The Great Silence 1918-1920, By Juliet Nicolson

Picking up the pieces of a broken society
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The Independent Culture

On the last day of 1918 most of the population of the island of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides gathered at the little port of Stornoway, waiting to greet 500 returning soldiers and sailors. "Over six thousand men from Lewis had volunteered to serve in the war, a fifth of the island,'s total population. More than a thousand had been killed."

Juliet Nicolson, in her book about "living in the shadow of the Great War", goes on the describe how the Iolaire overshot the entrance to the harbour, and sank: 200 of the returning men were drowned. The sinking of the Iolaire was only the most sudden of many cruel fates awaiting the returning heroes. Those who had lost limbs or been blinded by gas faced being a burden to their families, whom they could barely keep on their meagre pensions; those who received injuries above the neck (other than losing an eye) received no pension, but were often equally unemployable, as people generally preferred not to look at a man who had had half his face shot away.

The able-bodied often fared no better, returning to a nation where both jobs and housing were scarce. The war left a deadlier legacy. The epidemic of Spanish flu which killed 200,000 in Britain alone in 1918 was a direct consequence of demobilisation, as soldiers dispersed all over the world, carrying the virus picked up in the fatal incubating grounds of the trenches.

The most vulnerable were the men themselves, exhausted by war, and for whom infection often proved terminal. Always at the front of a man's mind was the knowledge that his family could starve without his wage. James Shaw, recognising the flu symptoms in himself, took his two-and-a-half year old daughter's life and then his own rather than leave her without a provider. Not many non-fiction books can make one weep: this one can. However, Nicolson's story of the immediate postwar years is also one of regeneration, of a society largely determined not to return to the status quo.

Not only had the intimacy of the trenches broken down many class barriers, but men who had fought for their country were not prepared to return to a society which had seemed largely heedless of their suffering in peacetime. The comradeship that had developed under fire had made them a force to be reckoned. For example, 10,000 soldiers held at Folkestone expecting to be demobbed were instead ordered to embark on ships to take them to swell the numbers of British troops supporting the White Army in Russia. They not only refused, but marched to the town hall and demanded the immediate issue of release papers.

This new-found solidarity brought long overdue change to industry. It is difficult for us to imagine a world in which the deaths of 1300 miners and injury of a further 160,000 in one year would be unremarkable, as it was in 1918. Nicolson charts diverse indexes of social change, such as the sharp fall in church attendance, the rise of Spiritualism, jazz, women's rights, recreational drug use and sexual promiscuity, taking in en route the idolisation of Lawrence of Arabia, and concern over women smoking in public and wearing make-up. Social change is as much about perception as statistics, and Nicolson mobilises both empirical evidence and personal testimony to enlarge on her themes to profound effect.

The two minutes' silence on the anniversary of Armistice Day is only one of many silences Nicolson's book addresses and investigates, and is as ambiguous as any. Right up until a few days before the first anniversary, in 1919, no plans had been announced to mark the day. Any formulation of words seemed unequal to the task. The suggestion of an ordinary soldier found its way to the top, and the national silence proved the most eloquent single expression of a million sorrows.

Sarah Burton's biography of Mary and Charles Lamb, 'A Double Life', is published by Penguin

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