Monday, February 3, 2014

The culture shock of coming home after war

Demobbed:  Coming Home After World War II
I have a general goal of reading Alan Allport's Demobbed:  Coming Home After World War II and Julie Summers' Stranger in the House in a close enough time frame to each other that I can get both the soldier POV and the home front POV and compare and contrast the two.  I've now read the first book, so just need to get myself together enough to read Stranger in the House within the next few months.

I've had Demobbed on my shelf for a couple of years now, having purchased it when I was on a kick about learning more about the after-effects of WWII on people's lives.  Some time ago, I read and really enjoyed Soldier from the War Returning, which focuses on American men coming home after WWII.  Demobbed focuses on British soldiers and their families attempting to return to civilian life after six years of war.  It talks through the whole demobilization plan, the efforts to get everyone employed, and the difficulty of picking up a life that had been on pause for so long.


It has a ton of information about Britain during the war, the way people remember the war, and the way people reacted after the war.  I am very glad to have read it because, just based on watching Dr Who and Call the Midwife, I feel like Britons have this huge cultural pride in surviving the Battle of Britain, and this book really puts that into context.  I'm happy to know that Americans are not the only people in the world to remember how brave they were in the past and just erase the more injurious events from collective memory.

In general, I would say that I preferred Soldier from the War Returning to Demobbed.  This is mostly because what I really love and crave about historical accounts is the first-person narrative.  Demobbed has a lot of letters and journal entries and statistics, but Soldier from the War Returning focused entirely on three families.  I really liked becoming immersed in the everyday lives of people I felt I knew well and intimately, through the awkwardness of coming home, the struggles with PTSD, and the difficulties of becoming a family again.  In Demobbed, I missed that because there were so many small anecdotes and situations shared from so many different people.  I didn't feel attached to any of them, though I felt a great deal of empathy towards them all.

Demobbed also spends time talking about society as a whole and the way it reacted to the soldiers coming home.  Many times, the soldiers didn't actually feel welcome because most civilians thought that they had suffered much more during the war than the soldiers had.  Also, soldiers were demobilized over such a long period that by the time the later groups came home, there wasn't a lot of fanfare to welcome them.  And they all built up and fantasized about their homecomings so much that it was hard for them not to be let down.

Another interesting thing the book talked about was the breakdown in the camaraderie between people who had shared experiences together.  After coming home, many men who had spent months upon months on end with each other hardly saw each other again as everyone dealt with getting back into their lives.  And then, if they did have reunions later on, they'd find everyone else so changed and drastically different that they had not much to talk about, leading them to feel even more isolated.

Really, all of these books on the experience of war and coming home after the war make clear one thing more than anything else - that war has far-reaching psychological consequences for the individuals who lived through it, and those consequences can have a massive impact on not just those people but on a society as a whole.  Britain after the war lost its confidence along with its empire, lost a family structure that had survived for hundreds of years, and really struggled to assimilate people who had gone through so much to work and live together.

Demobbed is a truly informative and eye-opening account of returning to civilian life after war.  However, if you want an in-depth and personal narrative, I would recommend Soldier from the War Returning over this one.

13 comments:

  1. I have so many non-fiction books about WWII and WWI. I like them... I just take forever to read them!

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  2. I think this is a really interesting aspect of a soldier's life - what happens after the war is over.

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    1. Yes, and an often ignored part, too. It seems so difficult to adjust back to normal life after war, and both books definitely highlighted that.

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  3. I haven't read enough about this in proportion to how interested in it I am. The aftermath of trauma is always interesting, in particular -- the different ways people react, and the things that are unexpectedly difficult (like missing the close friends they made in the army).

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    1. Agreed! Or, in this case, how difficult their life was due to the food rations, when they had never had rationed food in the army.

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  4. Both of these sound like they are important books to read and I'm definitely interested in the post-war. I feel like I've read so much about years during the war, but little about the years following it.

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    1. Yes, but when you think about it, the post-war period lasts so much longer than the war and probably impacts relationships a lot more.

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  5. I have this book unread also, bought after reading about it on the blogs, more than a year ago. I'm currently reading Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson, a war diary, and I've only read a hundred pages very slowly -- so far it's been all about the London Blitz which is so painfrul to read about. Every day she doesn't know if she'll survive another night of bombing. I can't imagine how awful that must have been.

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    1. The Blitz was part of what the author mentioned right at the beginning. It was really interesting because he said it made most Londoners feel that their experience of the war was much more difficult than that of soldiers.

      He also pointed out, though, that Britons make a huge deal about their survival of the Blitz but are quite happy to ignore the fact that they did much the same to parts of continental Europe.

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  6. Thank you for recommending these two books. You might also look at my novel NO SURRENDER SOLDIER, set on Guam during the Vietnam war and involves a WWII issues, which shows the after-effects of war on families for generations. I'm also looking forward to reading Laurie Halse Anderson's THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY.

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  7. I hadn't heard of this one but it sounds interesting. Oh my WW2 list keeps growing!

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  8. I have read quite a few books about WWII, but oddly enough I have never read anything about what happened after. Interesting.

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