Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Great Silence

Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

by Juliet Nicolson

“Wonderfully vivid . . .When we study history we . . . tend to overlook the transitional periods. Juliet Nicolson has, in a short time, become the voice of these critical gaps in the fabric of British history . . . In another splendid work of social history, Nicolson focuses on the years between 1918 and 1920. At once grand and intimate, Nicolson takes on a captivating journey.” —The Daily Beast

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date June 14, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4540-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.95

About The Book

Juliet Nicolson pieces together colorful personalities, historic moments, and intimate details to create a social history of the two years following the Great War in Britain. Not since Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer have we seen an account that so vividly captures a nation’s psyche at a particular moment in history.

The euphoria of Armistice Day 1918 vaporizes to reveal the carnage that war has left in its wake. But from Britain’s despair emerges new life. For veterans with faces demolished in the trenches, surgeon Harold Gillies brings hope with his miraculous skin-grafting procedure. Women win the vote, skirt hems leap, and Brits forget their troubles at packed dance halls. The remains of a nameless soldier are laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey. “The Great Silence,” observed in memory of the countless dead, halts citizens in silent reverence.

Nicolson crafts her narrative using a lively cast of characters: from an aging butler to a pair of newlyweds, from the Prince of Wales to T.E. Lawrence, the real-life Lawrence of Arabia. The Great Silence depicts a nation fighting the forces that threaten to tear it apart and discovering the common bonds that hold it together.


“[A] vivid account of the aftermath of the carnage we glamorize as the Great War .
. . [Nicolson] excels at ferreting out revealing details—[she offers] some wonderful vignettes. And the final pages of The Great Silence, which document Britain’s official tribute to the dead, are magnificent.” —Miranda Seymour, The New York Times Book Review

“A pearl of anecdotal history, The Great Silence is a satisfying companion to major studies of World War I and its aftermath . . . as Nicolson proceeds through the familiar stages of grief—denial, anger and acceptance—she gives you a deeper understanding of not only this brief period, but also how war’s sacrifices don’t end after the fighting stops.” —Ellen Emry Heltzel, Seattle Times

“Wonderful. . . [Nicolson] describes brilliantly, in a series of social anecdotes and snapshots of real people–35 characters going about their daily life, the low-stairs people as well as royalty as well as famous writers and artists. . . an absolutely gripping piece.” —Tina Brown

“[Nicolson’s] approach is anecdotal and eclectic, drawing freely on contemporary diaries, letters and memoirs to create an impressionistic picture of the lull preceding the Roaring ’20s . . . Nicolson is at her most effective when describing the nation’s search for a fitting public expression of its abiding sense of grief .
. . [she] observes with poignant understatement.” —Elizabeth Lowry, The Wall Street Journal

“Nicolson’s anecdotal history describes with facts and feeling the two years of silence and emptiness that followed the joyless armistice . . . a moving account . . . When the unknown British soldier was buried with solemn pomp in Westminster Abbey, some found the ritual stagy, sentimental, and hypocritical but most found it healing and hopeful. Nicolson ends her history with a long and loving re-creation of this collective expression of grief and gratitude. It may make you cry.” —Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“Nicolson’s emphasis on . . . three days, and her descriptions of them, are the best parts of her book.” —Martin Rubin, The Washington Times

“[An] admirable [account] of the social effects of the Great War.” —Sarah Burton, The Independent

“I read [The Great Silence] this summer and thought it was an incredible social history . . . she’s a fabulous writer.” —Delia Ephron, NewYorkPost.com

“[Nicolson has] a strong narrative, an empathic interest in characters under stress and a gift for the telling moment. The large historical shifts are here, but the small scenes steal the show . . . eloquent.” —Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

“Wonderfully vivid . . . When we study history we . . . tend to overlook the transitional periods. Juliet Nicolson has, in a short time, become the voice of these critical gaps in the fabric of British history . . . In another splendid work of social history, Nicolson focuses on the years between 1918 and 1920. At once grand and intimate, Nicolson takes on a captivating journey.” —The Daily Beast

