More than three-and-a-half million men served in the British Army during the Second World War, the vast majority of them civilians who had never expected to become soldiers and had little idea what military life, with all its strange rituals, discomforts and dangers, might entail. Alan Allport, author of Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945, chronicles how soldiers responded to and were shaped by their years with the British Army, and how that army, however reluctantly, had to accommodate itself to them. The video below shares quotes from British soliders’ letters and diaries, providing a glimpse into the mind of the common solider in WWII.
“The whole thing was so awful, it was funny.”
“It was interesting. I’d enjoyed doing it, and although it was murder, I had no regrets.”
“England is a great little country, the best there is, but I cannot honestly and sincerely say that it is worth fighting for.”
In a post for our colleagues across the pond, Allport describes how the First World War, ironically called ‘the war to end all wars’, preempted the Second World War.
“The First World War had been the Army’s greatest ever military engagement. During its four and a half years of struggle, it had expanded from a force of just 247,000 officers and men – trifling by the standards of the continental powers – to a vast conscript levee of more than four million soldiers organized into over 70 divisions. Its contribution to defeating the Kaiser’s army had been second to none. But the cost had been terrible. All told, over 673,000 of its soldiers had been killed or had died of wounds or disease on active service, vastly exceeding the losses experienced by the other armed services or the civilian population back home. No family in Britain had been untouched by this national tragedy. And though the experience itself was solemnly memorialized in the years that had followed the end of the war, the decision to raise a large continental-style army in the first place was widely viewed by the 1930s to have been an appalling mistake. As the Times put it on November 11, 1939, Armistice Day was not just a commemoration of heroism, but a reminder of “disappointment and disillusion … frustrated hopes and wasted sacrifice” as well.”
Read more on the Yale Press London blog.
Allan Allport is the Assistant Professor of modern British history at Syracuse University in New York and the author of Browned Off and Bloody-Minded, published in April 2015.