Emmeline’s younger daughter, Sylvia, the socialist lover of Keir Hardie and a passionate opponent of the war in every aspect. Hochschild portrays other significant individuals on each side. Vignettes of pro-war figures, mostly highly unfavourable, include Haig, with his insatiable ambition to replace John French; Alfred Milner, the ‘nationalist socialist’ who became a pivot of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, combining this with a twentyyear pursuit of Lady Violet Cecil; and Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan, who lent their literary skills to nationalist literature on the model of ‘For All We Have and Are’ (with its rousing line, ‘The Hun is at the gate!’), and Nelson’s History of the War. We also meet Basil Thomson, head of intelligence surveillance, who commanded a private army of agents provocateurs (he ended up under surveillance himself after public indecency in Hyde Park).
But it is to the courageous war resisters that the author’s heart r ightly warms. Three of them are great women who have yet to receive their full due: the Christian pacifist Emily Hobhouse, who had made her name condemning British ‘methods of barbarism’ in the concentration camps in South Africa; Charlotte Despard, who maintained warm relations with her military brother, for all her sympathies with Communism and Sinn Féin; and Sylvia Pankhurst, the greatest of her family. Here was a truly noble trinity of feminist dissent. There are also var ious distinguished male protesters: Stephen Hobhouse, Emily’s ailing brother, an articulate voice for conscientious objectors; Bertrand Russell, eventually imprisoned for alleging US troops might be hired for strike-breaking; Hardie, a supreme moral force to the end; E D Morel, the polemical champion of a negotiated peace; Fenner Brockway and Siegfried Sassoon; and international inspirations such as Jean Jaurès in France and Eugene Debs in the US. We also read of less familiar but equally courageous dissenters, all of them harassed and persecuted by the government, whom the author ably rescues from condescending posterity: John Clarke, the exotic socialist liontamer (subject of a fascinating work by the recently deceased Ray Challinor); Bert Rochester, a railwayman who showed brilliant forensic skills at his court martial; and Derby’s Alice Wheeldon and her left-wing family, who survived a show trial for subversion, only for Alice to perish during the postwar influenza epidemic.
The dissenters offer a distinct typology. The author outlines most of these figures with great clarity. His antiwar feminists are vividly depicted. Indeed, his research is especially pioneering in this regard since older books on the peace movement of 1914 to 1918, astonishingly, ignore the women’s contr ibution entirely. The gulf between Sylvia Pankhurst (to whom should be added her sister Adela, packed off to Australia by her mother for supporting striking workers) and her mother and elder sister Christabel is fascinatingly described. Emmeline Pankhurst was solemnly honoured this March with a wreath laid by Ed Miliband at her statue in Westminster on International Women’s Day, but her wartime activities are shown here in a gruesome light. Her campaign for direct action on behalf of votes for women turned into bloodthirsty jingoism, an example being her support for Russian warrior viragos in their ‘battalions of death’ (in Emmeline’s view the most glorious chapter in women’s history since Joan of Arc). Christabel’s journalism was unremittingly chauvinist. When Sylvia told her that Hardie was dying, her sister brutally printed a cartoon showing ‘Keir von Hardie’ receiving a crock of gold from the Kaiser. Other groups – the conscient i ous objector s o f t he NoConscr iption Fellowship and Ir ish nationalists such as Eamon de Valera – are also well described. The various shades of Labour dissenters, however, are set out less convincingly and thoroughly. There is very little on industrial resisters in the trade union movement (such as the quasi-syndicalists in south Wales and Clydeside), or the anti-war socialist press (Forward and the like). The discussion on Labour politicians focuses entirely on Hardie – a great man indeed – but ignores t he equally impor t ant Ramsay MacDonald, while some nuances of Hardie’s views, like his awareness of the issue of national self-defence, are not picked up.
Hochschild skilfully sets his chronicle of dissent against the background of war. He has an eye for picturesque detail such as Emily Hobhouse’s one-woman peace mission to Berlin in 1916, and the extraordinary secret deal by which the British purchased 32,000 pairs of German binoculars from Zeiss of Jena during the war; in return, the Germans received imperial rubber for their military vehicles, free trade bypassing the challenges of total war. The accounts of the great set-piece engagements on the wester n f ront – Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Amiens – are finely done. On the other hand, the relentless focus on Britain and the fighting in France limits the perspective. There is little on the Balkans and even less on the important war in the Middle East (General Allenby, the victor in Palestine, receives no mention). The treatment of the 1919 Peace Conference
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011
in Paris is perfunctory, while the author’s certainty that another war was the inevitable outcome, contrary to the views of Margaret MacMillan and other historians, is simply stated without documentation, let alone proof.
