Tuesday, 19 February 2013

All Quiet on the Home Front

Reality TV shows are all the rage. They place people, who by their very willingness to go on the shows are exhibitionists and attention seekers. They are placed in fictitious settings and forced to 'survive' by undergoing a series of competitions or tests - and they are heralded as heroes for being willing to eat worms, endure difficult living situations, and for risking the 'dangers' associated with the various shows. Humbug! These people are not heroes, they are play actors who know that after a set period of time, they will be returning to their old way of life.

The men and women who have faced war and the horrific conditions that it can impose upon a civilian population are the real heroes. These men and women were placed in situations beyond their choosing and forced to endure privations of every ilk. Worse, they had no way of knowing when the conflict would end, and when, if ever, life would return to normal. In All Quiet on the Home Front: An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War, Richard Van Emden and Steve Humphries have compiled a fascinating collection of first person narratives from men and women who endured the horrors of life on 'the home front' in England during World War I. The modern day 'reality heroes' can never hope to compare to these real life heroes who lived through the first world war!

All Quiet on the Home Front presents readers with an intimate glimpse of what life was really like on the home front. Most histories of this period deal with the military and political aspects of the war, few however, deal with the social changes that the war wrought and how life changed for those who waited for the soldiers to return. Often the long awaited soldiers did not return. Others came home shell-shocked, or blinded from mustard gas attacks, or simply ill from diseases caught on the battle field. The impact of these deaths, and the returning injured, quickly denuded the population of the notion that this would be a glorious, and quickly won war. War is hell on earth, and this fact was quickly driven home to both those that fought on the battlefields, and those that waited at home. The civilian population in Britain faced food rationing, bombings carried out by Zeppelins, the mass induction of women into the work force, and the decline of the servant class as household servants entered the military or took on war work.

In constructing this book, the authors had the difficult task of finding survivors of the Great War, which ended in 1918, who still had vivid memories of their experiences. In the end, the authors interviewed about 100 people, from all walks of life, for this book. These interviews are intertwined with diary and letter excerpts, as well as historical facts gleaned from official records, newspaper accounts, and previously documented interviews to paint a mesmerizing account of what life was like on the home front throughout the prelude to war, and through the entire course of the war itself.

Many of the events surrounding the Great War are well known. The principal participants, the major battles, the use of chemical weapons, and the effect of influenza on the course of the war. Many of the 'smaller' aspects of the war are, however, overshadowed by the main conflict. The stories contained in All Quiet on the Home Front help to highlight some of these important issues. For example, the fact that in 1917 food shortages in Britain resulted in massive malnutrition of children and numerous deaths from starvation. As in World War II, German Zeppelins and aircraft rained down terror on a vulnerable, civilian population. Worse, many German immigrants in Britain, as well as those with German sounding names were beaten and killed, and 'German' shops were boycotted and sometimes destroyed. Also, often overlooked, is the use of children as laborers in munitions factories and other dangerous locations.