Wartime by Juliet Gardiner (Headline, 2004)
There have been scores of books about World War Two looking at the military angle, but only in the past couple of decades have books emerged about ordinary lives during the conflict.
Wartime provides a detailed description and analysis of life on the Home Front. While some references are made to people’s lives in the Empire, the vast majority of the book is devoted to what it felt like to live through the war in the British Isles. Wartime is about the millions who didn’t go abroad and fight but whose lives were changed forever nonetheless.
In each chapter Juliet Gardiner deals with a thematic issue such as ‘The Kitchen Front’ or ‘The Enemy Within’, but the material is presented in a chronological order, which keeps the structure tight in what is actually quite a long book.
Wartime opens with a chapter on the outbreak of war and ends with the Victory in Europe celebrations in May 1945 and VJ Day in August when victory was declared in the Far East.
Wartime is careful to strike the right balance between the sacrifices made by those remaining on the Home Front (and their willingness to do battle in the event of a land invasion here) and the experiences suffered by those who fought in campaigns around the world.
It takes nothing away from the courage of those who fought to say that those who remained in the UK and did their bit were stoic and determined.
The war years brought out the best on the Home Front, as the chapters ‘Spitfire Summer’ and ‘Go To It!’ demonstrate. People salvaged scrap, picked rose hips from hedgerows for Vitamin C supplements, dug for Victory, and answered the call to Make Do and Mend’.
Rationing bit hard in the middle years of the war, and there was a constant pressure to find ingredients that were varied and healthy. The book is over six-hundred pages, and it gets right down into the detail of how lives changed at home during the conflict.
Wartime also considers the work of (mainly) women in auxiliary corps and employment in factories and industrial settings. Work patterns by gender changed immensely during the war. There is a sense of everything in flux, and in some ways changing for the better. With the men gone to war, the women stepped up.
Not everyone’s patriotic spirit was particularly impressive, however, and Juliet Gardiner doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable truth that many saw the conflict as an opportunity for self-advancement rather than a chance to serve. Her chapter on looting and the black market is a difficult read, when you think of what our troops were going through, but the story needed to be told.
The best part of Wartime for me lay in the use of diaries and letters to tell the previously untold stories ordinary people in their own words.
Wartime by Juliet Gardiner is a long read, but satisfying. I felt as if I understood a lot more about what people went through a generation before I was born in one of the most challenging experiences at home of the twentieth century.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Friday Night Dinner here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Food for Feasts and Festivals by CJ Jackson here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A Villareal here.