Elizabeth Lowry reviews Juliet Nicolson’s new book on the aftermath of WWI, “The Great Silence”

Posted by Kendall Harmon

"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.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryDeath / Burial / Funerals* Culture-WatchBooksHistory* Economics, PoliticsDefense, National Security, Military* International News & CommentaryEngland / UK

Posted August 30, 2010 at 7:31 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. IchabodKunkleberry wrote:

It’s amazing that Britain didn’t go through a politico-social explosion as happened in Czarist Russia. The aristocracy seems to have been
so far removed and insulated from the sufferings and worries of the
British public that is difficult to understand why they didn’t go the
way of the Romanovs, Habsburgs, and Hohenzollerns.
  Just recently, while helping my wife (a Brit) sort through some old
books, I came across a particularly loathsome example of this abiding
blindness of heart. A female relative of the monarchy, immediately
after World War I, pushed through her project to have built an
exquisitely expensive dollhouse, which is something she had been
hoping to do for years. How this could be done publicly in a
country so badly mauled by WWI is beyond my comprehension.
I found it monstrously repulsive.

August 30, 11:20 pm | [comment link]
2. Ad Orientem wrote:

I believe a compelling argument could be made that the First World War was the single greatest catastrophe since the Black Death of the mid 14th century.  No other event, not even the dreadful Thirty Years War or the horror of the French Revolution and the rivers of blood that flowed from them, has so shaken the foundations of the world.  I am convinced that World War I was the catalyst that set Western Civilization on its course of slow and painful decline which has continued unabated since then.

August 30, 11:51 pm | [comment link]
3. William S wrote:


The fact that Britain after the 1st World War didn’t have a revolution - and didn’t come near one either - ought to show that your view of conditions here at that time is very skewed.

The Queen’s Doll’s House you refer to wasn’t just a piece of Marie Antionette-style frivolity. It was a gift from the people of Briatin to Queen Mary. It showcased what British craftsmanship could do, and people in general were proud of it. It was, and is, on public exhibition. Crowds came to admire it when it went around the country in the 1920’s and their entrance fees raised money for the Queen’s charities. My mother told me about going to see it when she was a girl, and I remember seeing it on display at Windsor castle, where it now is. Not bad for something monstrously repulsive!

August 31, 4:56 am | [comment link]
4. Br. Michael wrote:

We are approaching the 100 year mark.  2014 will be here before we know it.  I intend to follow the progress of the Great War day by day.  But Ad Orientem is right.  Although largely forgotten today that war killed an entire generation and completely remade the world.  We are still living with the reverberations of that war.  And WWII may be thought of as an extension of WWI.

When I was in northern Scotland in 1993 we saw that every small village had its WWI memorial, usually the names of the young men from that town who were killed and usually with a new small wreath of poppies.  In the Battle of the Somme the British lost 20,000 killed in the first day, most in the first 30 minutes.  The total killed for the entire Battle (1 July-18 Nov. 1916) was 300,000 plus and total casualties for all sides range as high as 1,052,757+.

See http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/battles.htm#Battles

August 31, 7:38 am | [comment link]
5. NoVA Scout wrote:

I would defer to those who live or have lived in England, ot who have had more time to study the issue than I have (those two groups define a set numbering in the millions), but, in response to No. 1’s observation about the ruling classes in England, I have always had the impression that Flanders Fields sucked up a large number of the upper strata as well as the striving classes.  I have long had the view that England’s class structure, however rigid and crippling it might be in some contexts, did not create a protected class that viewed itself as having no obligation to put itself in physical danger in times of war.  This may be complete nonsense, so I invite correction.  Re the great silence, I spent a good portion of formative years in France, not England.  But I distinctly remember signs in public transit and other areas reserving seating for the “war-wounded.”  This was as late as the 1960s and 1970s.  The “war-wounded” (“mutiles a la guerre”) might have referred to a limited extent to WWII (what a prominent English historian preferred to call the “Second German War”), but the primary class being protected were the French veterans of the First War.

August 31, 9:48 am | [comment link]
6. Bill Matz wrote:

The related tragedy is that the ill-considered Treaty of Versailles provided the fertile soil that allowed the NSDAP to flourish and rise to power in Germany. That ultimately imposed even greater costs on Britain.

Similarly, another related cost of WWI is the chaos experienced in the Middle East for 70+ years. The displacement of the Ottoman Empire created a power vacuum that was never adequately addressed by the Anglo-French occupiers.

So the true, total costs of WWI are incalculable.

August 31, 11:58 am | [comment link]
7. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#5 NoVA Scout
I think yours is a perceptive remark.  WWI turned Britain on its head.  There was before the war [and perhaps in some ways still is, certainly when I was at school] an appreciation for military life which was seen in training through the boys scouts, officer training corps, and cadet schemes.  This meant that at the start of the war there was a group of keen young people already drilled and trained in firearms, although perhaps dangerously over-confident.  The belief was that a war would be over quickly and successfully.    How wrong they were.  This is all well described in Vera Brittain’s ‘A Testament of Youth’.

This first group were wiped out fairly quickly along with much of the professional army and people from all walks of life from every town and village volunteered initially, and then were conscripted.

The net effect at the end of the war was that the population of men had been cut massively, and the young generation who would have taken over farms and estates, and entered professions and trades had been wiped out completely.    It changed Britain completely.  Large estates had fallen into disrepair, were without heirs, uneconomic, and those returning from war no longer wanted to work on them.  Lloyd George imposed massive death duties which meant that the loss of several heirs could be devastating.

Perhaps the largest effect was that what had been a rich successful and powerful country, confident and expansionist, was in crisis.  You can probably trace the decline of Britain to that event and it continued really into the 1970’s.

However, the old order changed, there was a universal franchise, improvements in education and medicine, and an evening out of opportunity, and prosperity.

People look back at the pre-war Edwardian era as a halcyon period, of improvement and invention, but it was not all good, and like the dissolution of the abbeys, and the removal of people from a state of tithed servitude, change was necessary.  But the biggest effect of WWI was the shaking out of an arrogant overconfidence and complacency.  Right or wrong, it has shaped who we are and what we have become.

Hubris and nemesis.

August 31, 12:11 pm | [comment link]
8. evan miller wrote:

You are dead wrong in your characterization of the British aristocracy during WWI (and WWII for that matter).  They suffered a greater proportion of casualties than the general population.  The same was true for the German nobility.

August 31, 2:45 pm | [comment link]
9. TridentineVirginian wrote:

#2 - I quite agree. I believe that WW I tore the heart out of Western Civilization, and we have been experiencing a lingering death since then. Material prosperity being simply spending down the inheritance of centuries.

August 31, 5:18 pm | [comment link]
10. Br. Michael wrote:

7,  In fact the American Civil War was in many ways a dress rehearsal for WWI.  The Civil War (150 anniversary starts this November) had comparable casualties.  And at the start everyone expected a quick war too.  I hope the anniversary brings about a renewed interest in the War to End All Wars.  And as you and Bill point out we are still dealing with the fall out of that war.

August 31, 5:23 pm | [comment link]
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