“Captures an era of unspooling mores in the lives of a diverse cast of provocateurs.” —Vogue

“This is social history at its very best, as Nicolson fascinatingly describes the fast-changing lives of everyday men and women in Britain from 1918 to 1920 . . . Colorful characters abound in Nicolson’s historically insightful and utterly absorbing narrative.” —Chuck Leddy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Fascinating . . . Writing in a pellucid style with a keen eye for detail, Nicolson captures politics, society and culture and organizes and blends them into an insightful, entertaining narrative.” —Roger K. Miller, Louisville Courier-Journal

“Packed with facts, but also possessed of a strong narrative sense, The Great Silence is a compelling read.” —Marilyn Copeland, The Kings English Bookshop Blog

“Terribly moving . . . so full of feeling and intelligence and interesting: the densely detailed, whelmingly sad story of a country with a broken heart.” —Sam Leith, The Daily Mail (UK)

“This masterful book collects random details and somehow manages to orchestrate them into a symphony. Nicolson is particularly brilliant at plucking out the significant detail within the apparently ephemeral . . . The Great Silence works beautifully as a mosaic of a country at a particular time, artfully constructed from all these extraordinary details plucked from far and wide . . . a book that contains so much that is truly poignant or fascinating or thoughtful. Nicolson’s concluding description of the final great silence—in Westminster Abbey, at the burial of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier—is piercingly beautiful.” —Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday (UK)

“Nicolson is adept at evoking the atmosphere of a fleeting historical phase . . . her narrative is a kaleidoscope of different voices . . .the result is poignant slice of micro-history.” —Christopher Silvester, Daily Express (UK)

“A pacy, anecdote history . . . Nicolson takes essential somber subject matter to create an empathetic, novelistic page-turner that’s leavened with light relief.” —Charlotte Heathcote, Sunday Express (UK)

“If, instead of looking at the great sweep of history, you take just two years, and you find out the small, everyday things that people of all stations in life were doing—the king and his manservant, the prime minister and the postman—you can convey a sense of the past that no conventional history can offer . . . . the method enables [Nicoslon] to take us into places that even people who think they know something about the period did not know existed . . . This is a small treasure-house of a book from a writer who understands the vital importance of small details.” —Francis Beckett, The Guardian

“Juliet Nicolson’s second book of social history confirms her as one of those writers—particularly unusual among social historians—who can spin straw into gold . . . Nicolson’s magpie delight in the richness of her material goes a long way to offering the reader an intoxicating peep-show of postwar society.” —Virginia Nicholson, Eastern Daily Press

“Nicolson writes with such admirable pace and fluency that it would be easy to suppose that this book had been effortlessly scribbled down. It is, on the contrary, a triumph of balance and organization; a study which comprehends the cultural and the intellectual, the political and the social, and weaves them all into a lively and convincing narrative.” —Philip Ziegler, The Spectator (UK)

“By scouring the diaries, memoirs and personal recollections of those who lived through them, Nicolson has created a compelling impressionistic portrait of a country struggling to make sense of the sacrifices that had been made. Filled with anecdote and human detail, The Great Silence becomes a moving study of Britons finding ways, individually and collectively, to recover from the terrible wound the war had inflicted.” —Nick Rennison, Sunday Times (UK)

“An interesting study of a somewhat neglected period.” —Linda Christmas, The Telegraph (UK)

“Juliet Nicolson is a sensitive chronicler of the era.” —Literary Review (UK)

“A beautifully written and thought-provoking read.” —Natasha Harding, The Sun (UK)

“This is not only serious social history; it helps us understand the vagaries of humanity in a time of stress, strain and separation. By revealing how hope has triumphed in the past, it sheds a light on the enduring resilience of humanity.” —John Ure, Country Life (UK)



August 1914—November 1918

Arthur Tommy Atkins had been the under-chauffeur for the Marquis de Soveral, the rather rakish but hugely popular Portuguese Ambassador to the Court of St James. The Marquis, nicknamed “The Blue Monkey” for the six o’clock shadow permanently visible on his swarthy chin and also for his naughty though delightful way with the ladies, had been a close friend of Edward VII and had maintained this intimacy with Edward’s successor, George V. The embassy Rolls-Royce was often to be seen waiting for its official occupant in the forecourt at Sandringham, and the driver and his deputy felt themselves to be hovering on the brink of a comfortable lifetime serving the great and good of the land.

