When the editor of this august publication casually asked me if l would 'mind looking at some books on the Second World War', I little thought that I would walk away from the LR's offices laden with half a dozen substantial volumes consisting, between them, of some 3,500 pages of text. This explosion of print obviously represents the fruits of one of those collective, ostensibly good ideas that run through several publishers' minds simultaneously: 'The sixtieth anniversary of the war falls next year, the last eyewitnesses are dying out - let's get ahead of the competition and publish our compilations of their accounts this year.' The result: six solid, reliable, interesting and - sadly for their sales prospects - broadly similar (indeed, more or less interchangeable) books. Every one of them is a good read, but the pity is that readers are unlikely to buy them all - they'll pay their money and make their choice of one, or two at most.
The book that stands out from the crowd is The Secret Annexe: An Anthology of War Diarists, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor, in that it covers conflicts other than the Second World War. It is an anthology of diarists from the seventeenth century to the present which the editors have somewhat confusingly arranged in calendar, rather than chronological order. Thus we find ourselves in, say, the month of May, diving abruptly from the American Civil War to Vietnam, moving over to the two world wars, and then cutting back to the Napoleonic Wars. If their organisation is thus a tad disorientating, no one can fault the editors' choice of diarists, which is superb. Contributions range from the classic journals of Pepys and Evelyn, commenting on the Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars from their privileged positions as armchair warriors, to the searing, semi-anonymous jottings of a doomed poilu in the shell holes of Verdun, and a nameless Iraqi victim of the Gulf War. The editors have interpreted their brief widely, so that we get the reflections of non-combatants such as Vera Brittain or George Orwell, as well as those of warriors, ranging from the generals to the poor bloody infantry. As all great diaries are, it is a marvellous book to dip into, weaving a vivid tapestry of men and women at war.
The same praise applies to The Voice of War: The Second World War Told by Those Who Fought It, edited by James Owen and Guy Walters , another skilful anthology job by a dedicated pair of editors. This one leads us through the Second World War chronologically, and covers most of its theatres, taking in everythmg from the Fall of France to the fate of Slim's 'Forgotten Army' in Burma. Once again, the editors cast wide net, embracing the famous diaries of privileged witnesses (Chips Channon, Count Ciano, and Goebbels), as well as the horrific account (possibly fabricated for propaganda purposes) of a Russian teacher who describes being gang-raped by German soldiers, and later becoming a partisan to get her revenge. Ciano, Mussolini's son-in- law and foreign minister, is once again revealed as a great diarist. A strutting, preposterous popinjay in public, he was unrelentingly honest in private, when alone with his diary, seeing clearly the abyss that awaited the Axis, even at the apparent acme of its success.
Richard J Aldrich, previously a historian of the Cold War, was amassing the material for Witness to War: Diaries of the Second World War in Europe for twenty years, and a very comprehensive collection has been assembled. Goebbels gets his waspish little stings in here, alongside the more urbane entries of Harold Macmillan and Nigel Nicolson: the latter's patrician yet conscience-racked accounts of his military career prove him to have been as gifted a diarist as his father Harold (who appears in The Voice of War). The cynical observations of Sartre and Coward are here, alongside the commentaries of more humble folk - a German nurse, an English secret agent, a French resistance fighter (but nothing from the far more numerous collaborators).
The oral historian Max Arthur, in Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, has repeated the successful exercise he carried out in Forgotten Voices of the Great War, once more trawling the extensive sound archives of London's Imperial War Museum, this time to present a history of the Second World War by those who fought or lived through it. Naturally, the book has a British bias - in that most of the Museum's recordings are of UK or Commonwealth soldiers, soldiers, and airmen (and women) - but it includes the enemy too, along with the men, women and children who endured on the home front. Touching, timely, sometimes moving and harrowing, the voices that caught Arthur's sensitive ear always ring true, and he deserves to reap the same success from this book that his oral history of the Great War enjoyed.
The home front is the subject of Juliet Gardiner's Wartime Britain 1939–1945, and, as one would expect from this distinguished social historian, she has made a very thorough job of researching and recording it. Although she covers the familiar aspects of wartime (the Blitz, rationing, evacuation, the arrival of American forces en masse), many of her stories have never been published before. What is extraoradinary about these is that they reveal the intensity of the angst in which so many lived out those days and of the fear with which they faced the nights. After reading this patch work epic of courage and cowardice, crime and chronic deprivation, we shouldn't be surprised that those who were there look back on it all with a sort of inverted nostalgia. All the same, you wouldn't want to have been there too.
Countdown to Victory by Barry Turner , the last of the books under review, is much more concerned with the shooting war, and tells the story of Europe's final agony from the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 to the fall of Berlin. This book has more that will interest students of purely military history, with entries from the commanders who fought the final battles - Montgomery, Patton, Eisenhower and 'Bomber' Harris among them. As with all the other books here, however, most of the input comes from the non-professionals, those whom the war sucked up, chewed around, and spat out. We owe Barry Turner a debt for assembling this excellent collection.
Reading these books left me with two overwhelming impressions. First, a strong sense of the sheer bloody-minded endurance of the human spirit under stress. Sometimes this Darwinian, Dawkinsian instinct for survival amounted to callousness. Take a wartime scene in The Rainbow, a crowded Fleet Street pub at the height of the V1 raids. The pub hubbub stills as the familiar drone of the flying bomb's engine sounds overhead. It cuts out. Silence as hairs rise on the napes of necks. Boom! Instantly, the hubbub resumes: some other poor bastard has bought it.
The second impression is that - partly thanks to the sort of horrors described so heart-wrenchingly in these admirable books, and partly because of our selfish materialism - the majority of people, at least in Europe, feel a revulsion for war, all war. Messrs Blair and Bush should take note. Rightly or wrongly, we are mostly all cheese-eating surrender