The Great Silence

Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

by Juliet Nicolson

The Great Silence

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The Great Silence
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Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age
Author
Juliet Nicolson

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Book Summary

A social history of the first two years in Britain following World War I includes coverage of topics ranging from surgeon Harold Gillies skin-grafting development and the passage of the women's vote to the state funeral of the Unknown Soldier and dawn of the Jazz Age. By the best-selling author of The Perfect Summer.

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Excerpt: The Great Silence

The Great Silence

The Great Silence

Britian from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age


Grove Press

Copyright © 2009 Juliet Nicolson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1944-5

Contents

Illustrations.......................................xiAcknowledgements....................................xiiiIntroduction........................................11 Wound.............................................112 Shock: 11 November 1918...........................263 Denial............................................444 Acknowledgement...................................565 Anger.............................................706 Hopelessness......................................877 Performing........................................1038 Honesty...........................................1239 Silence: 11 November 1919.........................13910 Release..........................................15011 Expectation......................................16712 Yearning.........................................18313 Dreaming.........................................19814 Surviving........................................20915 Resignation......................................22116 Hope.............................................23317 Trust............................................24918 Acceptance: 11 November 1920.....................263Dramatis Personae...................................275Bibliography........................................281Index...............................................291

Chapter One

Wound

August 1914-November 1918

Arthur Tommy Atkins had been the under-chauffeur for the Marquis de Soveral, the rather rakish but hugely popular Portuguese Ambassador to the Court of St James. The Marquis, nicknamed 'The Blue Monkey' for the six o'clock shadow permanently visible on his swarthy chin and also for his naughty though delightful way with the ladies, had been a close friend of Edward VII and had maintained this intimacy with Edward's successor, George V. The embassy Rolls-Royce was often to be seen waiting for its official occupant in the forecourt at Sandringham, and the driver and his deputy felt themselves to be hovering on the brink of a comfortable lifetime serving the great and good of the land.

Then war was declared. Tommy had since his schooldays fancied himself as something of a linguist and signed up with the London Irish Rifles to see a bit of the world. At the age of 22, he had hoped perhaps to visit Paree ('Well, that's what they call it over there,' he would explain) and to find a bit of 'Ooh la la'. He had longed for adventure, his chauffeuring duties confined to keeping the Marquis's Rolls-Royce in shining order and to prodding his boss, the elderly chauffeur, into staying awake at the wheel. Tommy's dream was to learn to drive, but he had never dared ask for a lesson, after once getting caught taking the gleaming machine out for a sneaky illicit run.

Everyone called Tommy by his middle name because the combination of the two, Tommy and Atkins, had been the army nickname for British soldiers for over 150 years. There was even a Victorian music hall song, with a chorus that went

Tommy Tommy Atkins, You're a 'good un' heart and hand: You're a credit to your calling And to all your native land; May your luck be never failing, May your love be ever true! God Bless you, Tommy Atkins, Here's your Country's love to you!

The real Tommy Atkins knew all the Edwardian music hall songs and being a natural showman would belt out 'Up a Little Gravel Path' and the old East End favourite 'Have You Paid Your Rent?' Tommy hoped that his feet would stand the trials of war. They were rather flat and to his secret shame he had developed a large bunion on each big toe. He thought the bony swellings might be hereditary and hoped that if he was lucky enough to have children one day he would not pass on the lumpy tendency. But he had not let on about the bunion problem to the other lads and had joined in lustily as they sang together 'What a Great Holiday' on the march towards the coast-bound trains.

A sudden overwhelming love for England and an accompanying duty to defend it propelled these young men into France and beyond. Maude Onions, a female signaller with the British Expeditionary Force in northern France, had befriended a young soldier who had been reluctant to join up. 'I'm willing to lend a hand in this war business,' he confided to Maude, 'but when it comes to a change of career, it's off. They want me to sign on for three years - and after that?' he had wondered aloud to her. 'Hawk penny articles, I suppose.'

Another army recruit, a gunner, explained to Maude the process involved in cleaning guns. Showing her the soft white lamb's wool that he used to clean and polish the muzzles of the machine until they were spotless, he seemed to travel in his mind to 'somewhere in England ... among the green fields' and for a moment Maude glimpsed the real hardship of being away from home for so long. She heard his 'mirthless laugh' as he blurted out, 'It's hard to connect, isn't it? My home is among the green fields in England ... rearing the sheep and lambs is part of my life's work ... it's hard to connect.'