Then war was declared. Tommy had since his schooldays fancied himself as something of a linguist and signed up with the London Irish Rifles to see a bit of the world.

At the age of 22, he had hoped perhaps to visit Paree (“Well, that’s what they call it over there,” he would explain) and to find a bit of “Ooh la la.” He had longed for adventure, his chauffeuring duties confined to keeping the Marquis’s Rolls-Royce in shining order and to prodding his boss, the elderly chauffeur, into staying awake at the wheel. Tommy’s dream was to learn to drive, but he had never dared ask for a lesson, after once getting caught taking the gleaming machine out for a sneaky illicit run.

Everyone called Tommy by his middle name because the combination of the two, Tommy and Atkins, had been the army nickname for British soldiers for over 150 years. There was even a Victorian music hall song, with a chorus that went:

Tommy Tommy Atkins,
You’re a ‘good un’ heart and hand:
You’re a credit to your calling
And to all your native land;
May your luck be never failing,
May your love be ever true!
God Bless you, Tommy Atkins,
Here’s your Country’s love to you!

The real Tommy Atkins knew all the Edwardian music hall songs and being a natural showman would belt out “Up a Little Gravel Path” and the old East End favourite “Have You Paid Your Rent?” Tommy hoped that his feet would stand the trials of war. They were rather flat and to his secret shame he had developed a large bunion on each big toe. He thought the bony swellings might be hereditary and hoped that if he was lucky enough to have children one day he would not pass on the lumpy tendency. But he had not let on about the bunion problem to the other lads and had joined in lustily as they sang together “What a Great Holiday” on the march towards the coast-bound trains.

A sudden overwhelming love for England and an accompanying duty to defend it propelled these young men into France and beyond. Maude Onions, a female signaller with the British Expeditionary Force in northern France, had befriended a young soldier who had been reluctant to join up. “I’m willing to lend a hand in this war business,” he confided to Maude, “but when it comes to a change of career, it’s off. They want me to sign on for three years—and after that?” he had wondered aloud to her. “Hawk penny articles, I suppose.”

Another army recruit, a gunner, explained to Maude the process involved in cleaning guns. Showing her the soft white lamb’s wool that he used to clean and polish the muzzles of the machine until they were spotless, he seemed to travel in his mind to ‘somewhere in England … among the green fields’ and for a moment Maude glimpsed the real hardship of being away from home for so long. She heard his “mirthless laugh” as he blurted out, “It’s hard to connect, isn’t it? My home is among the green fields in England … rearing the sheep and lambs is part of my life’s work … it’s hard to connect.”

In the countryside there was an old rural belief that a white feather in a bird’s tail indicated a bird of inferior quality, and in the autumn of 1914 a custom had sprung up for angry women to thrust a white feather into the lapel of any young man of fighting age who was seen in the streets out of uniform. Despite the fairly rare unwillingness to fight, based on conscience, religious grounds or simple sheer terror, the humiliation associated with failing to join up was often overwhelming and young men, even those officially unqualified to fight for medical reasons, felt compelled to sign on. And there was disappointment in rejection. Mr Bickham, a veteran of the Boer War, was turned down on account of his poor teeth. “They must want blokes to bite the damned Germans,” he spluttered in disgust.

For those left behind, the older men, women and children, the prospect of war was bearable only because the “official” word promised that the conflict would be over by Christmas. In the town of Salford large queues formed outside Lipton’s the grocers and the Maypole Dairy. The quick-thinking poor bought up huge quantities of sugar, which they sold off in small measures to those lacking the entrepreneurial spirit. Two thirds of Britain’s sugar was imported and people feared the imposition of rationing. Panic and greed set in.

