded right up my alley. I may have to give it a go as a very general overview before moving on to more specific books about the period. Does she at least include a good bibliography at the end–often that can be as useful or even more so than the book itself. Have you read Singled Out–I thought it a well done NF book about women after WWI–lots of anecdotal information and stories from the women themselves who lived then. Also Jody Shields wrote a novel about soldiers with the disfigurement you write about–I believe the book was based on the artist and doctor you mention. It’s called The Crimson Portrait–uneven reviews, but I thought it very interesting to learn about the period through fiction. It’s been my plan for a while to read more American lit (I even have my own tab on my blog), which I am slowly starting to do. Maybe some of our reading will overlap in the coming year.

    1. Hi Danielle. I think it’s worth reading for the good bits – you can skim over the pointless parts – though of course some people might find the random anecdotes just as interesting as the factual bits that I liked, so it might very well end up being your cup of tea!

      Yes the bibliography appears sound so I’ll have keep the book for that alone. I adored Singled Out – so fascinating! That was an excelently writted piece of non fiction. The Crimson Portrait sounds interesting – I’ll look it up, thank you!

      I’ll be glad to have you overlap with me.🙂 American fiction is very underread in the UK so I am looking forward to hopefully discovering some new favourites.

  5. Hah, you don’t kid around when a book irritates you! I’ve just started to read more non-fiction myself (although more scientific than historical), and I find I’m starting to get better at picking out what makes a non-fiction book work. Good research, for starters, I’d guess.

    1. Ha! No I don’t! Yes, I don’t read a huge amount of non fiction, but I know what I like and what I expect and this delivered neither of those thing! Good research and a strong, linear, and coherent narrative are very important and this failed on both accounts!

  6. Try two books by Robert Graves: THE LONG WEEKEND, which is a social history of Britain between the wars, and GOODBYE TO ALL THAT, his scathing analysis of WWI.

    As for Juliet Nicolson getting her book published due to family connections, I wonder if she’s also young and pretty. I’ve noticed a recent distressing trend in which extremely young, attractive, and photogenic females (usually English) publish big, hard-cover history books; but when I read the books, they are nothing but pastiche, totally thrown-together. I won’t name any names, but in the past few months I’ve read no less than three history books that seemed to have been edited in a food processor. I’m not saying that an attractive woman be a good historian and a good writer, but I bet some of the books I’m thinking of wouldn’t have been published if the writer had a been a fifty-something grandma with grey hair and wrinkles.

    1. I hadn’t heard of those books before – thanks, Deb. I’ll look them up.

      She’s not young but she is fairly attractive and well connected so therein lies her book deal, I think! I completely know what you mean – there are a lot trendy young ‘historians’ out there publishing ‘social history’ books that are complete tosh – poorly researched and badly edited – but they sell because they are usually on interesting topics and have a pretty face on the cover!

  7. The pivotal sentence should read: I’m not saying that an attractive woman can’t be a good historian and a good writer…

    Sorry!

  8. Generally, I am all for social histories focusing on the upper classes but I had very similar feelings of frustration when I tried to read this. I’m still holding out hope for Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer though and will go in forearmed with the knowledge that she focuses more on biographies than actual history.

    1. I don’t mind social histories of the upper classes but I don’t like it when the experiences of the upper classes are used as a blanket to describe everyone’s experiences – having to cut back and sell a bit of land is not the same as losing everything you possess, and it’s lazy to make such comparisons.

      The Perfect Summer does sound interesting but I’m worried I’d just get frustrated all over again. It’s all very well saying that the years before the war were all halcyon days but of course they were if you were loaded and spent all day playing tennis. For people struggling to make ends meet, they weren’t at all. It’s a very one sided view of history! And yes – she is very much into the mini biographies of glamorous people rather than actual history – perhaps she would be better suited as a society biographer!

  9. I got tears in my eyes when I read that about the little boy and the Cenotaph too. What a pity this wasn’t better! For a minute I had it mixed up with a book I’ve heard very very good things about (Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out), and I was afraid that one was going to disappoint me! So I was a bit relieved that it was a different one.

    1. It’s so sad, isn’t it? I know, I was really disappointed, because on paper, this had everything I wanted! Singled Out is AMAZING – you’ll love it. Totally not the same book or author!

  10. Hi Rachel,
    It’s good to have your thoughts on The Great Silence, as it was on my radar due to my current interest in social history of the world wars. Perhaps is one to borrow from the library rather than own. Both Elaine from Random and my Dad found Demobbed excellent – although it relates to WW2.
    Adam Nicolson, (the grandson who lives at Sissinghurst) writes beautifully, for what it’s worth. But then with a journalism background he should!