In the countryside there was an old rural belief that a white feather in a bird's tail indicated a bird of inferior quality, and in the autumn of 1914 a custom had sprung up for angry women to thrust a white feather into the lapel of any young man of fighting age who was seen in the streets out of uniform. Despite the fairly rare unwillingness to fight, based on conscience, religious grounds or simple sheer terror, the humiliation associated with failing to join up was often overwhelming and young men, even those officially unqualified to fight for medical reasons, felt compelled to sign on. And there was disappointment in rejection. Mr Bickham, a veteran of the Boer War, was turned down on account of his poor teeth. 'They must want blokes to bite the damned Germans,' he spluttered in disgust.

For those left behind, the older men, women and children, the prospect of war was bearable only because the 'official' word promised that the conflict would be over by Christmas. In the town of Salford large queues formed outside Lipton's the grocers and the Maypole Dairy. The quick-thinking poor bought up huge quantities of sugar, which they sold off in small measures to those lacking the entrepreneurial spirit. Two thirds of Britain's sugar was imported and people feared the imposition of rationing. Panic and greed set in.

Parents tried to disguise their fear when saying goodbye to the young sons who had been accepted into the army. In 1916, the 18-year-old John Bullock kissed his mother and, after a moment's hesitation, shook his father's hand. He remembered his mother's last words, full of anxious advice 'to keep your feet dry', but in his excitement to be off, was unaware that her outward look of pride masked her apprehension: she recognised that 'a void had come into her breast that would remain until her son came home again'.

At first there had been no conscription. Kitchener's persuasive finger-pointing poster designed by Alfred Leete, marking out each individual as special, as chosen, had been enough to convince the youth of the country of their duty. They felt proud to be needed. But after the huge losses on the Western Front compulsory soldiering had been introduced in January 1916. The upper age limit for eligible men rose to 50 and was expanded to include married men, while the lower limit stayed fixed at 18, although many younger men lied in order to receive the King's Shilling. And as more individuals were needed to replace the dead, the physical standards imposed by the National Service medical boards were subtly relaxed. Photographic guidelines of newly approved body shapes were issued showing youths with emaciated bodies, alarmingly prominent shoulder bones, knock knees and an appearance of general ill health. Mr Bickham's teeth suddenly became no impediment to serving.

For a young man bored with the peacetime routine of life and the dreary prospect of following a trade that his father and grandfather had followed before him, the chance to escape was exhilarating. Many thousands of apprehensive young men who had originally been hesitant to leave the familiarity of home for the first time were lured to the front by General Sir Henry Rawlinson's imaginative concept of the Pals Battalions, and joined up with the inducement of finding comfort in comradeship. Homesickness vanished at the prospect of being surrounded by familiar faces from a school, village or workplace. The scheme, introduced in late August 1914, appealed to a sense of belonging, as well as to a local sense of pride. And there was another motive for signing up. A third of the British population, particularly those in the North and in the mining districts of Wales and Scotland, were living close to the poverty line. The enticement of the King's Shilling, substantial quantities of good cooked food, and a regular pay packet from the army were enough to outweigh the prospect of losing one's life.

And the reality of death in conflict was hazy. Death was reserved for the old. No member of that pre-war generation had known at first hand what war was like. According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, young men imagined 'it would be an affair of great marches and great battles, quickly decided'. Public schoolboys yearning for a validation of their pampered way of life took up their officer duties with self-confessed relief at finding a new and exhilarating sense of purpose. At the beginning of the war, many like Julian Grenfell, son of leading society hostess Lady Desborough, were caught up in the novelty and excitement. An ebullient and popular young man, he wrote to his mother: 'It's all the best fun one ever dreamed of ... the uncertainty of it is so good, like a picnic when you don't know where you're going to.' The society magazine, the Tatler, referred to the war specifically as 'The Great Adventure'. But seven months after Grenfell's cheery optimism, the picnic was over. Eton College sent 5,687 pupils into battle: of these 1,160 failed to return, including Grenfell; 1,467 were wounded.

Tommy Atkins had never been abroad before and his fiancée Kitty was looking forward to having him home well before Christmas so he could tell her about the goings-on over the Channel and the different habits of the French and the Germans whom he longed to meet. But the hopes of the Marquis de Soveral's under-chauffeur, like those of John Bullock, for a razzle-dazzle of an adventure, filled with exchanges with exciting foreign voices, were soon shot away. The imagined contact with foreigners was smothered at a few paces by the relentless noise of shellfire. The first few days of the five-month-long battle of the Somme sounded to the untrained ear like 'a colossal roar'. Guns woke you, guns prevented sleep. Christmas had come, and three more Christmases followed before Tommy returned home for good. He had found himself in a war that seemed at times as if it might continue indefinitely: there was no 'ooh la la' to report back to Kitty.

