DEMOBBED: COMING HOME AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Alan Allport
Yale University Press, $38, 265 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
There has been far too much written in memoirs, fiction and history about the travails of veterans adjusting to civilian life for us to be able to believe, in the words of the grand old song, that everyone could really be feeling gay when Johnny came marching home again. The problems involved in the process are real and probably inevitable, especially when it happened on a huge scale, as it did at the end of both world wars.
Alan Allport, a British historian who received his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and currently lectures at Princeton, has chosen to zero in on the particular experience of British servicemen returning from the Second World War and in “Demobbed” (a common British slang abbreviation of demobilized), he has given us a detailed portrait of the multifaceted difficulties of this particular theater of postwar adjustment.
Alive with portraits of individuals - from the notorious, like air force captain turned hanged serial killer Neville Heath, to the little known - “Demobbed” is a juicy slice of life redolent of the peculiar atmosphere and singular situations unique to Britain in the mid-1940s.
But although it is necessarily and splendidly rooted in its particular time and place, Mr. Allport’s binational historical training and his trans-Atlantic perspectives render him especially suited to ensuring that there are lessons broader - and closer to home - for 21st-century American readers seeking to understand why those returning from the battlefield have a tough time settling down at home.
The sheer scale of Britons in uniform (as was the case with Americans) at the conclusion of World War II in 1945 is staggering:
“On V-E Day, over five million Britons were in the uniform of His Majesty’s Armed and Auxiliary Forces. Nine out of ten of them were male, the vast majority wartime conscripts or volunteers serving for the duration only. Most had been in the army, navy or air force since at least 1941. Over a quarter of a million of them had been continuously overseas for more than five years.”
With the abrupt conclusion of hostilities after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the immediate problem facing the government was how to be able to transport these millions of servicemen, whose travel overseas had occurred over five years, back home as quickly as possible.
“Stuck like flies on flypaper,” in Doris Lessing’s memorable if acrid phrase, they were understandably eager to get back to their families and civilian lives and “Demobbed” chronicles many instances of rioting and even mutiny that occurred during this difficult period.
(My own father, who was one of those returning soldiers cooling his heels at a huge army camp outside Cairo, could not get over the self-destructive folly of soldiers, however understandable their rage, destroying the very facilities, such as the canteen, cinema, and shop, which made their lives at all tolerable.)
There was particular resentment at the British government having made the vast ocean liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth with their huge capacities as troopships available for repatriation of U.S. forces stationed in Europe.
That this was a direct result of postwar British financial dependence on the United States did not help soothe feelings, contributing to an understandable resentment that although the enormous sacrifices made by the British had gained them military victory, it had left their nation economically ruined and much reduced as a global power.
What is most striking as one reads “Demobbed” is the difference between what faced these returning British servicemen and their U.S. counterparts. Although those returning stateside certainly had their problems to deal with, including inflation and some shortages, unlike their cousins across the Atlantic, they were returning to a country greatly increased in wealth and power by the war and benefited from entering a booming economy. Mr. Allport also pointedly contrasts the American G.I. Bill with what Britain offered its troops:
“In the United States the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 - the ‘GI Bill’ - made demobilisation a vast engine of social mobility, as millions of blue-collar veterans were propelled by college education into the prosperous middle class. Of the fifteen and a half million US veterans eligible for education benefits, almost eight million took advantage of them and more than two million attended two- and four-year colleges. … Britain had its higher-educational opportunities for ex-servicemen too, but they were simpler, cheaper and (crucially) far, far less ambitious.
“Between 1945 and 1950, 83,000 Further Education and Training Scheme grants were made to demobbed men and women, 43,000 of which were used at universities. Although by 1950 this did help to increase the nation’s tiny student population by roughly two-thirds, the initiative only encompassed one in a hundred of all returning ex-servicemen.”
Certainly, Britain was a much poorer country than the United States back then, but in all times, plentiful or straitened, choices must be made: The British Labor government chose universal health care over more generous benefits for those exchanging uniforms for civilian garb.
As the author ruefully remarks: “When one looks at the American experience of homecoming at the end of the Second World War, and the way in which the famous GI-Bill helped to propel a returning generation of US veterans into the middle classes, 1945 begins to seem like a lost, never-to-be-repeated opportunity to take the concentrated energy and ambition of four million men and use it to transform Britain’s ossified mid-century social and economic order for the better.
“How differently the second half of the twentieth century might have turned out had the lofty aspirations of many of the homecoming been tapped in a more inspired manner.”
British veterans found themselves coming down to earth with a bump in a nation with stringent rationing of most food and clothes, among other staples. Mr. Allport tells us that “many ex-servicemen complained about the bad fit and garish style of the suits they were issued. They didn’t always appreciate how lucky they were to have new clothes at all in austerity Britain. Service life was sheltered from the rigours of civilian rationing and shortages, as the NAAFI [equivalent of PX] counter laden with sweets, tobacco and cigarettes suggests. Adjusting to life outside the ‘khaki cocoon’ could be a trial.”
Indeed, it could. One family recalls a returned soldier eating the piece of cheese he found on the kitchen table. When he asked for some more, he was abashed to learn that he had just consumed the family’s cheese ration for a week. It is precisely this mixture of the general and the particular that makes “Demobbed” such an insightful and worthwhile book for today’s readers.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.