Demobbed: Coming Home After World War Two

November 26, 2009

Men serving on the front line are like puppets on a string, postulated German playwright Wolfgang Borchert on his return from the Eastern Front: all individual thought and impulses reduced to an absolute minimum in the communal goal of victory. Running with the puppet metaphor, Borchert noted that after the war's end, former soldiers were torn from the strings that had controlled them, giving rise to the bewildering experience of being in charge of one's life once more.

The difficulties facing soldiers returning to civilian life after the Second World War has been a subject of great interest to social historians in Germany. Not so in Britain. This makes Alan Allport's Demobbed a particularly welcome addition to the field. Established narratives of victorious soldiers returning to Britain as heroes, falling into the arms of their wives or girlfriends and slotting into peacetime routines with ease are, he argues, not the whole story. Demobbed offers a darker, less triumphant version of what happened after the war ended. In 1945, psychiatrist Reg Ellery noted that "demobilisation involves far more than a change of clothing". Allport's wide-ranging study of British soldiers' experiences in the transition from war to peace certainly shows this to be the case.

Telling the stories of returning soldiers in their own words, Allport vividly conveys some of the lesser-known aspects of life in postwar Britain. A typical image of the end of the war captures the reunion of a husband and wife locked in a passionate embrace. Yet Demobbed opens with a dramatic tale of a betrayed soldier returning from war only to bludgeon his adulterous, pregnant wife to death. After enduring combat and then the frustratingly slow demobilisation process, soldiers finally found themselves back home. Far from resuming domestic bliss, Allport argues, men's arrival caused a disruption to routines that mothers and children had established in their absence. Children resented sharing their mothers' attention with their fathers; mothers experienced stress trying to please both their offspring and their husbands; and men often felt left out of the close-knit family circle.

Fitting back into civilian life was, it seems, even more complicated than rebuilding relationships with loved ones. Having travelled the world and been exposed to violent combat with the Armed Forces, soldiers found it difficult to return to their old jobs in offices and factories.

As Leonard Cheshire, winner of the Victoria Cross, wrote: "You cannot expect a man to screw up his courage day after day for year after year and then to take his uniform off and be just a normal citizen, content to catch the same train at morning and night and live a quiet life immediately." Accordingly, Allport argues, some returnees turned to crime as a source of adventure and an antidote to mundane civilian life. For other returning soldiers, screwing up their courage day after day in war had taken its toll mentally. From insomnia to uncontrollable shaking to guilt about survival, many of these factors prevented a seamless return to normality.

Demobbed is highly readable and will be enjoyed by those with a general interest in the social history of the Second World War. Allport's research raises a number of questions, for example about the disparity between public narratives and private experiences, and indeed the difficulties facing historians of experience in using personal sources and quantifying their findings. Some academics may be dismayed to find these issues unaddressed. My impression, however, is that this is a deliberate move on Allport's part, both to allow the individual voices their maximum impact and to keep his study accessible to a popular audience.

Demobbed: Coming Home After World War Two

By Alan Allport. Yale University Press, 336pp, £16.00. ISBN 9780300140439. Published 29 October 2009

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