The Second World War offered Britain the chance to imagine an egalitarian future, says Lara Feigelby Lara Feigel / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-41 by Daniel Todman (Allen Lane, £30)
In August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt met on the Prince of Wales in the middle of the Atlantic to determine whether the United States was going to help Britain win the war. During the voyage, Churchill had prepared by reading the heroic naval exploits of Captain Horatio Hornblower in a novel by CS Forester, while eating caviar that Roosevelt’s emissary had brought from Moscow. Both leaders had high expectations but only Roosevelt remembered that they had shared an enjoyable conversation 20 years earlier. Awkwardness overcome, they cheerfully exchanged tales of military and political life, attended a Sunday church service and agreed that Roosevelt would provide naval aid to Britain and make a statement of common purpose. It wasn’t as much as Churchill felt he was entitled to expect, but it laid the groundwork for America’s entry into the war a few months later.
This is the kind of moment that Daniel Todman illuminates well in his new book Britain’s War. Todman, a historian at the University of London, has undertaken the ambitious task of combining histories that, he says, “are usually told separately—strategic, political and economic, military, cultural and social—to build a broad and coherent picture of the country as it prepared for, fought and emerged from a total war.” Volume one, which is 700 pages long, takes us from the first rumblings of war in 1937 to America’s entry as a full combatant in December 1941; volume two will take us to the end of the war.
Despite the book’s great length, Todman’s claims for it aren’t quite accurate. There is almost no cultural history here. JB Priestley is the only writer represented and there is nothing on wartime film or, even more crucially, on wartime broadcasting. The little social history there is tends to be top down, with the experience of the “ordinary person” generally drawn from the much-used Mass-Observation archive. Nonetheless, what Todman does very impressively is to deftly tread a line between national and international events, and explore the impact of internal politics on war policy. The account of the Atlantic Conference is one of many points where he elucidates helpfully the relationship between the personalities of the politicians and the failures or triumphs…