Parents tried to disguise their fear when saying goodbye to the young sons who had been accepted into the army. In 1916, the 18-year-old John Bullock kissed his mother and, after a moment’s hesitation, shook his father’s hand. He remembered his mother’s last words, full of anxious advice “to keep your feet dry,” but in his excitement to be off, was unaware that her outward look of pride masked her apprehension: she recognised that “a void had come into her breast that would remain until her son came home again.”

At first there had been no conscription. Kitchener’s persuasive finger-pointing poster designed by Alfred Leete, marking out each individual as special, as chosen, had been enough to convince the youth of the country of their duty. They felt proud to be needed. But after the huge losses on the Western Front compulsory soldiering had been introduced in January 1916. The upper age limit for eligible men rose to 50 and was expanded to include married men, while the lower limit stayed fixed at 18, although many younger men lied in order to receive the King’s Shilling. And as more individuals were needed to replace the dead, the physical standards imposed by the National Service medical boards were subtly relaxed. Photographic guidelines of newly approved body shapes were issued showing youths with emaciated bodies, alarmingly prominent shoulder bones, knock knees and an appearance of general ill health. Mr Bickham’s teeth suddenly became no impediment to serving.

For a young man bored with the peacetime routine of life and the dreary prospect of following a trade that his father and grandfather had followed before him, the chance to escape was exhilarating. Many thousands of apprehensive young men who had originally been hesitant to leave the familiarity of home for the first time were lured to the front by General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s imaginative concept of the Pals Battalions, and joined up with the inducement of finding comfort in comradeship. Homesickness vanished at the prospect of being surrounded by familiar faces from a school, village or workplace. The scheme, introduced in late August 1914, appealed to a sense of belonging, as well as to a local sense of pride. And there was another motive for signing up. A third of the British population, particularly those in the North and in the mining districts of Wales and Scotland, were living close to the poverty line. The enticement of the King’s Shilling, substantial quantities of good cooked food, and a regular pay packet from the army were enough to outweigh the prospect of losing one’s life.

And the reality of death in conflict was hazy. Death was reserved for the old. No member of that pre-war generation had known at first hand what war was like. According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, young men imagined “it would be an affair of great marches and great battles, quickly decided.” Public schoolboys yearning for a validation of their pampered way of life took up their officer duties with self-confessed relief at finding a new and exhilarating sense of purpose. At the beginning of the war, many like Julian Grenfell, son of leading society hostess Lady Desborough, were caught up in the novelty and excitement. An ebullient and popular young man, he wrote to his mother: “It’s all the best fun one ever dreamed of … the uncertainty of it is so good, like a picnic when you don’t know where you’re going to.” The society magazine, the Tatler, referred to the war specifically as “The Great Adventure.” But seven months after Grenfell’s cheery optimism, the picnic was over. Eton College sent 5,687 pupils into battle: of these 1,160 failed to return, including Grenfell; 1,467 were wounded.

Tommy Atkins had never been abroad before and his fiancee Kitty was looking forward to having him home well before Christmas so he could tell her about the goings-on over the Channel and the different habits of the French and the Germans whom he longed to meet. But the hopes of the Marquis de Several’s under-chauffeur, like those of John Bullock, for a razzle-dazzle of an adventure, filled with exchanges with exciting foreign voices, were soon shot away. The imagined contact with foreigners was smothered at a few paces by the relentless noise of shellfire. The first few days of the five-month-long battle of the Somme sounded to the untrained ear like “a colossal roar.” Guns woke you, guns prevented sleep. Christmas had come, and three more Christmases followed before Tommy returned home for good. He had found himself in a war that seemed at times as if it might continue indefinitely: there was no “ooh la la” to report back to Kitty.

