Death in War and Peace: A History of Loss and Grief in England, 1914-1970

January 13, 2011

It is particularly heartening to read scholastic work that is both accessible to a non-academic audience and intellectually stimulating for those working in the academic arena. In Death in War and Peace, Pat Jalland has provided an important historical contribution to the study of death and an informative account of how a country has handled far-reaching social challenge and change.

Documenting the cause, management of, and attitudes towards death, dying and bereavement in England between 1914 and the 1970s, Death in War and Peace is split into three parts. The first oscillates between varied narratives of the First World War, between comradeship and heroism in battle and the home front's agonising uncertainty and quests to find out what had happened to men on the front lines. Such is the poignancy of Jalland's writing and use of extracts that it is difficult to read this section in anything more than short bursts.

Following on from the First World War, she recounts the depths of the economic depression that followed and the search for meaning in death, where mere words felt insufficient to articulate what the country had just been through.

Moving away from death as a result of war, Jalland goes on to examine peacetime deaths, particularly those caused by industrial accidents, and the class differences they threw into sharp relief. Pertinently, she focuses on the response of the Whitehaven community to a mining accident in 1922 that left many men dead, and how the media "respected" the grief of local people in coverage of the incident. Contrast this with the media's response in 2010 in their dealings with Whitehaven during and after the deadly rampage of the gunman Derrick Bird.

But by the book's second part, we are back to the horrors of war, as Jalland highlights the carnage of the Blitz and the marginalisation of the "lost airmen" of the Second World War. Such is the depth of her insight into the reality of death in this era that by the start of part three, readers may feel, as I did, relieved to be back into more familiar territory. She moves on to consider the institutionalisation of dying, the creation of the hospice movement and the growth of bereavement as a social and academic issue.

The book's emotional impact is a credit to the author. Where Jalland excels is her ability to weave together the social, medical, cultural, geographical, economic, international, military and political currents that have shaped attitudes towards death in England over a 60-year period. This context, particularly in the first half of the book where it is positioned alongside the stories of individuals, their families and friends, serves to remind us of the impact of loss in a world where death is often reported in the hundreds and thousands.

If I were to offer a criticism of Jalland's book, paradoxically it would be linked to its greatest asset, namely its blending of academic insight and personal narrative. As an academic, at times I wanted to know more on a scholarly level, while as an interested non-academic reader I might well question why particular events and academics had been featured. Yet the occasional disjuncture between the book's academic scope and accessibility serves to illustrate the difficulty of writing a text that caters for such a wide audience. Happily, in large part, Death in War and Peace succeeds in negotiating the gulf between scholarly and non-scholarly terrains, and for this Jalland must be commended.

Death in War and Peace: A History of Loss and Grief in England, 1914-1970

By Pat Jalland. Oxford University Press. 336pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780199265510. Published 30 September 2010

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