Demobbed is a fine winner of the Longman-History Today Book Prize for 2010. In telling the many different stories of returning soldiers at the end of the Second World War Alan Allport takes us on a rollercoaster ride, provoking anger at the authorities who managed the transition to civilian life so badly and sadness at the tragedies that engulfed many returning heroes and their families. Some of the stories reflect the worst of British buttoned-up reserve. After Cecil Wareham had got back from three years abroad all his mother could say by way of welcome was ‘So, you’re back then.’ Other stories tell of heightened emotions and very un-British crimes of passion. When Cyril Patmore returned from three years in the Far East to find his wife pregnant with the baby of an Italian prisoner of war, he stabbed her to death in their living room. At the Old Bailey a jury cleared him of murder with its mandatory death sentence and found him guilty only of manslaughter with a relatively short prison term. The News of the World railed that the ‘law of the jungle’had taken over in Britain.
The book tells how the 4.5 million men (it does not deal with the half million returning service women) were organised for demobilisation. At the end of the First World War there had been a near mutiny at the slow pace of demobilisation. Determined to avoid a repeat, the Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin came up with a points scheme based on various considerations, including length of service, to make the process appear fair. Still there were delays as men bided their time for months on end waiting for transports or simply for their turn to come. The ships that brought them home from around the world were run down, filthy and overcrowded. Conditions on one were so appalling the press nicknamed it HMS Belsen.
Using a wonderful range of sources, Allport explores how the return to peace put immense pressure on the men who were coming back sometimes from intense and traumatic experiences to hearth and home. And also on the wives and children who barely recognised the strangers now arriving. Women’s magazines are fertile ground for Allport, filled as they were with problem pages expressing women’s anxieties. Should you meet your man at the railway station or at home? Should you dress and make up for his arrival or keep it low key? Official handouts suggested how to prepare for a soldier returning from the horrors of a Japanese POW camp. Popular fiction and films reflected the actuality of many homecomings. Pop psychology filled the pages of all the newspapers, explaining how to cope and of the need for patience to heal deep but sometimes unseen scars. Interviews, diaries and letters also help Allport provide a David Kynaston-style human view of the joys and tragedies of returning to civilian life.
The book is interspersed with jaw dropping statistics. By the midpoint of the war, one half of all British adult civilians had been separated by military service from someone dear to them. Between 1939 and 1945 there were 60 million changes of address. Over 250,000 men were continuously abroad for five years or more. By the autumn of 1945 one in three Britons were looking for somewhere new to live. The number of divorces rose from 4,100 in 1935 to 60,300 in 1947. These figures place all the human dramas in context.
Demobbed gives a brilliant insight into the despair many couples went through after tense homecomings had gone wrong. For this had been a ‘people’s war’ with the civilians in the front line. Sometimes those who had stayed at home had had a worse time than those serving in a ‘cushy’job abroad. But one criticism is that the book makes only a passing reference to the experience in the United States where a hero’s welcome, along with the GI Bill, helped propel the postwar economy. No doubt this was partly down to millions returning to a booming US economy rather than a bankrupt British one. But from a historian based in Princeton it would have been fascinating to hear a little more on this.
Overall Demobbed is a great read for everyone who cares about the human cost of war and why so many found it hard to pick up normal lives again. Nearly 70 years after the Second World War this is as relevant as it was then. One prisoner in ten in a British jail today is an ex-serviceman. One in four of the homeless has served in the forces. Britain clearly still needs to learn how to manage the painful and challenging transition from being a soldier to being a civilian.