Sergeant Alfred Anderson of the 5th Battalion of the Black Watch did not enjoy his first Christmas in the trenches. For several months he had heard the sound of bullets and machine guns, and in rare moments German voices had drifted across from the other side. The reminder of the flesh-and-blood humanity of the enemy served to endorse a common agreement among British troops that they would try and shoot the enemy in the legs “and no higher.” Even in hell, a class-rooted sense of common decency somehow struggled to the surface. The Daily Mail had sent Christmas puddings which, in a festive reversal of roles, were served to the soldiers by the officers. But Sergeant Anderson desperately wanted to be at home with his family on this most un-Christmas-like of days. “It was quiet all around. In the dead silence we shouted out ‘Merry Christmas’—although none of us felt merry. We were so tired.”

Sergeant Anderson had received a Christmas box filled with cigarettes, sent by the King and Queen’s daughter Princess Mary, but as he didn’t smoke he handed the cigarettes to his friends and found to his pleasure that the Bible given to him by his mother fitted inside the box perfectly. That box containing his mother’s Bible was the only thing he brought back with him from the war.

Night-time darkness on the battlefield was sometimes pushed aside by searchlights. A sudden, surprising snapshot of illumination would reveal what D. H. Lawrence, in a journey following the Bavarian army at the foot of the Alps in 1913, described as “a greenish jewel of landscape, splendid bulk of trees, a green meadow, vivid”. Something “beautiful beyond belief” would be lit up, only for it to be eclipsed by the return of darkness. War became a series of acts of waiting: waiting for light, waiting for sound, waiting for the next command, waiting for the next piece of news from home, waiting for a few days’ leave, waiting for the next death to be witnessed or whispered, waiting for the next bullet to smash a hole in a face or a body, waiting for it to be over, waiting to die, waiting for silence.

As the war continued the Daily Telegraph war correspondent Philip Gibbs noted a growing realisation that the situation was “more complex than the old simplicity, a sense of revolt against sacrifice unequally shed and devoted to a purpose which was not that for which they had been called to fight.” There were 57,470 British casualties on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme, a third of whom died of their wounds.

Officers would delve surreptitiously into leather traveling cases, to find the small pot of rouge with which to brighten their cheeks and disguise from young men who looked to them for confident leadership the paleness of fear that washed across their own faces. The young soldiers had lumbered towards the front line, carrying what was known as “The Soldier’s Christmas Tree.” Bent double under the weight of cartridge pouches, water bottle, gas helmet, entrenching tool, bayonet, groundsheet, overcoat, underclothes, socks, precious letters and cherished photographs, each man tried to make headway through the incessant rain and deep, inhibiting mud. Boots slipped off in the sludge, leaving their bare feet, in the poet Wilfred Owen’s phrase, “blood-shod.”

Over the course of those twenty weeks 125,000 British soldiers were killed, most of them so young that in the words of 22-year-old Violet Keppel, who herself had lost so many friends, they had only led “half-smoked lives.” A junior officer on the front line was unlikely to survive longer than six weeks. Friends picked up parts of bodies that were no larger than a Sunday roast, gathered them together and buried them as best they could beneath the chaotic surface of the muddy fields, before returning to the slaughter. Confidence in political and military leadership dwindled. In a 1917 London pantomime two farmers sitting under a chestnut tree were hit by a falling chestnut each time they told a lie. When one remarked that Lloyd George was predicting an imminent end to the war, the audience smiled wearily as the entire contents of the tree erupted, bombarding the stage with nuts.

Faith in the classically noble utterances of the classically beautiful Rupert Brooke was shattered. Patriotism had become smudged. Sentiments that expressed the belief that this war was essential if you loved England were shown to be lies. Disillusionment was commonplace in conversation among fighting men, and poets at the front began to reflect the shift in feeling as the war showed no sign of ending.

Fifteen years before Brooke had written of a far away but always patriotic meadow, Thomas Hardy had described in more realistic terms the loneliness of a young soldier, Drummer Hodge. “Fresh from his Wessex home,” Hodge had been killed in the Boer War, his body lying “uncoffined” for ever under “strange-eyed constellations.” Here was an unromantic battlefield, one that was no outpost of indestructible Englishness, but one that was instead a lonely, alien and abandoned place. The patriotic sentiments of Rupert Brooke’s verses now seemed poignantly misplaced. In poems such as Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘suicide in the Trenches’ the truth came directly from the voices and experiences of the soldiers themselves.