    1. Thanks Merenia! It’s definitely one not to buy. It would be worth borrowing to sift through for interesting tidbits I think. Demobbed has had great reviews, hasn’t it? I think I’d love it. I should imagine the experience of demobilisation wouldn’t be massively different for WW2 than it was for WW1 so I think it could still shed some good insights.

      Oh really? Yes, that’s her brother. I think she can write perfectly well, but she just doesn’t know how to edit or structure her work properly! I wanted to get a red pen out constantly while reading!

  11. Don’t you just hate it when a book has all the promise of something wonderful and then fizzles!

    My heart melted with that little boy’s comment. I went through three tissues at the IWM’s exhibit of The Children’s War. Letters to Daddy were just to much to bear.

    Thanks for pulling out some fascinating tidbits, made for excellent reading while I munched on my toast!

    1. I do! I was so disappointed!

      Darlene you always make me smile! I bet that exhibition was a real heart wrencher. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Though now I am hungry and craving toast!

  12. I really jumped when I saw that comment about Sidcup! Were you brought up there? I remember in an earlier post that you spoke of a rather dreary suburb. I was born there in a nursing home but was brought up in London (Sidcup then being in Kent). The name Sidcup is almost always used to make people laugh, it seems to crop up all the time. Wasn’t it in Waiting for Godot or perhaps The Caretaker?

    I wanted to congratulate you on the tough line you have taken with a poorly written and researched book. An excellent review.

    I have been reading Nella Last’s War and Nella Last’s Peace, both fascinating on-the-spot records of life during and after WW2. Wouldn’t it have been so valuable if the Mass Observation system had existed in 1914 and onwards?

    I am a bit puzzled about the new format of your blog. Usually your own comments appear after each one from a reader and I can’t find any. Or is it that you are very busy with your preparations? If so, please ignore this. I don’t mean to badger you!

    1. Ha! What a coincidence! Yes, I was born in London but grew up in Sidcup. I only moved out of Sidcup six months ago – I lived with friends for a while after my family moved away. I often get laughs about the name – Sickup, Sippy cup, etc…we used to call it something rather more rude I have to say! I have great affection for Sidcup and will always love it despite its dreariness – every street is imprinted on my heart! It was a nice place to grow up but I don’t think I’ll be repeating the cycle.😉

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the review despite my tough stance on bad historical writing! I am desperate to read those books – the mass observation archive must be filled with fascinating stories. It is a shame they didn’t start it earlier – it would be wonderful to have more first hand accounts of life in earlier decades.

      I just hadn’t replied to anyone yet, Chrissy! I had a busy weekend. Sorry to have confused you!😉

  13. Chrissy, Sidcup is mentioned repeatedly in The Caretaker, by Harold Pinter. Davies is always planning on going down to Sidcup to get his ID papers, but he never gets there!

  14. Whew! This was a fantastic piece of writing, Rachel. You should think about writing a social history book, really! I wonder if JN would have done better to narrow her focus to what she really does know – as you noted – the upper class. It seems to be too broad a subject to give proper attention to all facets of those two years. I am interested in all the aspects you wrote about but maybe a book on just the medical would have been good, or just the trauma of dealing with facial injuries, or as I said, just the problems the upper class faced. Again, excellent, excellent post!!

    1. Oh thank you Nan! One day I might just do that! Yes, if she had stuck to upper class experiences, that would have been just fine. I think for the length of the book, she just took too broad a focus and it ended up being far more general than I would have liked. I’m glad you enjoyed the post nonetheless – I do dislike being negative!

  15. An interesting review which has probably save me some money.
    However, I do recommend Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out.
    I see some one has suggested Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. An excellent read.
    You might also try Siegfried Sassoon’s Siegfried’s Journey ( if you can get hold of it!) about the immediate aftermath of the First War. (Sassoon and Graves were friends at that point!)
    SS grew up in Kent too.
    As a child I used to visit relatives in Faversham and wander round the garden with Boots the gardener who wore his WW1 putees and told me all about the trenches. “Rats the size of cats” etc etc. and the MUD…..
    I also knew people whose lungs had been permanently scarred by mustard gas.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth! I loved Singled Out – fantastic book! I have wishlisted both the books you mention – definitely an area I want to learn more about at some point.

      Goodness me! How wonderful that you could hear first hand accounts…though distressing that so many were so scarred by their experiences. Thank you for another fascinating and informative comment Elizabeth!

  16. Your first line sums up a particular feeling about books so well! I have to say I enjoyed this book very much — although maybe that’s because getting a smattering of facts and anecdotes was a good introduction (for me) to some history that I don’t yet know very well.

