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The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War

3.87  ·  Rating Details  ·  611 Ratings  ·  106 Reviews
Peace at last, after Lloyd George declared it had been 'the war to end all wars', would surely bring relief and a renewed sense of optimism? But this assumption turned out to misplaced as people began to realise that the men they loved were never coming home. The Great Silence recalls the period of adjustment following the war.
Hardcover, 302 pages
Published October 29th 2009 by John Murray (first published 2009)
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Feb 16, 2014 Nigeyb rated it it was ok
Shelves: ww1
I had high hopes for this book, and was looking forward to finding out more about the two years immediately after the end of World War 1 which presaged a period of enormous social change. The book takes a chronological approach, and gives almost every chapter a one word title (e.g. Wound, Hopelessness, Yearning, Resignation etc.).

For every interesting piece of information (e.g. the tragedy of the Scottish soldiers returning to the Isle of Lewis, the Spanish flu epidemic, or the development of r
This is an excellent social history of a snapshot in England's past, right after the First World War, after the death and destruction, and shows the journey as a nation attempted to come to terms with what had happened and the emptiness left behind by the loss of so many men.

I loved The Perfect Summer England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson, so this book was an auto-buy for me as soon as I spotted it in kindle version. The writing style is very similar - the author effortlessly weaves her glimpse at a snapshot of time into themes, using the quotes and
Jan 20, 2012 Lobstergirl rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Pasquale Iantosca
Shelves: european-history
Nicolson, the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and the diplomat Harold Nicolson, has written a moderately interesting social history of Britain in the first few years after World War I, when people were numb with grief but most tried to keep a stiff upper lip. Her writing method is to pile anecdotes on top of each other; the effect can be somewhat disjointed and amateurish, as if you're reading her notes directly off the index cards.

I did learn something new, but it had nothing to do with Br
Oct 24, 2010 Grady rated it it was amazing
The silence that followed 'the incessant thunder' of WW I

Juliet Nicholson has that rare ability to recreate an historic period, making it so real that we feel as though we are living it. The theme of this perfectly written book is the effect that World War I had on England, more specifically the silence that fell over this island nation after the destruction of a huge majority of the men of England. But it is far more than the agony of dealing with the deaths of almost a million young men and ol
Jan 30, 2014 Rebecca rated it really liked it
I've always been fascinated with how people coped during and after World War I. As with most wars, they thought it would end quickly. Each side convinced that the other would drop their weapons after the first shots were fired. It wasn't touched on much in this book, but the weaponry of WWI far exceeded the expectation and ability of the soldiers and doctors. You have the introduction of nerve and mustard gas. The utter futility of trench warfare and the constant barrage of shells and fear of de ...more
Feb 23, 2014 Barbara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: wwi
There were a lot of interesting things in this book, but I felt it was poorly written. For me, there were too many little anecdotes about people or events that weren't tied in with anything else. However, parts of it were fascinating. I especially valued the parts about Harold Gillies and his pioneering plastic surgery work. I've read a little about the "gueules cassees" as the French call the soldiers whose faces were so horribly damaged, but I didn't know much about the reconstructive work tha ...more
Jun 03, 2016 Val rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, byt-ww1
'In 1918, 77% of households were renting – of which 1% were socially renting, while the remaining 23% were owner occupiers.' (From A Century of Home Ownership and Renting in England and Wales, Part of the 2011 Census Analysis by The Office for National Statistics.)
Most male homeowners (those over twenty one) could vote and in 1918 women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications or were married to men who did could vote as well. We now had full representation, Hooray! Suffragette
Jul 21, 2010 Jaylia3 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In The Great Silence Juliet Nicolson has a way of accumulating details that made me feel as if I was living in post-WWI Britain. Using sources that included archives, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and even interviews Nicholson tells moving personal anecdotes about both well known and lesser known British citizens coping with the aftermath of a war that forever changed the social order. Every class from royal to commoner fought in the war, which helped change the way people thought. After ...more
Mar 12, 2011 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Where I got the book: bought retail with a Borders gift card, in a huge rush after the bankruptcy was announced. It had been on my TBR list for a while.

The Great Silence is a snapshot of Britain just after World War I. It covers the period from when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, to late 1920 when the body of the Unknown Soldier was interred in Westminster Abbey. It covers subjects as diverse as shell shock, plastic surgery for horrendous facial wounds, the Paris Peace Conference, bi
Aug 24, 2014 Bekah rated it liked it
Before reading I had read some reviews about this book. Some of the reviews were saying that this book spent too much time telling stories and not enough time giving evidence on which I quit agree with. The book is really just a collection of stories of real life characters which normally would be great if the author was able to actually weave in the stories to the main point of the book. 90% of the time Nicolson would intrigue you into the telling of an interesting story of a first person accou ...more
Apr 01, 2012 Abigail rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I have mixed feelings about this book. It was interesting, but it did not keep my attention very well and it took me a long time to finish it. I ended up skimming a great deal of the last half.

