All Quiet on the Home Front: An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War, by Richard van Emden and Steve Humphries

All quiet on the home front cvr

Deliberately echoing the ironic All Quiet on the Western Front in its title, All Quiet on the Home Front chronicles life in Britain during the First World War.  It was published in 2003 in conjunction with a Channel 4 television series, and at its heart are interviews with a number of very elderly individuals recalling what life was like during those difficult years.  Their ages ranged from late 80s to nearly 110 and together they provided a dynamic portrait of a country as it went from an enthusiastic clamour to give the Germans what for to profound war weariness, and a sense of relief when it was finally over.

Interviewees were chosen on the basis of who would have interesting stories to tell, and of course who was available that long afterwards, so there was no possibility of any randomisation.  As working class people generally have a shorter life expectancy than those in the middle classes, it might have been expected that the sample would be skewed, but the researchers ensured that working class voices were adequately represented, to prevent imbalance and ensure that those least likely to leave a record were heard.

The interviewees were children or very young adults at the time, but they retained their vivid recollections, of deprivation and hunger, trauma at losing relatives and friends, having to grow up too soon to help in families without male adults and with working mothers, even going into factories and onto the land as labour became ever scarcer.  Van Emden and Humphries show the suffering and desperation of those at home as war progressed.  What the interviewees have to say is very moving, often shocking and harrowing, but at moments surprisingly funny (including a hoary old joke – but perhaps it was new in 1917 – that I find hard to believe has ever really been said: ‘A boy saw us with a barrow full of manure one day and he said, “What do you do with that?” I said, “Me dad puts it on his rhubarb.”  “Oh,” he said, “we have custard on ours.”’).

Chapters are wide-ranging, covering the war both chronologically and thematically.  There is optimism at the beginning, replaced by a sense of realism as the magnitude of the task becomes apparent and the call for volunteers in ever-increasing numbers gives way in 1916 to conscription.  Efforts to feed the country in order to reduce imports, the supply of which was uncertain because of the U-boat blockade, are covered extensively.  The role of women in nursing, on the land and in factories, particularly manufacturing armaments, is examined, and the ages of many of the interviewees at the time means that the varied experiences of children are dealt with in detail.  The naval bombardment of the east coast and the aerial bombing by Zeppelin and aeroplane are given chapters of their own.

The authors show the contradictions of wartime, how living standards for some could go down while for others they rose, dreadful malnutrition and disease could exist alongside improved health resulting from a more nutritious, if bland, diet, infant mortality reduce as babies became highly valued while children more generally often suffered from shortages of basics and from poor treatment.  Those in charge could count on the population’s patriotism, but it was tempered with a desire to achieve better conditions for ordinary people, and there was a great deal of class resentment as those with little felt that the suffering was not shared equally.

What was shocking in a country that prided itself on a sense of fair play was the treatment meted out to those with or perceived to have German origins (not excluding dogs) with the police remaining largely indifferent.  After the war many Germans were expelled, sometimes breaking up families.  Elfie Druhm recounts how her German-born father was deported to Germany after internment, and she and her English mother followed.  The two women stayed in Germany, but in the next war neither was interned, which curiously shows the Nazis to have been more humane in this respect at least than the British government had been.

The book concludes with the aftermath of the conflict as the country struggled to leave it behind, a hard task as in many cases it had left psychic fractures that never healed.  Millions were left to grieve for their dead, and it is surprising to read that many people did not subscribe to the collective expression of sorrow embodied in the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, but preferred to remember privately, in their own way.  While civilians were mourning dead servicemen, returning servicemen often mourned the death of relationships.  One of the saddest stories is told by the daughter of a soldier supposedly killed in 1916 but actually a POW who came home to find his eight months’ pregnant wife and daughter living with someone else.  They divorced, the mother made a new life elsewhere, and when the daughter from the first marriage later contacted her mother, she was asked to say she was a niece, as her mother’s other family did not know about her.

There had long been a reticence to speak of these things by many who considered their experiences unimportant compared to what those in the services had endured, making these testimonies all the more valuable.  Some interviews must have involved much tact; it cannot have been easy for an elderly lady to recount how, as a small child in a children’s home, she soiled herself while being beaten with a hairbrush for having a spot on her white pinafore, had her face rubbed in the mess, and was dragged off so that her twin sister could witness her shame.

My one reservation is that the interviews must have been quite lengthy, but only short extracts have been used.  While the connecting tissue is fascinating and the narrative is put together well, I would have liked to have heard even more from those who had lived through those days, but then the book is already over 300 pages long.  Here is a useful counterbalance to the publications documenting the front-line horrors, and it would be interesting to know whether similar oral history exercises were carried out in other combatant countries.  There have been large numbers of book commemorating the First World War published in the last couple of years, but All Quiet on the Home Front holds up well, and is still worth a read for its first-hand accounts.  These people have gone now, taking their memories with them, but at least we have their words.

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