Authoritative first of a two-part history of Britain around the time of World War II.
Todman (History/Queen Mary Univ. of London; The Great War: Myth and Memory, 2006) prefaces this sweeping, (overly?) exhaustive look at British society during these fraught years by referring to his grandparents experiencing the war as “the defining moment of their lives.” He tells this story “as it went along”—i.e., as the citizens would have endured it daily rather than with the hindsight we enjoy. Indeed, the late 1930s were marked by joyous celebrations: there was a new king in 1937 (after the depressing turmoil of Edward VIII’s abdication), and in the next year, the new Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s triumphant return from appeasing Hitler in Munich. Less than two decades after the last conflagration, few Britons, notes the author, “believed that another ‘great’ war would be anything less than a disaster for humanity.” Much of the detail of the run-up to war with Germany involves the machinations of government—i.e., Conservative versus Labour—and military preparedness: the doubling of the Territorial Army and escalation of the navy and Royal Air Force, all requiring enormous expense. To get a sense of what Britons were really feeling, Todman enlists, along with extensive use of archives and periodicals, the material gathered by Charles Madge’s social scientific experiment, the Mass-Observation: detailed, ongoing descriptions gathered by regular people across the country to reveal a true sense of “public opinion.” The author also includes numerous firsthand accounts from citizens, especially during the Blitz, which targeted British ports and industry and prompted evacuations of children and the vulnerable, who formed fire-watching services and united popular support for retaliation. In addition, Todman examines the participation of the whole of the British Empire and the galvanizing effort of the new prime minister, Winston Churchill.
Excellent detail for certain readers, too much information for others.