Sergeant Alfred Anderson of the 5th Battalion of the Black Watch did not enjoy his first Christmas in the trenches. For several months he had heard the sound of bullets and machine guns, and in rare moments German voices had drifted across from the other side. The reminder of the flesh-and-blood humanity of the enemy served to endorse a common agreement among British troops that they would try and shoot the enemy in the legs 'and no higher'. Even in hell, a class-rooted sense of common decency somehow struggled to the surface. The Daily Mail had sent Christmas puddings which, in a festive reversal of roles, were served to the soldiers by the officers. But Sergeant Anderson desperately wanted to be at home with his family on this most un-Christmas-like of days. 'It was quiet all around. In the dead silence we shouted out "Merry Christmas" - although none of us felt merry. We were so tired.'

Sergeant Anderson had received a Christmas box filled with cigarettes, sent by the King and Queen's daughter Princess Mary, but as he didn't smoke he handed the cigarettes to his friends and found to his pleasure that the Bible given to him by his mother fitted inside the box perfectly. That box containing his mother's Bible was the only thing he brought back with him from the war.

Night-time darkness on the battlefield was sometimes pushed aside by searchlights. A sudden, surprising snapshot of illumination would reveal what D. H. Lawrence, in a journey following the Bavarian army at the foot of the Alps in 1913, described as 'a greenish jewel of landscape, splendid bulk of trees, a green meadow, vivid'. Something 'beautiful beyond belief ' would be lit up, only for it to be eclipsed by the return of darkness. War became a series of acts of waiting: waiting for light, waiting for sound, waiting for the next command, waiting for the next piece of news from home, waiting for a few days' leave, waiting for the next death to be witnessed or whispered, waiting for the next bullet to smash a hole in a face or a body, waiting for it to be over, waiting to die, waiting for silence.

As the war continued the Daily Telegraph war correspondent Philip Gibbs noted a growing realisation that the situation was 'more complex than the old simplicity, a sense of revolt against sacrifice unequally shed and devoted to a purpose which was not that for which they had been called to fight'. There were 57,470 British casualties on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme, a third of whom died of their wounds.

Officers would delve surreptitiously into leather travelling cases, to find the small pot of rouge with which to brighten their cheeks and disguise from young men who looked to them for confident leadership the paleness of fear that washed across their own faces. The young soldiers had lumbered towards the front line, carrying what was known as 'The Soldier's Christmas Tree'. Bent double under the weight of cartridge pouches, water bottle, gas helmet, entrenching tool, bayonet, groundsheet, overcoat, underclothes, socks, precious letters and cherished photographs, each man tried to make headway through the incessant rain and deep, inhibiting mud. Boots slipped off in the sludge, leaving their bare feet, in the poet Wilfred Owen's phrase, 'blood-shod'.

Over the course of those twenty weeks 125,000 British soldiers were killed, most of them so young that in the words of 22-year-old Violet Keppel, who herself had lost so many friends, they had only led 'half-smoked lives'. A junior officer on the front line was unlikely to survive longer than six weeks. Friends picked up parts of bodies that were no larger than a Sunday roast, gathered them together and buried them as best they could beneath the chaotic surface of the muddy fields, before returning to the slaughter. Confidence in political and military leadership dwindled. In a 1917 London pantomime two farmers sitting under a chestnut tree were hit by a falling chestnut each time they told a lie. When one remarked that Lloyd George was predicting an imminent end to the war, the audience smiled wearily as the entire contents of the tree erupted, bombarding the stage with nuts.

Faith in the classically noble utterances of the classically beautiful Rupert Brooke was shattered. Patriotism had become smudged. Sentiments that expressed the belief that this war was essential if you loved England were shown to be lies. Disillusionment was commonplace in conversation among fighting men, and poets at the front began to reflect the shift in feeling as the war showed no sign of ending.

Fifteen years before Brooke had written of a far away but always patriotic meadow, Thomas Hardy had described in more realistic terms the loneliness of a young soldier, Drummer Hodge. 'Fresh from his Wessex home', Hodge had been killed in the Boer War, his body lying 'uncoffined' for ever under 'strange-eyed constellations'. Here was an unromantic battlefield, one that was no outpost of indestructible Englishness, but one that was instead a lonely, alien and abandoned place. The patriotic sentiments of Rupert Brooke's verses now seemed poignantly misplaced. In poems such as Siegfried Sassoon's 'Suicide in the Trenches' the truth came directly from the voices and experiences of the soldiers themselves.

(Continues...)




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