The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

Review by Marilyn Copeland

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

An estimated 30% of all men in Great Britain aged between 20 and 24 in 1911 were dead by November 11, 1918 at the end of what was called the Great War. It was a rare family that had not lost a father, a brother or a son. Adding in cousins, uncles and nephews, there was probably not a single family that did not have a loss, and many were decimated. Ultimately betraying the promise that it was “a war to end all war,” World War I ravaged Great Britain and opened the door for societal change that was earth-shattering.

Many soldiers many returned to Great Britain with terribly disabling wounds (the treatment of which brought about great progress in the new art of plastic surgery) or with shell shock, in these days referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder.

And how did the women at home cope with the loss of their friends, lovers, and family?  Lady Diana Cooper, a society beauty who also volunteered as a nurse, was not alone in turning to morphine: she found it to be “a staunch partner in times of stress.” Indeed, she tucked tubes of the drug into packages she sent to soldiers in France, and a well known chemist’s shop advertised gelatin sheets impregnated with morphine and cocaine as “useful presents for friends at the front.”

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a victorious, but inexpressibly weary nation at first could hardly believe the war was over. A year later, signaled by church bells, sirens, and all manner of other noise, silence cloaked Great Britain for two minutes. Not a train, car or carriage moved, as the whole of the nation paused to remember those who had sacrificed so much—the soldiers, the women at home, the children. For many, and perhaps for the country, it was a sign of completion, and a notice to go on with life.

Packed with facts, but also possessed of a strong narrative sense, The Great Silence is a compelling read. The author, Juliet Nicolson, is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. His personal writings are among the many historical documents and memoirs referenced in the book. She was also fortunate to be able to interview several centenarians and near-centenarians—still-living survivors of the time.

If you enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, or Mary S. Lovell’s The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, you will love this book.

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