In general, though, this powerfully written, often moving work i s thoroughly worthwhile. I t makes excellent use of the printed sources as well as parts of the National Archives to shore up old conclusions with
WHIRLWIND AFFAIRS MILLIONS LIKE US: WOMEN’S LIVES
IN WAR AND PEACE 1939–1949
By Virginia Nicholson
(Viking 508pp £25)
MILLIONS LIKE US is the title of a film made in 1943 by Sidney Gilliat (later to be best known for his St Trinian’s films) and Frank Launder. Starring Patricia Roc and Eric Portman, it told the story of a wartime aircraft factory. Its propaganda purpose was to show both the vital contribution to the war effort made by women drafted to make aircraft components (the film ends with planes from Bomber Command flying overhead on yet another mission), and how women from very different social backgrounds learned to rub along together during wartime in a way that would have been unthinkable in their peacetime lives.
The t i t l e i s an appropr i a t e choice for Virg in i a Nicholson’s book, which essentially gives the same message as the film, though its canvas is much broader – and more nuanced. What Nicholson has done with great aplomb is tell the story of the Second World War through the optic of women’s lives. She has assembled a large cast. Some are young girls at the outbreak of war, eager for adventure and new challenges; others are housewives and mothers, wearied at the thought of the dangers and privations to come. This enables her not just to plot the usual narrative of women’s experiences of war as civilians – evacuation, rationing, make do and mend, Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) work – but to weave into this the stories of women who served in more direct ways. The account of the evacuation of Dunkirk is told largely in the words of the nurses who tended the wounded men, while the war in the western desert is filtered through the accounts of Vera Lynn and Joyce Grenfell, who went out to entertain the troops. The tensions of DDay are brought alive by the testimony of Wrens and medical staff, and the halting words of a Queen Alexandra nurse evoke the horrors of Belsen concentration camp. Millions Like Us is a richly polyphonic story extraordinarily well told. Nicholson has used some memoirs that new insights. It is not another study of the familiar anti-war Union of Democratic Control publicists in A J P Taylor’s famous roll call of dissenting ‘troublemakers’. It focuses, more narrowly but with new intensity, on often humbler men and women who gave their energies, and sometimes their lives, to help to build a more civilised world. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 22
will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the Second World War. There are the published diaries of Nella Last, a frustrated Barrow-in-Furness housewife who kept her diaries – as did several of Nicholson’s sources – at the behest of Mass-Observation, the ‘people-watching’ organisation founded in 1937 which came into its own as an acute barometer of home front morale during the Second World War. Nicholson also fillets, among others, the wonderfully racy memoirs of Joan Wyndham, the flighty ar tist-model tur ned WAAF (member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the tragic wartime experiences of Helen Forrester, later a bestselling novelist, and the memoirs of the Bloomsbur y pacifist Frances Partr idge, the social scientist Phyllis Willmott, and Madeleine Henrey, a refugee from France. Intermixed with these eloquent sources, which are well known (although it would have been foolish to exclude them for that reason), is the account of the war of the author’s own mother, Anne Popham (who, as Anne Olivier Bell, would later edit the diaries of Virginia Woolf), as well as numerous other first-hand accounts – from interviews, diaries and letters of women whose stories have never been told.
And those stories are complex ones: sometimes underlining the experience of men, usually deviating sharply from it. While the war wrought monumental changes in the lives of most people, it proved a cul-de-sac for many, delaying their lives and their ambitions for six long years: for women there was little chance of establishing a home and having a baby during that time. Yet for many the war provided wider horizons in every sense. It proved to be a forcing house for maturity, endurance and a sense of purpose.
The war affected lives in many ways. It could be a ‘whirlwind’, sweeping up what Nicholson calls ‘the ‘demure, retir ing, unambitious woman of 1938’ and depositing her in a very different world of danger, duties and deprivations. It could bring her undreamed of opportunities to leave the safety – or claustrophobia – of home, or to quit a boring, repetitive job taken only to fill in time before marriage. It could bring her new responsibilities and unimagined competencies – decrypting codes at Bletchley Park, talking down an air crew, plotting enemy aircraft, working at anti-aircraft gun sites, deliver ing Spitfires, welding ship’s hulks, driving ambulances or operating behind enemy lines in Occupied France. It deprived some women of Tangee lipsticks and reliable knicker elastic while teaching others that the best cure for seasickness
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011