on 30 March 2011
Alan Allport, born in England, moving to the United States in 1994, earned his doctorate in History and has become an expert on WWII; currently lecturing at Princeton.
We usually think of joyous reunions of returning servicemen from WWII, seamlessly re-entering peacetime jobs and wives happy to have them back. But a somewhat darker image lies just beneath the surface, and Alan Allport explores this in seven chapters packed with details that are disturbing.
Allport correctly concentrates on the experiences of the demobbed men, and does not cover the British auxiliary forces (ATS, WRNS, WAAF), which story is so different in key respects, that they cannot be covered in a book that concentrates on the experiences of men.
Most popular accounts of demobbed soldiers are anecdotal in style, and some historians still believe demob to be non-problematic, according to Allport. Thus, this writer brings to the table a careful examination of original primary source material, including court documents and press accounts of the period.
Allport's startling revelations come in 7 chapters. Chapter 1, servicemen were anxious to return home, and when it didn't come soon enough, insubordination broke out. The Bevin demob plan was based on a simple formula, with realistic expectations that were generally accepted. With the Labour Party newly installed, political promises of a quick demobilization were short-lived. Some bored airmen, awaiting demob, went on strike. Chapter 2 details how back home, the homecoming became passé...coming home slowly and anonymously, after many had had fantasies of reunion: the cozy vision of his wife, waiting in a bright apron, a hot cup of tea in her hand. It was not to be. Soldiers returning to "Civvy Street," returned to a lunar-type landscape with over 200,000 houses totally destroyed or damaged, resulting in families having to move in with in-laws or desperate homelessness. With disconnect between reality and fantasy, family life became unglued. Pop psychology handbooks became a new cottage industry, with tabloid "agony aunts" giving advice to writers. Demob fears accelerated the British embrace of this new therapy culture. The reality was that husbands and wives barely knew each other; they were perfect strangers. The men knew what they had been through, but they didn't realize what their wives had experienced. The author has done an excellent job detailing wartime living conditions. Children were especially vulnerable, not only those evacuated out of cities of risk from bombing, but others who developed a certain independence and grew up in the six years of war to see their mother as head of the home. Adultery is the subject of Chapter 3. In the first 18 months following the war, every Sunday, a major British paper reported at least 1 story about a demobbed man killing or assaulting his errant wife or her lover; and these were not the Agatha Christie-style polite poisonings in the vicarage. These attacks were brutal: soldiers garroting, shooting, and bludgeoning their wives. Broken promises and shameful secrets were revealed, resulting in violence, especially when their wives had fallen in love with American GI's. We see that the crime wave was not all on the British side of the English Channel. Allport shares information in the popular press of the time, especially what was going on in the British Occupation Zone (BOZ) of Germany: titillating scandals of sexually fraternizing ("fratting") between Brits and German women. Brothels in Cairo, Egypt and Naples, Italy are detailed. Chapter 4 explores the lack of gratitude for demobbed servicemen. Shops and homes are dirty/unpainted; blackout curtains are still hung; the countryside was pitted by tank-traps and barbed wire. And the people are changed: tense, stressed, weary, dressed shabbily. Soldiers found the general public mood tense, weary. Expecting a hero's welcome was pushing his luck. The "demob suit" is explained: a complete civilian wardrobe given to returning soldiers...which becomes a badge of shame as the public is far from impressed with the suits' gaudiness. In Chapter 5, the author rightly points out that many historians have ignored the soldiers' return to work after their tragic and traumatic interruptions of war. The return to "Civvy Street" was not seamless. Many who had ambitious plans during the war had, with no educational training upon their return, no alternative but to take dull jobs. In contrast, the author relates the different approach in the United States: the use of the GI Bill with provisions for educational training. Britain had some few higher-educational opportunities for the demobbed, but they were simpler, cheaper, and less ambitious. Chapter 6 illustrates that crime became the alternative answer for soldiers who craved the excitement, money, and opportunity, and could not find in civilian life. Allport also includes a separate section in this chapter to "Nicking"...stealing for a living, both in England and in Europe. Chapter 7 gives insight into the PTSD of the demobbed, and the "barbed-wire disease" of the returning POW's. These problems, more clearly recognized in the U.S. Army, made for disastrous homecomings. Many didn't receive the needed counseling; for them, demobilization never really ended, because for them, the war never ended.
Allport closes with an "Epilogue" which brings us up to date with an assessment of how the years had to pass for some WWII vets to work through their frustrations/PTSD. I am impressed with his comparison of the American experience and the lost opportunity of the British. Now in the 21st Century, the author correctly assesses the current status of the British military. Service personnel returning from duty in Ulster, Falklands, Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the past 30 years, have too often been unhappy ones, and the support network they need to manage the transition back to "Civvy Street" has been found wanting. 1 prisoner in 10 in a British jail is an ex-serviceman; among the homeless, 1 in 4. Young men who have served in uniform are three times more likely to commit suicide than their peers. The book ends with an appeal to have this problem addressed for the happiness of future generations of Britons. Highly recommended for readers on both sides of the "Pond."