I know a lot about World War II from the scholarship I do. I’ve read a tremendous amount of history and literature about it, especially from the French and German perspectives. Before this, though, I’d never read a history of the British Home Front — the danger, deprivation, fear, courage, humor, and choices that made up the years of war in Britain. This astonishing social history by Juliet Gardiner made up that gap for me, with hundreds of sources going straight to the people: letters, interviews, newspapers, diaries, and especially the Mass Observation archives she plundered for incredible, intimate detail and meaningful statistics.
Many books about world war try to show the big picture, by necessity. You have the Pacific Theatre, or the Eastern Front; you have the Battle of the Bulge or the Allied Forces. Not so with Wartime. Here, Gardiner has written a very, very long book (and I am sure it could have been much longer), but every chapter describes the daily, disrupted, devastated lives of Britons from one angle or another. There are chapters about conscientious objectors, of British fascists, of women mobilized into industry, of prisoners of war, of criminals during wartime, of Ireland’s and Scotland’s and Wales’s role during the war, of trying to manage housing after the Blitz, of art and artists, and many more — and each chapter teems with the words and stories of the individuals who lived it. She has an absolutely unerring instinct for the right story, the right anecdote, the right taste of human interest. Not all of it is very savory, of course. There were opportunists and cowards and thieves in wartime, just as there are in peace. But Gardiner finds the human story in all of it.
One of the most satisfying things about this book for me is the way Gardiner brings up aspects of wartime experience I never would have imagined or thought of on my own. For instance, one of the very first chapters discusses the incredible human toll the blackout measures took. Imagine driving or walking around a thriving modern city, with no lights coming from any source, no headlights, no lamp lights, no building lights. There were 600 deaths attributable to blackout measures in the first year alone, before Hitler sent a single plane over!
I absolutely adored the chapters about rationing, from food to clothing to furniture and paper. Watching an industrialized country come to the realization that they would have to provide more and more of their own supplies — and then do it — was fascinating and deeply satisfying. My favorite anecdotes had to do with victory gardens, as when the King proclaimed that the flowers in front of the Victoria and Albert Memorial should be replaced with potatoes. This rolled naturally into chapters on the Land Girls and their experiences. While Gardiner doesn’t dwell heavily on the injustices women faced in the work force, she does point out that even during their maximal usefulness, women were still being paid less and dismissed as “auxiliary” helpers.
And of course, you can’t have a social history about Britain in wartime without being deeply touched. The lesser-told stories of cities around Britain and how they bore the Blitz, from Glasgow to Liverpool and Cardiff and ruined Coventry; the stories of evacuated children, some of whom bore loneliness and terror and some of whom begged to stay with the families they’d found; the stories of loyal citizens of German heritage, who were interned at the start of the war as enemy aliens; the stories of courage and humor and tenderness — all this made the book vivid and alive. Gardiner knows her sources. It was wonderfully readable (though the prose is pretty workmanlike) from start to finish, a fantastic history and a question about what remains and what influence it might have left. I absolutely could not recommend it more highly. If you’ve read other people’s rave reviews, they’re all true. Absolutely absolutely find and read this one.