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Danger was everywhere, as the noise of the guns gave way to the silent and suffocating arrival of gas. Early German experiments with chemical warfare in the form of poison gas had become refined. The first, thick pus-green cloud of chlorine gas had drifted towards the front line at Ypres in 1915 and by the end of the war the even deadlier mustard gas was in common use, blistering both the body and the lungs that inhaled it, leaving just under 200,000 men guttering, choking, drowning, and prompting the poet Wilfred Owen in “Dulce et Decorum Est” to write his most devastating lines.

The American portraitist John Singer Sargent had been out to the front line with the former Slade Professor Henry Tonks in order to research a commission from the British Government’s Ministry of Information for a planned Hall of Remembrance art scheme. Sargent came across a line of men who had just suffered a gas attack and began work immediately afterwards on a huge painting. A nurse explained what the effect of the gas might be on the men. “With mustard gas the effects did not become apparent for up to twelve hours. But then it began to rot the body, within and without. The skin blistered, the eyes became extremely painful, and nausea and vomiting began. Worse, the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. The pain was almost beyond endurance.” Mr J. L. Bragg, a baker, ran an advertisement in the personal column of The Times, quoting a letter of endorsement:

Will you kindly send me by post some charcoal biscuits? I find these biscuits have been the greatest benefit to me, and have enabled me to eat more or less normally, which I have not been able to do since I left France in April this year with Gas poisoning.

Mr Bragg promised the readers that on receipt of threepence he would provide sufferers with a sample of his magic biscuits.

A suspicion lurked among soldiers of all ranks who returned home on a few days’ leave that those left behind at home had been living in ignorance, whether voluntary or unconscious. There was some truth in this. The happily married Mrs Farr from Somerset had been surviving the war years in the simple unflinching conviction that at the end of it she would be reunited with her husband. One day the telegram boy arrived on his bicycle, painted blood-red for urgency, and handed her a brown envelope that Mrs Farr jammed down the front of her dress. She did not tell anyone of its arrival. The news contained inside the envelope, whether it was the speculative “missing in action” or the definitive “killed in action”, was she knew instinctively, going to be too dreadful to see written down. Mantelpieces up and down the country contained photographs turned to the walls, often in frames surrounded by small blue-painted flowers spelling out beneath the picture the words “Forget me not”. Sometimes the edge of an unopened telegram peeped out from behind the frame. For as long as the envelope remained sealed, a flicker of hope edged out the truth.

But as the war progressed hope was clung to with increasing desperation. Ever an evanescent commodity, it slipped through the fingers with an inevitability that grew daily. “You hope for the best, exhausting though that effort is, until the time comes when hope evades you and all the evidence is conspiring to tell you to behave differently and reality insists you stop hoping. For what is the point?” asked the daughter of a soldier who had been reported missing in action, but whose death remained unconfirmed. Denial acted as the shock-absorber of grief, although sometimes a letter posted to the front arrived too late and was returned to the sender with the single brutal word “Killed” stamped on the outside.

Meanwhile the Government’s morale-boosting propaganda had contributed in large part to the ignorance at home of the true state of affairs abroad. Positive stories written by journalists who feared prosecution if they told the truth, including Philip Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph, were designed to put the best possible slant on the news. Soldiers who longed to describe the dreadful reality of warfare had their letters censored. Rumours were rife. The 18-year-old Barbara Cartland believed the stories that “Germans were extracting fat from human corpses which were tied together and sent from France in cattle-trucks.”

An impression of amateurishness, even larkiness at home disturbed the sceptical soldier. Girls from munitions factories spent their wages on gramophones and tickets to dance halls and cinemas, while smug young women from the aristocracy considered themselves heroic in adopting flattering nurse’s uniform though wholly unqualified for the task. Country girls working on the land paraded around in ‘some kind of fancy dress with buttons and shoulder straps, breeches and puttees’ as Philip Gibbs scathingly described the land army outfits, while at the same time there were men working the land who were morally opposed to killing, and had remained in England, struggling with their consciences, often restless and troubled by the decision they had made.

