:: Article

The Great Silence

By Max Dunbar.

The Great Silence: 1918-1920, Living in the Shadow of the Great War, Juliet Nicolson, John Murray 2009

Abel Gance’s film J’Accuse summed up the horror and pointlessness of the first world war. During the filming, a French general asked Gance who or what he was accusing. Gance’s reply: ‘I am accusing War. I am accusing Man. I am accusing universal stupidity.’ The final scene shows dead soldiers reanimating from the smoking battleground and turning on the watching civilians: j’accuse. In a piece of terrifying verisimilitude, Gance filmed this scene while the war was still going on, using actual soldiers on leave from Verdun. At the time Gance estimated that eighty per cent of them would not come back. Now they were there, on celluloid, confronting the audience of the London Philharmonic from that hell where youth and laughter go.

For me it’s the lingering image of Juliet Nicolson’s history of Britain immediately after the war. Social history brings to mind associations of people rummaging through pension books and extrapolating great trends. Nicolson’s book, following a multiplicity of lives during 1918-1920, does what Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke so extravangantly failed to do: brings history alive through the individual, the whole acting as a quiet indictment of the first world war.

She begins with the armistice celebrations. November 11 1918 saw one of the UK’s biggest street parties but the revelry had a manic and discordant edge, the laughter of a drunk with an agenda. D H Lawrence silenced a party room with his apocalyptic scorn: ‘I suppose you think the war is over and that we shall go back to the kind of world we lived in before… But the war isn’t over… The hate and evil is greater now than ever… hate will be dammed up in men’s hearts and will show itself in all sorts of ways that will be worse than war. Whatever happens there can be no peace on earth.’ This was typically Lawrentian but, long term, on the money. Arguably Nazism, communism and the nuclear arms race were all triggered by the first world war.

Nicolson might have taken to heart George Orwell’s words, that a bird’s-eye view is as distorting as a worm’s-eye view. The Great Silence sees soldiers, manservants, housewives and farmers mingle with big-name writers, politicians and socialites, all trying as best they can to stagger out from the shadow of the war. And carrying their burdens. During the war university graduates had treated the prospect of war as a Boys’ Own adventure and women shoved white feathers into the hands of those who didn’t go. Few of them returned and those who did were irrevocably changed. The children could never be persuaded to sit near Mr Lloyd while he took dinner with the family; half his face was missing, and you could see him eat through his jaw.

The sense is that Nicolson is trying to show the country as a single individual, going through the lurches and impulses of grief. There were good things to come out of this aftermath. Women gained confidence from their war work and were no longer content to mop floors until they were married off. Nicolson has traced the first steps towards universal sufferage. Everyone says historical books are ‘topical’ but Nicolson’s really is, to the reader on the curve of a twenty-first century that promises to be as hard and ravaged as the twentieth.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009.