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Title: How We Lived Then - A History of Everyday Life During the Second Word War
Author: Norman Longmate
Copyright: © 2002
Publisher: Pimlico, an imprint of Random House
Relevance: How We Lived Then is a great addition to the bookshelf of any writer, news correspondent or editor posted to Britain -- or for anyone who wants to understand the Second World War from the eyes (and hearts) of the British people. It is also quite useful for historians and researchers needing backgrounders on a remarkable time in history and how millions of ordinary people rose to the occasion and fought their own war with simple dignity. Recommended.
Review: How We Lived Then - A History of Everyday Life during the Second Word War is a fascinating examination of how British civilians endured the various hardships during the last World War. Unlike the multitudinous volumes that chronicle the horrors suffered and sacrifices made by combat soldiers during this period, How We Lived Then concentrates on the millions of men, women and children who stayed back in Britain to fight the war in their own way.
Using an interesting anecdotal style, author Norman Longmate gives readers hundreds of personal experiences outlining Britain's war preparations, their experiences (and privations) during the war and, overcoming great odds, their triumphant victory over Nazi Germany.
Rather than concentrate on the dramatic V.1 and V.2 rocket attacks that killed tens of thousands of Londoners, caused millions of pounds of damage, and sent much of southern England into frenzied invasion preparations, author Longmate concentrates on the seemingly mundane, often tragically ordinary circumstances of the ordinary British civilian. In the process, he crafts a surprisingly lucid and compelling history of the time, one that perhaps more accurately than ever before, describes exactly how Britain's civilians helped win the war -- and what price was paid by each.
Longmate's first chapter -- Join the A.R.P. -- gives readers insight into how Britain lurched towards this major conflict, with much of the populace understandably unprepared for another major conflict. But this and many other chapters in How We Lived Then dispute such commonly held misconceptions that Britain was surprised by Hitler's advances. Rather, Longmate outlines the tremendous preparations undertaken all the way back to 1935, years before the formal declaration of hostilities.
At first, not everyone understood the magnitude of oncoming catastrophe and many youngsters looked upon war preparations as an adventure. But older people, who had seen the ravages of the first World War, clearly did understand. Longmate writes, "one Burton-On-Trent mother remembers collecting gas masks for her family from the crowded parish hall. Her two daughters were still awake when she arrived home and had a joyous game galloping round the bedroom in their new masks while an elderly relation staying with the family sat down and wept at the sight."
Later, "[t]he lecture on emergency child-birth had the same class shaking with suppressed laughter when both legs fell off an ancient doll which a woman doctor was using for her demonstration. In a London store one enthusiastic girl fire-fighter caused equal amusement by repeatedly falling down while hurrying to an imaginary fire in her brand new dungarees and rubber boots. She had forgotten to cut the string tying her wellingtons together."
But the laughs soon faded and as Hitler's armies made terrifying progress across the battlefields of Europe and Africa, Britain's civilian population endured hardship after hardship. In the chapter entitled, Build Your Own Shelter, Longmate describes how each resident built his or her own home shelter, often constructed around a government-supplied, plain steel chamber.
Named after their inventor, these "Andersons" provided cramped, relatively safe accommodation. They were, however, not particularly comfortable: "To be inside an Anderson felt rather like being entombed inside a small, dark bicycle shed, smelling of earth and damp...A Croydon man who woke up in his after three hours' sleep, feeling very cold, found he 'was lying in three inches of ice-cold water. It has seeped up through cracks in the concrete floor.'"
Supplemented by dozens of black and white photographs, How We Lived Then captures well the defiant spirit yet subdued mood of the country during the war. One particularly poignant moment was captured when a photographer shot ten school children, all with the backs to the camera looking towards the train platform -- and their parents who would shortly visit them using specially discounted day return tickets. Annotated, "evacuees looking out for visiting parents, December 1939. (Special cheap tickets were arranged to discourage parents from taking their children home)," one can almost feel the pain and longing each child felt separated as they were from their parents. Especially touching is the small dog one of the children has on a leash.
Overall: How We Lived Then is a great addition to the bookshelf of any writer, news correspondent or editor posted to Britain -- or for anyone who wants to understand the Second World War from the eyes (and hearts of the British people. It is also quite useful for historians and researchers needing backgrounders on a remarkable time in history and how millions of ordinary people rose to the occasion and fought their own war with simple dignity. Recommended.
End of Review
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