What gives Todman’s book much of its appeal is the way he ranges across a vast canvas. Who knew that after the fall of Singapore, the BBC took Vera Lynn off the air for a time because of a concern that the forces sweetheart’s “sloppy songs” were undermining the nation’s fighting spirit? Or that Rommel’s evacuation from north Africa on the eve of El Alamein owed much to the Panzer Army’s poor hygiene practices when in static positions, leaving overflowing latrines close to stationary tanks?
With the foundation of the welfare state and so-called era of the common man, which are the main legacies of the war, Todman takes us to the threshold of the world in which we live in. One of the prime ordinances of history is that it should help those who read it understand why we are where we are, who we are and how we are. Todman achieves that goal magnificently.
But the extent to which Britain was a “warfare state”, with an economy and technology built around national strategic priorities, is also brought out well. His account cites relevant statistical evidence that helps us to appreciate the texture of people’s lives in an era when rationing constrained consumption. Above all, we are given a realistic appreciation of the texture of people’s lives at a time when, as one official survey put it, most British workers, now no longer fearing imminent defeat, were “carrying on quietly rather than urgently”. Government claims that there was no black market in 1943 met with 90% scepticism in one opinion poll.
Such a vast book on just half the war and its immediate aftermath is a daunting prospect, even with its text broken into digestible chunks by tempting sub-headings. But Todman’s prose moves apace and with good turns of phrase. ‘Life in the forces was relentlessly communal,’ he writes, wryly summing up the lot of hundreds of thousands of men, the majority probably reluctantly in uniform, particularly those in the army, most of whom would not see action for nearly three years until the opening of the second front in June 1944. ‘My one ambition from now on,’ wrote one, ‘is to be an ex-serviceman.’
It is easily forgotten now but in the immediate postwar years 340,000 Britons rose to his challenge by departing these shores forever, emigrating to live in the dominions. Meanwhile Todman ends with the pugnacious foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, reminding his remaining countrymen and women that a diminished Britain’s future was now, and always would be, bound up with that of western Europe. It was there, not Singapore, where the nation’s destiny lay. That was the old world, and was now passing.
The book is so densely structured, the volleys of statistics so relentless, that it would be foolish to pretend that its 831 pages of text — and this, remember, is the second of two volumes — constitutes an easy read. I regret the absence of conclusions. I suspect, however, that the author would argue that he offers conclusions throughout. His book is a stunning achievement, offering a new generation of readers and students an authoritative and original version of the greatest event in human history.
I cannot recommend this history highly enough. It is at once a useful textbook and an enormously satisfying read. It is replete with statistics on everything from child mortality rates to the number of visitors to Cairo’s brothels, and it brims with anecdotes, pithy quotes and succinct analyses of all the major issues of the time. Because of its sheer size, readers will inevitably be tempted to treat it like a newspaper, skipping between the stories that most interest them.