fight­ing the Peo­ple’s WAR


History of War - - REVIEWS -

Au­thor: Jonathan Fen­nell Pub­lisher: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press Price: £25.00

With the cen­te­nary of Word War I now draw­ing to a close, it’s pos­si­ble to take stock of the plethora of books that have been pub­lished on the con­flict in the past four years. While many have sim­ply gone over old ground, some have of­fered the reader in­ter­est­ing new per­spec­tives and ques­tioned many of our long-held be­liefs that stretch back to 191418. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est are those ti­tles ex­am­in­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of the or­di­nary sol­diers from across the Bri­tish Em­pire who fought in the war. It is, there­fore, pleas­ing to see that sim­i­lar treat­ment has now been given to the sol­diers of World War II by au­thor Jonathan Fen­nell.

The main fo­cus of Fight­ing The Peo­ple’s War is on the ‘ci­ti­zen armies’ of Bri­tain and the Com­mon­wealth coun­tries of Aus­tralia, Canada,

In­dia, New Zealand and South Africa. It does not solely fo­cus on the pro­fes­sional sol­dier, who, de­spite his higher lev­els of train­ing, morale and pro­fes­sion­al­ism, made up only a small per­cent­age of the fight­ing men. This fo­cus on the civil­ian in uni­form is the prin­ci­pal strength of this fas­ci­nat­ing new study.

Once into the book, the reader will find it is di­vided into six parts, which work in chrono­log­i­cal or­der.

For ex­am­ple, Part I be­gins with the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary con­text, ex­am­in­ing is­sues such as the in­ter­war pe­riod, the train­ing of sol­diers and mo­bil­i­sa­tion. Part II then takes the reader into the so-called ‘Phoney

War’, the ill-fated cam­paign in Nor­way, the Bat­tle of France and the equally dis­as­trous events in the Mid­dle and Far East. By the time the reader reaches Part VI they are pre­sented with the im­me­di­ate post-war world and the of­ten-un­easy tran­si­tion of the ci­ti­zen sol­dier back to civil­ian life.

While Fen­nell ex­am­ines nu­mer­ous po­lit­i­cal and so­cial as­pects of the war, of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est is his chal­lenge of the long-held view that the war cre­ated so­cial co­he­sion and united the peo­ple in a com­mon cause. In re­al­ity, while there was of course some de­gree of this, there was in fact much divi­sion and fric­tion in so­ci­ety. As the au­thor states, the con­flict “tore com­mu­ni­ties apart” and the “di­vi­sions of class, age, gen­der, eth­nic­ity and race per­sisted” or were even am­pli­fied.

In­deed, Fen­nell quite rightly points to the out­right re­jec­tion of the pre-war sta­tus quo by those who served in uni­form as well as civil­ians who spent the war at home, as ev­i­denced by the shock land­slide Labour vic­tory in the 1945 gen­eral elec­tion. In the wake of World War II, Bri­tain would see its em­pire fast dis­in­te­grat­ing, while at home the no­tion of the wel­fare state be­came firmly es­tab­lished.

Fen­nell is well-placed to write this con­sid­er­ably in-depth study, be­ing a se­nior lec­turer at the De­fence Stud­ies De­part­ment at King’s Col­lege Lon­don. He is also the au­thor of Com­bat And Morale In The North African Cam­paign, a book short­listed for the Whit­field Prize of the Royal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

As such, Fight­ing The Peo­ple’s

War is a high­brow, aca­demic piece of work and an in­dis­pens­able vol­ume for any­one with a se­ri­ous in­ter­est in World War II. It is in­cred­i­bly well-re­searched, bril­liantly writ­ten and quite frankly an out­stand­ing book. NMS


Men of Bri­tain and the Com­mon­wealth rushed to join the ‘civil­ian armies’ dur­ing WWII

Aus­tralians un­dergo a med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion as they join the mil­i­tary, 1940

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