Pack Up Your Troubles by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles


This is the final book in the “War at Home” series – taking us into mid-1919, and reminding us that the Great War didn’t end with the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles wasn’t signed until June 1919, and the treaties concerning Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire weren’t signed until the summer of 1920. It was many months before all the troops were able to come home, and, of course, there was the Spanish flu pandemic to cope with as well.

Many people had lost loved ones. Others had to cope with life-changing injuries and what we now call PTSD. Relationships had changed for ever, jobs that had been left often weren’t there for those coming home to return to, the role of women had changed considerably, and, despite the joy of peace and the return of those who’d survived – and most of those who served did survive – it wasn’t easy for anyone to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on.

But there was happiness too. New starts. Marriages. Babies. A lot of different aspects of how people dealt with the end of the war are covered in this book, and it’s an interesting read. My main quibble is that, as she did with the Morland Dynasty books, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles created too many characters for her to be able to deal with satisfactorily in a fairly short book, and some of the people we got to know in the earlier books merit little more than a few lines here. Many of the loose ends are tied up, but others aren’t. Most of the characters get happy endings – or happy new beginnings. Others don’t. But that’s pretty realistic, isn’t it?

Although it’s called the “War at Home” series, a lot of the characters haven’t been at home at all for much of it. When the book starts, plenty of them are abroad, on active service or as volunteers. Edward Hunter becomes part of the British delegation to the peace conference – and it’s great to see that included in a historical novel, because it very rarely is. And one thing that often gets forgotten is that a general election was held on December 14th, little more than a month after the Armistice. With the huge increase in the electorate, and that fact that millions of voters were still abroad with the Armed Forces, it must have taken an incredible amount of organisation. It’s good to see that mentioned here, especially in terms of some women being able to vote for the first time – and the Irish Question being addressed as well.

Most of the book is set “at home”, though – with the various different members of the Hunter family, and their servants. I don’t want to say too much in case anyone’s reading this and is planning to read the book and doesn’t want spoilers, but we see a range of issues raised. How will men returning from the war fit back into civilian life? As we sadly know, they’re not returning to “homes fit for heroes to live in”, or really any sort of society fit for heroes to live in: there’s widespread unemployment, and social unrest. What effect will their return on their families? Can marriages damaged during the war be saved? Will couples who got together either before the war or during the war go on to marry? How will women whose lives have changed beyond recognition due to the war adapt to peacetime?  What should be done about war memorials?  I thought that there could have been a bit more about the changes in society as regards the class system, but I suppose that the author could only fit so much in.

That’s the only problem with it, really – the author could only fit so much in. The book really needed to be longer. Some of the characters outside the “core” family featured quite prominently in earlier books, but are barely mentioned at all here. Even Diana Hunter, who was arguably the main character in the first book, only appears here through the eyes of others. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I was left wanting more. That’s a sign of a good book, but it’s a bit frustrating when it’s the end of a series! Maybe a series about the same characters during the Second World War will follow? I’d certainly be up for reading it.

My grandad used to tell me a story about the day his dad came home from the Great War. They were going to meet him at the railway station. Grandad was only a little boy at the time: he must have been just coming up for 4. My great-grandma dressed him in his best clothes, and warned him severely not to get himself mucky before his dad had seen him. They were just about to set off when the door opened and my great-grandad walked in: he’d managed to get an earlier train, but hadn’t been able to let them know. I always liked that story, when I was a little girl. I never really thought much about what happened afterwards – how Grandad, who can only have been a baby when his dad went away, got used to having this strange man around, and how my great-grandad had to adapt back to civilian life, and how they all had to cope with their grief for the relatives – three close family members – and friends who’d been killed. Ask anyone when the First World War ended, and they’ll say it was on November 11th 1918. But its effects carried on. They still do.

The story of this book is that the war didn’t really end.  Its effects – and some of those were good, with the role of the women and the relationship between the social classes changed for ever – continued to be felt by those who lived through it for the rest of their days, and it was well after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 before people could even start trying to resume any form of normality, or find a new normality.  And this was in Britain – how much harder must it have been for people in areas where the actual fighting had taken place?  This is quite a short book, and it’s bitty because there are so many different characters involved, but there’s a lot to be taken from it.  Well worth a read.

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