Demobbed: Coming Home After The Second World War began as a doctoral dissertation and arrives via a university press, but it’s strikingly non-academic. Looking at the experiences of returning British servicemen after World War II, Alan Allport acknowledges time and again that there are almost no comprehensive, statistically non-dubious studies to draw upon in trying to figure out how many soldiers returned shell-shocked, or how many marriages broke up as a direct result of reunited ex-newlyweds discovering a lack of compatibility. Instead, he acknowledges the stumbling blocks and gets on with it, drawing on a wide range of contemporary publications, anecdotes, and letters to extrapolate a dazzling, largely anecdotal portrait of a society in transition.
“The demobilisation experience in 1945 and all the powerful hopes and fears that it generated has curiously vanished from our collective memory,” Allport writes in the prologue. His task is to resurrect unpleasant forgotten memories of the post-war transition. He doesn’t wait to get started: In the first pages of the prologue, we get the story of Cyril Patmore, who returned home to an adulterously pregnant wife and stabbed her to death. In the following chapters, Allport covers a lot of societal dysfunction, much of it potentially lurid—ex-GIs turned thieves, psychiatric breakdowns—but never loses his cool.
Allport’s approach to every issue is even-handed, citing the full possible spectrum of responses to every issues. It’s no surprise that writers and ex-servicemen like Anthony Burgess and George MacDonald Fraser would have a lot of interest to say, but Allport performs a valuable service in resurrecting the comments of the long-forgotten average man from the archival trough. Whether it’s the disabled Scot who complains of the color-clashing suit he was issued upon release (“I had to travel in this hideous outfit from Durham to Glasgow and I don’t think it was my crutches that drew so many looks of pity”) or the unsentimental reflections of a paratrooper on hearing about the German surrender (“Disgust, contempt and a little pity mix ill”), Allport’s greatest feat is reviving some of the most eloquent forgotten voices of the period.
Allport’s points of contemporary relevance are few but salient: the whitewashing of the return home as a period of quiet transition ill-serves everyone, the British government’s failure to enact an equivalent to the GI Bill was a missed opportunity that may have set the country back decades, and demobilizing soldiers is still an ill-understood, often poorly handled process. In telling the story of how it was once done in a patchy, guesswork way, he makes his case eloquently and entertainingly.