Book review: The Great Silence

1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War
By Juliet Nicolson
Published by John Murray

After The Perfect Summer, Juliet Nicolson returns with a new and extraordinary book that delves deep into the emotions that dominated the lives of the British population after the Great War.

Published at the end of 2009, The Great Silence focuses on the two years after the end of the hostilities and, as the author writes in her introduction, it is “a book about silence, the silence that followed the ‘incessant thunder’ of the four years and four months of the First World War.” Guns fell silent on 11th November 1918. People stood still and observed a two-minute silence on 11th November 1919, “to commemorate the Great War” and “to remember the Glorious Dead and their Great Sacrifice.”. On 11th November 1920 the Unknown Soldier was then lowered beneath Westminster Abbey shrouded in silence and “invested with the millions of identities that the bereaved willed upon him.”

The country was not silent on those three occasions only. Everyday life was tinged with a silence charged with grief, emptiness, anger and hopelessness as people tried to adjust to a peace time that was not much better than the war years as they had to come to terms with the end of life as they had known it before. Fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, fiancés, friends had died on the battlefields and were not coming back. And even those who had come back had been irrevocably changed by the horrors that they had witnessed. Human beings, however, are greatly adaptable and this book also shows us how men and women learnt to live and dream again.

Nicholson takes the perspective of different people and writes about all strata of British society, from under-chauffeurs to the King himself. This historical account has been superbly researched and it is presented with a great attention to detail. The book is completed by black and white photographs of the period and possesses a useful bibliography and a well-organised index that will make it easy to reference back to specific events and people.


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