In August 1945 Cyril Patmore of the Royal Scots Fusiliers returned on compassionate leave from India. A few weeks earlier his wife had written to confess that she was expecting a child by an Italian prisoner of war. ‘Why oh why darling did I have to let you down, me who loves you more than life itself?’ she wrote, pleading for forgiveness and a reconciliation. It was in vain. Patmore stabbed his wife to death. ‘I live for my children and my wife,’ he told the police. ‘I hope the children will be well looked after.’
This bleak anecdote introduces a catalogue of disasters. At the end of the war five million Britons, 90 per cent of them male, were in uniform. The vast majority wanted to be allowed to go home as quickly as possible to resume their civilian life. Achieving this posed huge logistic problems. Bevin’s demobilisation plan was on the whole fair and easy to understand but many thousands of conscripts still felt that they were being discriminated against in favour of less deserving rivals.
Even where there were no such grievances, the pace of demobilisation seemed intolerably slow. Shortage of transport and post-war military commitments compounded the strains on an over-extended administration. With nothing to do and often enduring lamentable physical conditions, resentment simmered and sometimes exploded into violent protest. ‘An ugly mood is setting in,’ thought one ranker in the Far East. ‘If things are not hurried up there will be a considerable amount of trouble.’ There was.
This was just the beginning. When the soldiers were finally demobbed they often found that they were unprepared for civilian life. When the war was over, remembered one soldier, ‘I came to the surface like a blinded pit pony.’ Men who had learned how to handle great responsibilities and face alarming dangers found themselves expected to resume the menial tasks which had been their lot before the war. ‘In 1945 ex-servicemen with leadership experience were two-a-penny’, writes Allport. ‘Practical commercial skills were what employers were looking for.’
Worse still, the servicemen expected to be welcomed home with gratitude, even a measure of hero-worship. Instead they encountered a barely concealed belief that they had been enjoying a life of picturesque and often pampered adventure while the civilians had endured worse privations and had often been exposed to as great or even greater danger.
The returning soldier hoped at least to find relief when reunited with his family. Yet here too there were frequent disappointments. Many marriages, contracted in haste, were repented at leisure. Couples found that they had grown apart. Children often resented the eruption of an unknown father into a family which had adjusted to life without him: in so far as they had known a father at all it had been as a very occasional visitor who was associated with treats and presents, now he became a permanent and often threatening presence trying to impose military discipline on children who had become used to a more relaxed rule. ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ one child demanded. ‘We managed very well without you.’
The soldiers of the second world war had been spared the horrors of the Western Front, but many of them had still endured privation and protracted periods of intense danger. As many as a quarter of the apparently ‘healthy’ demobilised men, warned the Journal of Mental Science, ‘must be regarded as a sociological as well as a medical problem, an incubus on the mental health of the nation.’ The former prisoners of war, in particular, found it painfully difficult to readjust.
Inevitably Allport’s concentration on what went wrong conceals the fact that much went right. Most demobilised men adjusted to civilian life without too much difficulty, and within a couple of years the vast majority had settled down. But Allport’s thoughtful and well-written book makes it clear that the problems had been very real and that some at least of them could have been avoided if a more serious effort had been made to understand what was going on. In a sobering coda to his book he argues that little or nothing was or is being done to prepare the veterans of Ulster, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan for a return to civilian life. It is to be hoped that this important book will remind those responsible of how much is needed.