Wartime: Britain 1939-1945

wartimeI 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.

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14 Responses to Wartime: Britain 1939-1945

  1. I love this book so much. I love most of Gardiner’s books and, really, most books about Britain during the war but this is in a class entirely of its own. I couldn’t agree more when you say “She has an absolutely unerring instinct for the right story, the right anecdote, the right taste of human interest.” That is it exactly!

    • Jenny says:

      I think I read about this first over at Other Jenny’s (now Gin Jenny’s!) and she completely convinced me. It was wonderful, and made me cry several times. And I think the people over at Foyle’s War must have read it too!

  2. Deb says:

    I grew up in England in the 1960s. Both of my parents were chdren of the blitz who were evacuated from London st the start of the war. Food was still being rationed when I was born (1957). As my mother often observes, it’s hard to remember your country won the war when ten years later you still can’t get chocolate, oranges, or much butter.

    Incidentally, the Twiggy look that was all the rage in the 1960s was the result of all those post-war teenage girls who had been raised on rations of two eggs and two ounces if meat per week. No one was “naturally” that thin!

    • Jenny says:

      I thought the chapters on rationing were fascinating. The chapter on clothes rationing was new to me — the notion that you would have people who had coupons for clothes but could not afford the fabric (but of course it was against the law to sell your coupons) was such a dilemma. And utility furniture was also really interesting — such a mission on the part of the government!

  3. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I’ve got this on my ‘maybe it’s psychologically too big and I’ll have to buy an e-copy’ subsection of my TBR. Silly, as I really want to read it, and you’re doing a very persuasive job of helping me!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s dauntingly large-looking, but I found it went really fast. It’s so readable and the personal stories make it more like a novel than a history, sometimes! I think you’d love this, Vicki.

  4. Lisa says:

    I’ve done a fair amount of reading about Britain in the war, both fiction & non-fiction, but I haven’t come across this. I’m particularly fascinated with first-person accounts, so this is going straight on my list.

  5. This sounds very informative; thanks for bringing it to my attention. The only British home front book I remember reading is Our Longest Days edited by Sandra Koa Wing, which I thought was very well done.

  6. Yay Proper Jenny, I’m glad you enjoyed this so much. I thought it was excellent, although a bit huge to haul around if I ever wanted to reread it. The perfect thing would be to have it in two volumes, wouldn’t it?

    Did you cry when they got to all the stuff about Dunkirk? Because I did. Even though Juliet Gardiner’s really clear that it wasn’t mostly fishermen who saved the day, I still found it awfully moving to read about what that defeat meant to the country.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, there were lots of places I cried. Dunkirk, and Coventry, and several parts about Churchill, and evacuated children, and interned Germans and Italians, and V-E Day — lots of things. It was so moving and lots of it was sad. Terrific book.

  7. heavenali says:

    This sounds fascinating, I love things about WW2 although I’m famously bad at reading non-fiction. This could well be a book I would love to read.

    • Jenny says:

      The plentiful nature of the personal histories made it feel more like a memoir or even a novel than nonfiction, to me. Very readable. Give it a try!

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