The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson

The Great Silence - Juliet Nicolson

My Great War reading list got off to a decent start with this book. Nicolson is the grand-daughter of Harold Nicolson, a British representative at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. She has written about the Edwardian period before, so she is well versed in this era of British history. She takes the decidedly social history angle to the war, in particular how the British (and to some extent the French and Americans) dealt with the massive numbers of the dead and injured and the grief that just wouldn't go away.

 

The book is broken down into three sections, with each section starting with the Armistice of 1918 or its two anniversaries. Although the author is from the upper classes of British society, she took great pains to bring people into the history of this grieving period from all the socio-economic classes (although not from any racial or religious minority groups). All people mentioned had a connection with the war in some way, from the young Pam Parrish at 3 years old and now fatherless to King George. The social and economic unrest and how the joyous pictures of Armistice Day we have in our heads often have a ugly, hollow underbelly. With the end of the war, the emotional labor had to really begin and I really liked Nicolson's writing and the concepts she talked about. I didn't know much about King George and in this book I was able to get a much better picture of him as both a person and monarch (his son Prince David also got quite the profile in this book as a "other side of the coin" to his father - and this was all pre-Wallace Simpson).

 

However, there was one chapter that didn't need to be written or put into this book; it was titled "Hope" and was about the extramarital affairs of bored upper crust ladies who didn't get enough attention from their husbands - no one or idea had any connection to the war or its aftermath, so it didn't need to be in here. If you read the book, skip this chapter completely.  

 

One striking piece of historical trivia that I should have known but never figured on was the feelings King George had toward his cousins during and after the war (yep, it never dawned on me that WWI was one big old family feud, as the Kaiser, King George, and Tsar Nicholas all had the same grandma - Queen Victoria). George grieved over his Russian cousin's death at the hands of the Bolsheviks and he hated the Kaiser, especially when the Kaiser abdicated the throne after the war. He blamed the Kaiser for the war and for taking Nicholas' focus off domestic unrest that resulted in the Russian Revolution.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed the book that takes a long look at the aftermath of war, death, and grief on both an individual and country level. Recommend (just skip that one chapter)!