Saturday, January 31, 2015

Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War by Alan Allport


The other day, I was working at the circulation desk at the library, and a patron returned a book that I really want to read, River of Doubt by Candice Millard.  When I asked how he liked it, he seemed a little dismissive.  "Well, I have a Ph.D in history," he said, basically implying that the book wasn't particularly academic in nature.  Now, I have been reading more and more nonfiction the past few years, and I even started a book group at my branch that reads only nonfiction.  I'm finding nonfiction to be better written and more accessible than ever before.  It never occurred to me that this could be considered a bad thing.  

However, my most recent nonfiction book was all of the above -- well-written, accessible, AND academic.  Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War by Alan Allport is a fascinating read about the lives of British soldiers (and to a lesser extent, civilians) during the period immediately after WWII, when millions of men returned home during peacetime after the war.  

I must admit I knew next to nothing about this when I started -- everything I know about postwar Britain is from TV series like Call the Midwife.  I did realize that food and gas rationing went on for years, but I am sure to myself, and many others, my first thoughts are about the soldiers returning home to ticker tape parades, kissing nurses in the streets, like the iconic Life magazine photo.

The book isn't terribly long, about 225 pages of narrative of text, but it's packed with information.  Here are a few facts that I learned:
  • Logistically, returning soldiers home was complicated. It took months, even stretching to years for some of the British military. It takes a long time to get that many people from one place to another.  (If you've ever been on a cruise, you know how long it takes people to get OFF the ship. Try multiplying that exponentially.) 
  • Because of the bombings and destruction on the home front, many civilians felt that they'd had an equally bad time than the soldiers who were fighting, or even worse. Many of them resented the returning soldiers. Soldiers were also shocked at the rationing and destruction once they'd returned.
  • And of course, the issues of the mental health of many of the returning soldiers. I know there are infinitely more resources for returning veterans now, but it's shocking how bad it was after World War II. 
This book was extremely interesting and well-organized. In the introduction, Allport explains that this book was originally an academic thesis (it's published by the Yale University Press). Compared to most of the nonfiction I've been reading the last few years, Demobbed is definitely written in a more formal style than some of the nonfiction that I find on the library shelves, but it's still very accessible. I really enjoyed this book, especially compared to the disappointment of the previous book I read from my TBR Pile Challenge 2015 list. I highly recommend it for anyone who's interested in the postwar period. 

I still own two more nonfiction works about post-war Britain on the TBR shelves: Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson and Our Hidden Lives by Simon Garfield. Bloggers, have any of you read either of these? And what other books about WWII and postwar Britain do you recommend? 

11 comments:

  1. This one sounds very interesting! I don't know of any nonfiction titles on this subject to recommend, but, have you read the novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? It's set in post-war Britain and it's a great read!

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    1. Yes, I really enjoyed it. I know it's very popular with book groups as well. I find that whole time period fascinating, especially the war at home -- I'm not so much into the military aspect of the war.

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  2. I've read this, and I found it both fascinating and informative. My favourite WWII book - both about London during the war - are Mollie Panter-Downes' 'London War Notes' - which you must read when it's reissued by Persephone next year and 'The Love-Charm of Bombs' by Lara Fiegel.

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    1. I'm really looking forward to London War Notes! I'm so glad they're reissuing it, I know copies are really pricey. I hadn't heard of the Fiegel so I'll look for it. Thanks for the recommendations!

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  3. Absolutely agree with my fellow blogger friend, Fleur Fisher, and another title sitting on my shelf is Stranger in the House by Julie Summers. I haven't read it yet but it can only be good!
    Millions Like Us is fantastic, you will love it.

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    1. I hadn't heard of Stranger in the House so I'll look for it. And I loved Nicholson's book Singled Out which I read for my TBR Pile Challenge last year, so I'm quite sure I'll love Millions Like Us. If I don't get to it this year I'll put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list for 2016.

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  4. Dear Karen: many thanks for your very kind words about my book. I'm very pleased that you enjoyed it.

    I thought I would take you up on your question about other good works concerning Britain immediately after the Second World War.

    One suggestion I would have would be Maureen Waller’s London 1945 (St. Martin’s). Maureen’s book is in some ways a good companion to mine, for while I write mainly about ex-servicemen her focus is largely on the civilians of the British capital who had to endure not only the final wave of the Blitz, but also the manifold shortages, inconveniences, and petty indignities of late-war austerity Britain. It’s a very interesting and well-written book.

    My other suggestion is only partly about the end of the war, and technically a novel (it’s a lightly fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences): David Holbrook’s Flesh Wounds (Spellmount). Originally published in the 1960s, it’s a wonderfully composed, haunting account of one sensitive young man’s education in war and his difficulties both in adjusting to military life and then, on his demob, returning from it back to the quotidian concerns of an undergraduate.

    Perhaps I can also slip in a quick plug for my new book before I go? It’s called Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945, and it’s being published by Yale this spring. It serves in a sense as a prequel to Demobbed, telling the story of how millions of civilians were inducted into the British Army during the war and how these unlikely warriors came to terms with their experiences in uniform.

    Thanks again for a generous review – best, Alan

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    1. Oo, I'll keep an eye out for the new book! It sounds very interesting!

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  5. I read a lot of nonfiction too, and Demobbed sounds interesting.

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  6. Still my favorite nonfiction book about Britain during World War II is Juliet Gardiner's Wartime. It's a doorstopper of a book, but Gardiner's an absolutely fantastic social historian, and the book kept my attention every moment. Really, really, really good.

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  7. This is one of my favorite time periods to read about. I wasn't familiar with this before, but I've added it to my list!

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