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.