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Soldiering on: British Tommies after the First World War

Soldiering on: British Tommies after the First World War

Adam Powell
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
Adam Powell's 'Soldiering on: British Tommies after the First World War' is a slimmish (pp.256) larger format paperback, arranged in four parts, with prologue and introduction.

Part I covers the Armistice (both at the Front and at home), plus demobilisation and the actual return under the title 'coming home', whilst parts II ('unfinished business') and III ('Adjustments') cover, respectively, operations and activity in other theatres after the war's end, and the adjustments which various categories of ex-servicemen had to make to their new lives at home. Finally, chapter IV, 'Legacies', deals with the longer term impact and reflections.

The short prologue usefully sets out the span and intention of the book, which is to discuss the experiences of the 5 million returning servicemen from the war's end to the eve of WW2, to understand how they fared and to set this in the political and social context of the passage from the Victorian to the Interwar era. It is followed by another short chapter, this time an Introduction, which describes in a brisk but telling fashion the pressures and opportunities in a changing Edwardian Britain on the brink of war. (NB the end notes appear to have been misnumbered in this chapter.)

Chapter 1, beginning Part I, opens with a description of the anti-climax which - for many - was the Armistice on the Western Front, leading, via Paris, on to chapter 2 and the - in many cases - very different reaction on the Home Front, narrated by voices ranging from Alice Kedge, a war worker, to Oswald Mosley. Chapter 3 deals with demobilisation, a rushed and flawed process (partly caused by the unexpectedly swift coming of the Armistice) which - along with a tightening of discipline and the new demands of occupation duties and potential further action - caused significant resentment amongst the men still in uniform, whether abroad or in the UK. Chapter 4 deals with men's post-demobilisation experience - with the interesting side note that the 'welcome home' parties for returning men became the template for later street parties of all kinds. The chapter discusses the response to both Peace Day 1919 and the weakening effects of wartime privations in the face of Spanish 'Flu, and also places a particular focus on the many thousand returning PoWs.

The brief but pithy Part II begins with chapter 5, and the sad story of the changing perception of servicemen in both Northern and Southern Ireland from 1916 onwards. As well as the plight of veterans in the South, it also discusses the activities of ex-servicemen in the Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and IRA - not shying away from the atrocities on both sides - together with sectarian activity in the North and the association of Unionism and Remembrance. It is a sobering read. Chapter 6, on the Russian intervention, is noticeably briefer, although still quite an interesting evocation of this largely-forgotten episode. Chapter 7, slightly longer, deals well with the salutary topic of Britain's colonies during the war and the way the treatment of non-White troops during the war served to influence the growth of independence movements when the often disillusioned men went home. The very short but interesting chapter 8 deals summarily with the British Army of occupation on the Rhine.

Part III is opened by chapter 9, which deals with the soldier's adaptation to civilian life and relations with those who had not served. This chapter contains some of the most moving material in the book, from the ex-Trooper who found himself giving a morning cigarette to his old Major, a fellow down-and-out, to the dying ex-officer, by then at least in his seventies, who re-lived his trench memories in his last moments. Chapter 10 discusses veterans' employment and training prospects, which in Britain, aside from a temporary boom immediately after the War, were not good, not helped by weak government action or lack of funds. The dominions did rather better. As an aside, the chapter is headed by a couple of quotations, one of which ("Left ... left ... You had a good job when you left ...") is described as 'Street taunt aimed at unemployed ex-servicemen'. In a slightly modified form, this chant was one of the marching songs my Irish grandfather remembered from the Irish Local Defence Force, which he trained with in 1940 before going over to Liverpool to join the Merchant Navy.

Chapter 11, Sex, Morality and Marriage addresses the 'surplus women' myth with some interesting statistics about the likely impact of the cessation of large-scale emigration and in-migration to volunteer, as well as dealing with sexual morés and the prevalence of marriage; overall it concludes that the war continued and extended existing trends rather than representing a complete break with the past. Chapter 12, on disabled veterans, again reverts to the theme of good plans not ready for the Armistice, schemes wound-down too soon as a result of financial retrenchment and a reliance on voluntary effort (such as the King's National Roll and Poppy Factory) which did not fully fill the gap. Chapter 13 deals with the even sadder story of men with shell-shock, for whose invisible wounds public largesse was less generous. Inevitably, disabled men came into contact with the pensions system which, as narrated in chapter 14, was an improvement on the arrangements for ex-soldiers before the war, but still lagged behind both the practice of other belligerent nations and public opinion. Chapter 15 briefly gives a summary of the attempts by the public and private sectors to make good Lloyd George's promise of "homes fit for heroes", and is complemented by chapter 16 on the move, with mixed success, to resettle ex-servicemen on the land or overseas. Finally, chapter 17 deals with ex-servicemens' return to (and in some cases residence on) the front, the memorialisation of the Great War through its monuments and cemeteries, postwar reconstruction and the continuing 'iron harvest'.

Part IV, Legacies, begins with chapter 18, a discussion of soldiers' politics and how the radicalising effect of the war did not work itself out in attempted or actual revolution as in some other countries. Chapter 19 covers the role of the various veterans' organisations and the distinctly conservative (both small and - the author argues - big 'C') role played by the British Legion as well as its extensive charitable activities, and also discusses the limited success of all the veterans' organisations as campaigning bodies owing to size and lack of political leverage. In a change of tone, chapter 20 - nicely titled "Artists' Rifles" - discusses the impact of the war on the arts, first dealing with poetry and then the broader stream of writing, followed by the experience of artists and, finally, sculptors. Chapter 21 describes the postwar political scheme, and if I had one criticism of the book it would probably be that it does not come earlier, as it provides much of the background for both part II and the rest of part III. Chapter 22 provides an appropriate penultimate chapter, setting out veterans' views of the international situation and interest in the various ways of promoting peace. Finally, chapter 23 brings in, appropriately, ex-servicemen's reflections on the war and, indeed the peace - highlighting that the two were not the same.

The book is completed with 29 pages of end notes and a 17-page bibliography.

Overall I would call it a good survey of an important topic. The standard of proofreading is generally good, although the occasional tendency to use "Belgium" for "Belgian" is a minor annoyance. I would certainly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the British ex-serviceman's experience between the wars.

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