Book review

The Great Silence (Juliet Nicolson)


I have always been fascinated by the theme of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, living their lives wittingly or un- against a backdrop of huge and often hideous proportions. Juliet Nicolson’s The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age presents a plethora of ordinary—and some very extraordinary—people living through, after, and beyond the Great War.

World War I was unlike any previous war in the scope and scale of its unanticipated ferocity and ultimate futility. Recovery from the war, Nicolson suggests, was a recursive journey through something like Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief—and then some. Nicolson has accordingly divided her book into eighteen chapters, beginning with “Wound” and ending with “Acceptance,” and pausing along the way at milestones including “Shock,” “Denial,” “Release,” and “Resignation,” to chart the two-year course of moving on and moving away from the November 11, 1918, armistice to the 1920 anniversary. Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, and personal papers, she vividly resurrects real people—domestics, debutantes, doctors, dancers—in their own words and worlds as they struggle with the challenges of postwar Britain along the eighteen dimensions she has identified. The tone and technique are reminiscent of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, as we meander from the mind and occupations of one person to another. Some chapters are more successful than others; a couple are a bit strained. But the book is filled with fascinating insights, surprising connections, and continual reminders of both how distant this time is from our own—and how startlingly modern.

Many of the very best chapters, in my mind, are those dealing with the most immediate impacts of war and war’s end as the soldiers begin to leave the battlefields and head home. Nicolson paints a horrifying portrait of trench warfare conditions, complete with white-faced rats as big as otters, in the context of how removed these were from the daily norms of civilian life—setting up the central challenge of how difficult it will be for the vets to explain where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. For instance, this black anecdote:

The poet Robert Graves met a group of men trying to remove the lice from one another. They were discussing whether to kill the young or the old insects. ‘Morgan here says that if you kill the old ones, the young ones will die of grief,’ Graves was told as the men continued their debate. ‘But Parry here says that the young ones are easier to kill and you can catch the old ones when they come to the funeral.’

And another for instance: after war’s end, the courts were overwhelmed with divorce cases.

Library of Congress photo; the man is being fitted with a thin tin mask attached to his eyeglasses; see more here

A particularly fascinating set of stories center on the literal issue of reconstruction of the returning soldiers, many of whom were horribly disfigured by shrapnel. Nicolson cites the incredulity of a front-line surgeon regarding the common conviction that a hail of machine gun bullets could be ducked: they couldn’t. New techniques were developed to patch up the over 60,000 men who proved this axiom. Plastic surgery came into its own, and it was surprisingly sophisticated and successful. Harold Gillies treated hundreds of the maimed and disfigured; a YouTube video documents some of his work; some photos can be found here. Another method of handling disfigurement was to build lifelike masks to disguise the missing features. And, in one of those crazy British it’s-a-small-world scenarios that I’ve remarked on before, one of the artists working on these masks was Kathleen Scott, widow of Scott of the Antarctic.

Speaking of Antarctica, I certainly didn’t know that a film of Shackleton’s expedition existed. It does, and South was first shown in 1919 (you can watch a clip of it here).

A kaleidoscope of other historic and cultural events whirl past. Nicolson recounts the repatriation of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, mother of the slaughtered Tsar Nicholas and aunt of King George. It was because of another cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, that George recently changed his family’s last name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more anglicized “Windsor.” And while the delegates hammer out a peace treaty in Paris, Benito Mussolini founds the Fascist party in Italy. The first female MP, Nancy Astor, is elected. Chanel revolutionizes women’s fashions. Wrist watches, worn during the war in aerial combat, come into widespread use. Illiteracy rates fell, and the serving class rose up at the prospect of new opportunities: many had strengthened their reading skills through constant letter writing during the war.

The book’s last chapters are, I feel, a little less successful, as we stay too long with one or another main character whom Nicolson feels epitomizes the chapter’s particular focus. Even so, we catch glimpses of, and hear snippets from, contemporary luminaries such as Virginia Woolf, Nicolson’s grandmother Vita Sackville-West, Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh, until—fittingly—ending with the Unknown British Soldier.

A fascinating, frightening time. And a most interesting book.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

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