The years 1918 to 1920 were chosen by the author since this was the time between a] the last of the Great War battles in November 1918 and b] the internment of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey in November 1920. She avoided the historians’ techniques of analysing military and political narratives, and concentrated instead on the suffering of individual families.
My own grandfather was a soldier in WW1 who, although he returned to his family, had a bullet lodged in his kidney; he was in and out of hospital for the rest of his life. I know about family records, oral histories, photos, letters, diaries and financial crises!
Nicolson began with the armistice celebrations on 11th of November 1918. On one hand there was a huge national party, full of music, hugging men in uniform and eating whatever food could be placed on the trestle tables. On the other hand, the day was the start of a national agony for millions of ordinary citizens in Britain and the British Empire (and, I suppose, in the other countries who lost so many young men).
As Feminist Review noted, hostilities would fester for a lifetime for those who would never see their husbands, sons or fathers again. Even for those soldiers who returned home alive, the armistice offered little consolation to those who were marked by war forever, with their missing legs and their scared faces.
Some people tried very hard to avoid the ex-soldiers who clearly displayed the misery of war. We know, for example, some soldiers were so severely mutilated that passengers got out of their train seats and moved to other carriages. But it was everywhere - those physically damaged by the fighting could not be locked away in asylums or prisons.
Some evidence in the book was very practical. I was particularly inspired by a heroic New Zealand plastic surgeon, Dr Harold Gillies, a man who had worked in France during the war with the Red Cross. With a team of artists and sculptors back in Britain, he developed many techniques of plastic surgery on 5,000+ soldiers with facial injuries. Gillies slowly and carefully rebuilt the human wrecks he met in his Queen Mary’s hospital, and gave them new lives.
Why were facial injuries so common and so awful? Apparently the government’s compensation scheme for lost limbs did not extend to anything above the neck; they didn’t acknowledge the paralysing emotional affects of facial disfigurement. Nor did they take account of men who had lost the ability to speak, swallow, see or even breathe normally through their facial injuries.
But in the end, it was not the practical responses that made the book special. It was the fact that Nicolson captured a grief that most ordinary citizens were unable to articulate in those early post-war years. The silence in the title, therefore, may refer not only to the official two minutes when people stood at attention and hung their heads in memory.
There was one major criticism that appeared in some of the reviews. Miranda Seymour noted that the author is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, an aristocrat brought up in one of the grandest houses in England. This by itself is a good thing, but if many of Nicolson’s sources derived from her rather exclusive aristocratic world, the men from ordinary homes might have been covered with less energy than they deserved.
Limbless soldiers at London’s Roehampton Hospital
Photo published in NY Times, 15th July 2010
Perhaps in the end, nothing could make up for the wasted young lives, lost or maimed. As The Idle Historian so rightly noted: While the end of the war was framed by politicians as a great victory and final vindication of the just cause, ordinary families across the Empire were still filled with shock, disbelief and anger at the years of hardship and the slaughter in the trenches. And in the end, the War To End All Wars ... wasn't.