Nicolson describes the aftermath of WWI in Britain through vignettes of real people; some famous, some not. This is a very interesting way to go about it, but sometimes she switches between personalities so abruptly I found it jarring. In general I just felt it could have been put together in a much more c
Jill Hutchinson
This moving look at the two years immediately following the Great War truly affected me in its poignancy. The author, who has impeccable literary and political credentials, has done a magnificent job in presenting the unimaginable grief and struggle for understanding that gripped Britain as an entire generation was wiped out in the muddy trenches. She examines the sorrow of all classes of the population, from the aristocracy to the shop keeper, as they individually and collectively attempted to ...more
Kate Hewitt
Mar 28, 2014 Kate Hewitt rated it it was amazing
I read this for research purposes, for a novel I'm writing set during this time, and I found it both fascinating and incredibly poignant. There are lots of little vignettes, glimpses into the human condition and grief and loss. So many history books can seem dry, but this one isn't at all.
Jill Meyer
Jun 23, 2016 Jill Meyer rated it it was amazing
"The Great Silence" is Juliet Nicholson's second book, after publishing "The Perfect Summer" in 2007. The first book was a social history of that glorious summer of 1911, the first summer after the ending of the Victorian and Edwardian ages.

With "Silence", Nicholson has returned with a meticulously written view of the two years in England after the end of "The Great War" in 1918. British soldiers returned after demob to their homes but in many cases, their lives would never be the same after fou
Feb 22, 2015 Karli rated it it was amazing
Shelves: brit-lit
Brilliant. This is a fantastic book. It's rare to find someone who adores research and has the gift of storytelling. Not every author is capable of adding humanity to history, creating wonderful bits of scholarly achievement and leaving the reader somewhat less charmed. Nicolson delicately pieces the tales together. It's quite a bit like one of those pictures made of thousands of smaller images. You comprehend the parts and they make up the whole without losing anything in the process.
Jul 20, 2012 Ellen rated it really liked it
Written in the journalistic style Nicolson employed in her other books, this one follows the English people through WWI and immediately after, documenting their struggles during the war and the changes in society that the war actually caused. Ordinary people in addition to the aristocracy are quoted, talking about the ways in which they coped with the war and its impact on everyday life. A very good read for those who are interested in British history and culture.
Alison C
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age, by Juliet Nicolson, covers just two years of British history, from the Armistice of 1918 to Armistice Day of 1920, but it packs a lot of history in that short period of time. About 1/3 of English men between the ages of 20 and 24 were killed or permanently wounded in World War I (which is not as high a percentage as France or Germany, but still), and the world that the survivors returned to was very di ...more
A fascinating and sobering topic, but also shockingly poorly written (or edited) in places. Nicolson's message is important, as we like to think, "Then the war (whichever war it is) ended and all was happy again", when of course that isn't true. Her careful exhumation of various details of national and personal mourning and response to the shattering losses of "the Great War" is thought-provoking and sad: I read this in sessions rather than all the way through, as it got overwhelming at times! H ...more
Nov 28, 2014 Denise rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own, favourites, read-2014
The Great Silence explores life in Britain during the first two years after WWI, in compelling episodes and fascinating detail. Juliet Nicolson has a rare talent for writing nonfiction as richly atmospheric and evocative as a truly brilliant novel. A poignant, touching and hauntingly beautiful portrait of the time.
Jan Polep
Feb 24, 2014 Jan Polep rated it really liked it
If you want to read more about some of the plot points in "Downton Abbey", read "The Great Silence"...a slice of 1918-1920 British history. From the end of the war until the ceremony for the burial of the unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey, these stories run sad, to social, to grisly, to everyday, and back. A little jazz, a lot of changes in the work place/big estates, more than enough medical procedures, newsmaker exposes, and a lot of grieving families. You'll never look at Armistice Day the ...more
Sue Robinson
Sep 17, 2013 Sue Robinson rated it it was ok
Very interesting research but lacklustre presentation.
Jul 12, 2016 Isabel rated it really liked it
I was a great fan of The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson (great grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West). That book dealt with the summer before WW1 so this book was a natural follow-up for me. It's the story of how British society dealt with the aftermath of the war, but also covers such interesting topics as shell shock, the Paris Peace Conference, and most interesting for me, Harold Gilles, the inventive 'father' of plastic surgery. The book is filled with personal anecdotes which make it ext ...more
If, as many historians have claimed, the Victorian era didn't really end until the outbreak of the First World War, then those four years of bloodshed and conflict served as both the death-throes of one era and the birth pains of another: the modern world, our world, emerging from the bloody fields of Flanders. But it didn't come into being all in one go. There was a period of 'in-between', after the shattering noise of the war and the busy, jazzy jangle of the Roaring Twenties, there was two ye ...more
Dec 24, 2015 Terry rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This is an interesting book to me, but I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else I would recommend it to.