    On the other hand, I’ve just put Singled Out on library reserve, so I’ve benefitted!

    1. I’m glad this was a good read for you, Audrey! I think part of my problem was I went in with a certain set of expectations of what I wanted from it, and it didn’t deliver. However as an introductory text I can see how it would be of real interest to readers.

      That’s fantastic! Singled Out is excellent, and really so fascinating. You’re in for a good read!

  17. I too was looking forward to reading this, especially since I really enjoyed Singled Out and We Danced All Night by Martin Pugh (which was more about the roaring twenties). I think I’ll still try it anyway. But I’m also looking forward to reading The Thirties: An Intimate History by Juliet Gardner. I recently saw it in the library and was shocked at its size. Have you read it?

    1. It’s worth reading this for the interesting info you will pick up, like the facial injuries surgery and the stuff about mourning. If you like random anecdotes about rich people, you’ll also enjoy it, and more so than me, no doubt!

      I have a copy of The Thirties but I haven’t even opened it yet – it’s a daunting size! I might try and tackle it before I move to NY but time is running out! I’ve heard it’s excellent so do borrow it!

  18. I enjoyed the book very much, possibly because my beloved grandfather’s life was blighted by his experience in the trenches of WW1. But he thought it was so important that war never happen again that he shared his stories with all the children and grandchildren. We are the people we are today largely because of those horrible events.

    However I am grateful to you for saying why you didn’t find the book as comprehensive as it might have been. Thanks for the links
    Hels
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2010/08/great-silence-1918-20.html

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this more than I did, Hels! There are some very interesting parts to it and I can see why, knowing someone who lived through the war, that you found it of especial interest and poignancy. Great review, by the way!

      I think I was just disappointed at the excessive use of aristocrats’ experiences being used as evidence for how everyone felt and what everyone had experienced – to me, that is lazy history!

  19. I enjoyed this book very much but I can see why you wouldn’t have liked it as much as you would have liked.

    I found a bunch of titles in the bibilography that I want to read that I think would answer your questions. For example, there’s a book listed in the bibliography that examines the lives of women who never married – or remarried – in the years following the war and the loss of all those men. However, I am very interested in WWI and so I lots of energy for this subject.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Judy! It just goes to show that we can all find different qualities in a book, doesn’t it?

      Yes the bibliography is certainly very comprehensive – I’ve read that book – Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson – it’s excellent and I can highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet!

      I think my problem is that I am very interested in the period but my knowledge is more WWII based and so I was wanting something a bit more detailed and comprehensive to help my fledgling knowledge!

      1. You might want to try “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell. He’s an English professor and the book is a cultural and literary analysis of the war. War as an engine for cultural change is what interests me the most, not the actual military part of it! Anyway, Fussell’s book is what mad the Great War real and interesting to me. America came into the war so late, it is not really taught in school or part of our national memory the way I believe it is in Britain.
        But it sounds as though you have a lot of books ahead of you but you might want to make time for Fussell’s some day!

  20. Hi Rachel,
    What a wonderful blog. I came across this post because I was looking for contact details for Juliet Nicolson – for the very reason that her book is such a grab-bag of interesting stories (which can be very frustrating to a ‘fellow historian’) and I want to contact her to ask her where she found some of her anecdotes. I’m six months out from submitting my PhD on WWI facial wounds and disfigured veterans, so I was directed to her book by a colleague who said Nicolson wrote about Gillies and Sidcup. Well, I can’t say she really does the work of the Queen Mary’s, Sidcup, justice – that would need an entire book (hopefully reworked from my thesis , one day *sigh/dream*) – and what she does write is very narrow in scope, but where I will give her credit is that she was at least willing to mention facial wounds and what life was like for disfigured veterans. There is such a stigma about disfigurement that many social histories of war tend to overlook them and focus more on amputees and shellshock sufferers – men who, for the most part, still look whole or whose disability can be concealed by an artificial limb and longs trousers/sleeves. If you are after more titles to read in the vein of social history of war or post-war life, I have plenty I could recommend – just drop me a line. I would second Judy’s comment to read Fussell. If you are after an evocative novel on disfigured veterans, try “The Crimson Portrait” by Jody Sheilds or “The Officers Ward” by Marc Dugain.
    Cheers, Kerry

    1. Hi Kerry – what a fascinating PhD subject! I’d love more information – I must remember to email you. You should definitely write a book – I’ll be buying! The section on facial disfigurement interested me the most out of the whole book and not just because I grew up down the road from the hospital! I hope you manage to get in touch with Juliet Nicolson and that she can provide more information. I am still disappointed that she didn’t do more with this often sketchy book however!

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