This is the second book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ “war at home” series about the First World War … and plenty of loose ends were left untied to ensure that the reader buys the third one when it comes out. In the space of a relatively short novel (only around 400 pages in paperback), she covers an enormous range of issues – bereavement, tragically and inevitably, the agonising waiting for news, the mixed emotions when a loved one joined up, the eagerness of the early volunteers, their frustration at spending so much time training in Britain rather than going to the Front, the pressure put on those who were eligible to volunteer but didn’t immediately do so, the difficulties faced by those with life-changing injuries, the conversion of buildings into war hospitals, the role of animals in the war, class issues, the way in which the war offered new opportunities to women, the coming of Belgian refugees to Britain, the opportunities, however unlooked-for, brought by the war to some businesses, the Zeppelin raids, the fear of bombing and invasion, differences of opinion over possible conscription, differences of opinion over whether or not things like professional sport and musical hall shows should continue in wartime … there’s an awful lot in this book.
However – partly, to be fair, because there is so much in it – it never goes very deep, and that’s disappointing from the author of the wonderful Kirov saga. Some of it’s almost frivolous, but then there are lighter elements even to something so horrific – local busybodies, Boy Scouts determined to save their communities from highly unlikely attacks, unlikely spy scares, etc – so the frivolous bits aren’t really objectionable; but it only really seems to skim the surface of things, even when a character is killed. That doesn’t make it a bad book, but it does make it disappointing when Cynthia Harrod-Eagles can do so much better. Some of it was strangely class-ridden and patronising as well, more the sort of thing you’d expect from someone writing in 1915 than in 2015 – all the hysterics and silly remarks came from the servants, and never from the middle and upper-classes.
It’s still a good read, though. Maybe the main thing that comes across is the voluntary nature of the war effort at home, the voluntary, locally-led mobilisation of civilians into committees organising all sorts of relief efforts, the conversion of all sorts of buildings into war hospitals (as many of us in North West England will have seen reconstructed at Dunham Massey over the past couple of years, and many people will be familiar with in fictional terms from Downton Abbey, and so on. We’re so used now to expecting the state to organise everything. Having said which, most of those involved in the committees were young and middle-aged women from better-off backgrounds, who didn’t go out to work, had domestic staff to do their housework, and therefore had the time to give. Few people have that time these days, and many voluntary organisations are suffering because of it … but there just isn’t that time to give any more.
It’s hard to believe that this was taking place a full century ago. Yes, it’s another world, in terms of class divisions, gender issues, technology and so much else, but the Great War still seems quite close. It’s still a big part of our culture. The songs from it are still so familiar. It’s a long way to Tipperary, Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, K-K-K-Katie, Hello Hello who’s your lady friend, Over there. Keep the home fires burning, of course. Roses of Picardy, which (for some reason!) one of my grandmas used to love. And the poetry, of course – there are so many poems from the First World War. And, of course, the poppies. Also, the availability of resources on the internet now has made it easier for people to look into their family history.
Anyway. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles can do, and in the past certainly has done, better, but this is still worth reading, and I’ll also be reading the next book in the series when it comes out .