It isn't, perhaps, the most cohesive book. It's interestingly arranged in an almost "five stages of death" order, but within each chapter (each "assigned" a specific month and year post-November 1918) it's a bit haphazard--Nicolson is clearly reliant on specific memoirs and she breaks them up into tidbits that she scatters over a wide swath of chapters.

I was still fascinated by the book and
Aug 22, 2015 Kate rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historic-periods
Fascinating and deeply moving for me.

It's history "from the ground up": emphasizing the little details of daily life. There are plenty of other resources to inform those who prefer battles and politics and other such world events: I want to know what people said in their letters and diaries and what they wore, ate, sang. Doesn't matter to me whether those people are notable, infamous or "ordinary."

Two sections of the book were especially powerful: the "great silence" itself. This was my first
Lauren Albert
Jul 23, 2010 Lauren Albert rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-british
A wonderfully evocative and sympathetic look at the darker side of the post-war period. Nicolson reveals the inevitable sadness that lurked under the celebration of peace. She shows the grief of the many that were unable to bury their loved ones and so were left without a sense of closure. We meet the wounded and disabled veterans, struggling to support themselves, and learn how the government calculated benefits for amputees depending on where the amputation was made. Nicholson shows the unfair ...more
Sep 22, 2010 Sue rated it really liked it
An excellent book, on a nearly forgotten time which, sadly, is so responsible for shaping our world today.

Cautions: I thought each chapter would be a vignette highlighting one person's story. Not so. The entire book is made up of tiny bits and pieces of stories of loads of people. Don't try to remember them all, they are likely to not return later on. While immensely interesting it does take on the flavor of someone's term paper after a while, and doesn't allow you to deeply understand any one p
Jun 27, 2010 Linda rated it really liked it
Nicolson's last book looked at "The Perfect Summer" in England in 1911 just before WWI. "The Great Silence" looks at life in Britain in the first years immediately after the war when most of the country seems to be coping with life by not talking about the war or mentioning those who didn't come home. She looks in particular at the moment of silence that has been observed annually since 11/11/1919 (noting only Americans were too busy to stop) and the unveiling of the Cenotaph along with the inte ...more
Nov 12, 2012 Alicia rated it really liked it
This is a beautifully written social history of Britain in the years immediately after World War I. The book is a series of vingettes that illustrate how the British people struggled to come to terms with the overwhelming carnage and disillusionment left by the war. The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, and crowds in London and across the country cheered and partied the night away. It didn't take long for a troubling reality -- the huge death toll, disabled veterans, economic losses, an ...more
Sep 30, 2012 David rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
There must be few people left in the British Isles, if any, who can remember a time before the annual November Remembrance Day commemoration was an established part of our lives. The stone memorials to the victims of the 1914-18 War have, for us, always been there. Stopping for two minutes silence on eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is something we almost take for granted. Sadly, there have been other wars to mark in the same way, and it has also become normal to use a per ...more
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Juliet Nicolson is the author of 'The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm' and 'The Great Silence: Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age.' She read English at Oxford University and has worked in publishing in both the UK and the United States. She has two daughters, and lives with her husband in Sussex.
More about Juliet Nicolson...

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“Silence can bring with it a vacancy that in its turn craves the distraction of the human voice or the obscuring impact music. These distractions can help to stifle the terror of being abandoned to the silence of the noisy mind.” 2 likes
“I suppose you think the war is over and that we shall go back to the kind of world you lived in before,’ Lawrence snapped, in a tone of deep scorn. ‘But the war isn’t over,’ he continued, answering his own question. ‘The hate and evil is greater now than ever . . . It makes me sick to see you rejoicing like a butterfly in the last rays of the sun before the winter . . . hate will be dammed up in men’s hearts and will show itself in all sorts of ways which will be worse than war. Whatever happens there can be no peace on earth.” 0 likes
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