Book Review: The Great Silence

July 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm Leave a comment

Originally published on LibraryThing.

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age… by Juliet Nicolson

A collection of personal snapshots from the two years between Armistice Day and the Burial of the Unknown Soldier, anchored in the center by the two-minute Great Silence observed in all of Great Britain on Armistice Day 1919.

Ms. Nicolson writes “history from below” in the sense that this is not primarily the story of the politics of Britain of the time (except in the ways the movements from below affected them), but about how different people acted and reacted in the immediate aftermath of the trauma of World War I and the changes which immediately enveloped Britain. Butlers found their services no longer needed or afforded, the mobility offered by the automobile offered entrepreneurs new opportunity, and the newly-developed science of plastic surgery eased the suffering of men deformed by the ghastly wounds suffered at the front. Ms. Nicolson does not tell us these things happened; she shows us by telling the stories, reconstructed by diaries and letters, of those who lived the changes.

As a pastor, I was interested in how religion figured in this history. Religious observance declined after the war for three reasons: the lack of the corpse of the war dead meant no funerals (hadn’t they ever heard of a memorial service?); and there were fewer marriages and fewer baptisms. But there was also a sense that religion had failed and simply become a cheerleader for the war. I don’t know that this is untrue, but I wish that Ms. Nicolson had included among her snapshots religious folk who were trying to come to grips with that very question.

In Europe in 1919, Karl Barth wrote his monumental commentary on Romans, the first shot fired (if you will) by the Neo-Orthodox who rejected their teachers’ blind acceptance of the necessity of war. In Britain, the monuments of the inter-war years include the Service of Lessons and Carols from Cambridge, begun in 1919 as a response to the tragedy of the war. 92 years later it survives and thrives, and is broadcast around the world, as much a relic of the time of The Great Silence as any, and a constructive Christian response at that.

Ms. Nicolson’s book is well-written, its strength lying in her attention to detail, which makes the few typographical and factual errors more jarring. It is a work that may lead to further reading as we approach the hundredth anniversary of “The War to End All Wars.” ( )

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