How the British tried to start again after the carnage of World War I.
‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”—we are all familiar with Laurence Binyon’s lament for the fallen of World War I. “The Great Silence” is the less-known story of the aftermath of that war: of those who were left and who did grow old. It complements Juliet Nicolson’s earlier account, in “The Perfect Summer,” of the golden period prefacing the outbreak of hostilities, an interlude of prosperity that only served to throw the horror of the conflict and the social disintegration that followed into sharper relief.
Of the five million British servicemen who went out to fight in the European trenches, 1.5 million came back with permanent injuries and disfigurements; others were traumatized in less immediately obvious ways. Taking stock, the Illustrated London News wrote at the time that the war had “destroyed millions of men, broken millions of lives, ruined great cities and hamlets”; it had left “a belt of earth ravaged, crowded the world with maimed men, blind, mad, sick men, flinging empires into anarchy.” Those who did return, anticipating the “land fit for heroes” promised by the British Prime Minister Lloyd George, found that neither glory nor reward were forthcoming. The economy had collapsed, jobs were scarce and housing was in short supply. Once the euphoria following the Armistice had run its course, the silence that descended when the guns finally stopped was largely one of stunned bewilderment.
Ms. Nicolson focuses on how the British tried, in the two years after the war ended, to reorient themselves and to start again. Her approach is anecdotal and eclectic, drawing freely on contemporary diaries, letters and memoirs to create an impressionistic picture of the lull preceding the Roaring ’20s. The civil work force was ill-equipped to accommodate the more than 40,000 men who had lost one or more limbs during the war. There was little understanding of the phenomenon of shell shock, which was treated with a punitive regime of electrical “therapy,” codeine tablets, rectal injections and chastisement.
As disconcerting to the public were the otherwise able-bodied survivors who had sustained severe facial damage. A hospital department (nicknamed the Tin Noses Shop) was set up in Wandsworth to manufacture galvanized copper masks for those “who no longer had noses, eyes, jawbones, cheekbones, chins, ears or much of a face at all.” But the masks were both uncomfortable and eerily immobile.
The medical establishment was swiftly challenged, through this mass confrontation with illness and debility, to develop modern methods. The New Zealand-born surgeon Harold Gillies established the first specialized plastic-surgery unit at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, where he carried out more than 11,000 maxillofacial reconstructions after 1917. Ground- breaking psychoanalytic work was done with mentally afflicted veterans under the auspices of Dr. William Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh (the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were both patients).
Society was also forced to readjust its attitudes to other groups: Women were unwilling to surrender the freedoms they had gained while employed in the war effort, and the working classes were equally reluctant to resume their old position of voiceless subservience after fighting side by side with their “betters” for four years. In recognition of this, millions were enfranchised for the first time in 1918.
All of this is ably if sketchily rendered in “The Great Silence.” The problem with Ms. Nicolson’s magpie overview of the period is that it is too often sidetracked by specious glitter. The author is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and the diplomat Harold Nicolson, and while this lineage gives her behind-the-scenes insights into the political machinations of the period—her grandfather had a ringside seat when the Treaty of Versailles was brokered in 1919—her interest is largely in her own set. In a book that doesn’t go into any real detail about the pacifist or suffragette movements, we are told far too much about Lady Diana Cooper’s parties, the laborious demolition of the Duke of Devonshire’s conservatory, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s love life and the fortunes of the Savoy hotel.
Yet these anecdotes have an authenticity that can be awkwardly lacking in Ms. Nicolson’s attempts at entering the lives of “downstairs” folk. The years 1918-20 were ones of enormous social unrest at home and abroad. The reverberations from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia were continuing, and 1920 saw the founding of the Communist Party in Britain, where the electorate had trebled from a privileged 7.7 million to a restless 21.4 million desperate for tangible change.
But you would never guess it from Ms. Nicolson’s account. In 1919 the Savoy, we discover, was serving “bear from Finland, snails from France, caviar from Russia and Scottish plovers’ eggs.” Fortunately, Ms. Nicolson contends, “for those who lived lives remote from the extravagant surroundings of the Savoy hotel, the simple gathering of relations reunited round a table set for tea, with jam tarts and a huge currant cake in the centre, was enough.” Let them eat cake, indeed.
Ms. Nicolson is at her most effective when describing the nation’s search for a fitting public expression of its abiding sense of grief. Something was needed that would be accessible to everyone and that would transcend the British curse of class. In the end, the eloquence of the solution lay in its simplicity. The two-minute Great Silence, or act of remembrance, was first suggested by an Australian journalist and eventually secured the endorsement of the king. At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1919, Britain stopped, as it has every year since on that date, to remember its war dead.
Ms. Nicolson notes that there were some in the crowd gathered around the Cenotaph in Whitehall that day for whom silence no longer held any particular meaning. These were the men whom the roar of the trenches had robbed of the ability to hear any sound at all. For them, as Ms. Nicolson observes with poignant understatement, silence would be a permanent state.
Ms. Lowry is the author of “The Bellini Madonna: A Novel.”
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