A book just out is an instant hit with a lot of the members of the allotment hut. For any book to arouse interest in the land of the ferrets is unusual, for a three-day old to be already thumb-marked is remarkable indeed. Even the Lady Gaga CD has been turned down, as Jack and Harry say told you so to attentive ears. They are our ‘vets’ (as in old soldiers, not ferret-healers) and for many a year whenever the media launches into the anniversay of the Blitz, Battle of Britain, VE day and the rest they always grumble that the mass demobolisation of 1945 has been wiped from the record. Most of us imagine that was surely a wonderful time of homecoming, parties and the joy of together-again lovers, but it wasn’t at all like that!
The book is called ‘Demobbed; Coming Home After the Second World War’ and is the result of extensive research by Alan Allport, an expert on the War and currently a lecturer at Prineton University. The author has accessed a wide range of archives including the Imperial War Museum, British Film Institute, Public Record Office and the British Library Newspaper records. He has also talked to ex-servicemen and relatives of some who are no longer with us.
As a prologue the author recalls the story of Private Cyril Patmore of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. In his belongings the Metriopolitan Police found a letter from his wife Kathleen. She was expecting the baby of an Italian prisoner of war and had written to beg forgiveness and to plead that, for the sake of their children, the couple resume their previously happy marriage on his return in 1945. There was no reconciliation. On August 4th 1945 Patmore stabbed his heavily pregnant wife to death in their house on Greenhill Road in London. At his subsequent trial his charge was changed to manslaughter at the behest of the jury, a decision that Mr Justice Charles was not happy with. He was worried that ‘the law of the jungle’ was creeping in to English justice. There were more such cases.
Of all the changes that the end of the long war would bring, the greatest was the return of the men that fought it. On VE day over five million Britons were in uniform and nine out of ten were men. Most had been in the army, navy or air force since 1941. Millions were abroad, a vast expatriate community of exiles scattered haphazardly from Norway to the Kenyan highlands to the fringes of Antartica. Over a quarter of a million had been continuously overseas for more than five years and even the ‘lucky’ ones who spent time in the UK were invaraibly billeted far from every formerly familiar face. These were not professional warriors and now that Germany and Japan were defeated the short-term citizen soldiers wanted to get home and to resume their apprenticeships, careers, love affairs or family life.
It was never going to be easy and historians express no surprise at what actually happened. Men were taken indiscriminately from office, factory, farm or school and were trained in the methods of modern warfare. They were sent off to fight and to kill, watched comrades die, and were then returned to a by now unfamiliar land as if they had just returned from holiday. Many were changed dramatically as people and even more were horrified at what they saw when they returned to the country they hadn’t seen for many years. Ex-POW George Millar spoke of ‘the awe that puts pink lenses before the eyes of the returning soldier ‘ falling from his eyes when he saw “a stinking stain of shoddiness, cheapness, graspingness and meanness”.
Many men grumbled that their wives had lost interest in them, many wives complained that the opposite applied. In reality many were unable to become resigned to starting all over. Yes, everyone agreed that servicemen had done their duty and suffered for it, but the civilian population too had gone through six years of gruelling war and, like many of the troops, were physically and mentally exhausted. One result was a more than tenfold rise in the number of divorce petitions; at the nation’s supposedly greatest, most longed for moment of reunion the family as a concept seemd to be on the point of collapse.
Historian David Kynaston has recently dealt in part with this subject. He talks of a “widespread sense of disenchantment” and adds that it was ironic that a society which had held together so well for six years of total war seemed to be “coming apart at the seams” at the time of victory. It didn’t of course, but the mood of vague dissatisfaction did prove to be a point of departure for a protracted sense of national decline throughout the next half-century.
I have always known from my pals the extent to which mass demobolisation proved anything but the dream of calendars crossed off year upon year. What the troops had been up to was unknown but the deeds, or misdeeds, of their wives and former sweethearts were quickly apparent. Then there was the resentment against men who had stayed in civilian ranks and benefited financially. And homes had become shabby. And American troops had been generous. It isn’t hard to picture what happened and it isn’t hard to imagine that formerly peaceful men now trained in the art of violence were a recipe for trouble.
I won’t go on for fear of spoiling your enjoyment should you decide to invest seven quid in the detailed and thought-provoking book. Suffice to say any understanding of the real World War demands it. When you read the wide range of works available on the war and its joyful outcome it is easy to build a mental picture of soldiers returning to a welcoming wonderland of yearned for joy. They didn’t and, sad though that is, it is good to know what really happened. Alan Allport has made a huge contribution to what we understand about the war that almost saw our freedom destroyed for ever.
POLICE WARNING SOUNDS RIGHT!
Police chiefs yesterday warned of an inability to handle the widespead public unrest that may well follow the announcement of draconian cuts so gleefully heralded by George Osborne and company. If the police numbers are to be slashed by 40,000 as many forecast the warning is likely to be an accurate one. Even at this late hour a rethink sees sensible.
But the again the Osborne team seems anything but sensible. Yesterday I saw what looked like a twelve year old called Alexander, who it seems is a Lib Dem minister, trotting out yet again the old tale about the economic crisis being all the fault of the Labour government. Everyone knows that it was a worldwide collapse caused by the banks. Yes, the previous government was wasteful but to keep on with childish political point scoring is less than helpful and if the coalition is to have any hope of selling its line that we are all in this together it should gag Master Alexander forthwith.
DO PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, HOWEVER BRIEF ! EARLY ON IN THE SITE’S LIFE I GAINED GREAT PLEASURE FROM THE INTERACTION WHICH HAS DRIED UP. IT SHOULDN’T TAKE A MINUTE AND YOUR DETAILS WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED. MANY THANKS!
YESTERDAY’S QUIZ ANSWERS; 1. Turkey 2. Ayatollah Khomeini
TODAY’S QUESTIONS; 1. Who played a gangster called Devlin in ‘Performance’? 2. Which Prime Minister’s wife published a book of poems in 1970?