Censorship operated on newspapers, especially on Lord North-cliffe’s Daily Mail, while sections of the Home Front tried to continue with their lives in much same way they always had, the upper classes in particular clinging to the old existence. Octogenarian Lord Fitzhardinge remained at his twelfth-century, “pink mammoth” turreted, silver-roofed Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, continuing to hunt four days a week across the water meadows that led to the Severn. To the delight of Violet Keppel his young house guest, daughter of EdwardVII’s long-standing mistress Alice Keppel, his huntsmen dressed “in saffron yellow,” while his Lordship wore a Persian cat called Omar wrapped around his neck like some exotic serpent.

Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland and a leading society beauty, felt that many of those left at home were “frenziedly dancing a tarantella” in order to prevent the increasingly fatal news damaging an increasingly fragile national morale. Footmen still served at the grand tables and were still, Diana Manners noticed, “blinded by powder” used for whitening the hair: the excess floated towards the soup bowl as the servant bent forward to ladle out the vichyssoise. In 1916 a sexy, teasing song and dance routine called “Tanko,” designed to poke fun at the new armadillo-like war machine, the tank, was causing hilarity at the Palace Theatre in London. Siegfried Sassoon was enraged by the irresponsible descriptions in the press of these “waddling toads” and by the amused public response. Watching a London theatre audience laughing while men were dying inspired his poem “Blighters” in response to the inappropriate mockery.

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, Sweet Home”
And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

How were soldiers to find a way to describe to their isolated, sometimes disbelieving families what happened out there? Although the sound of gunfire was occasionally audible on this side of the Channel, there was an inevitable remoteness about the battlefield. Comfort for those in love but separated might be found in pulling a ragged silk stocking belonging to a sweetheart over the head before hoping for sleep. The soldier’s way of life in war remained unrecognisable to anyone who had not experienced it. One soldier, Alfred Finnigan, called it “hell with the lid off.” How were these men to convincingly describe the rats as large as otters who gorged themselves on the human flesh that lay rotting all around them, or the stomach-churning death-reek whose smell could not be shifted even by the scent of the strongest Turkish cigarette? The rats had developed a reaction to the meat of dead men. Eating it would make their faces swell and whiten visibly at the top of their greasy, grey bodies. Luminous in the darkness of the bottom of a muddy trench, these ghostly creatures would move swiftly towards sleeping men, waking them with a start as they dragged their tails across the men’s faces in the constant search for another meal. Lice were transparent when hungry, but turned black after sucking on blood. The poet Robert Graves met a group of men trying to remove the lice from one another. They were discussing whether to kill the young or the old insects. “Morgan here says that if you kill the old ones, the young ones will die of grief,” Graves was told as the men continued their debate. “But Parry here says that the young ones are easier to kill and you can catch the old ones when they come to the funeral.”

Crawling lice crept in a steady file over the soldiers’ filthy clothing. They could be temporarily halted by turning a vest inside out or by lighting a match along the seams of trousers, only for the insects to re-emerge moments later. Body heat itself encouraged the hatching of the eggs. Bluebottles and cockroaches fed off the live bodies.

The mud, the rats, the wet, the dirt and the lack of medicine meant that almost every soldier in the trenches was affected at times by trench foot. The infection, an extreme form of athlete’s foot, produced a swelling the pain of which was so acute that men dreaded the slightest physical proximity, lest the foot be casually brushed against, causing them to scream out in agony.

The daily food rations included twenty ounces of bread, three ounces of cheese, eight ounces of vegetables, four ounces of jam, four ounces of butter – flavoured by half an ounce of salt, one thirty-sixth of an ounce of pepper and one twentieth of mustard. But the irregular supply made meals achingly inadequate. The quality was disgusting, the quantity pathetic. The bully beef and bullet-hard dog biscuits provided little comfort or nourishment. Twenty ounces of tobacco a day was allocated per man and the rare treat of a bar of chocolate, to be shared between three. Half a gill of rum, amounting to one double measure, or when supplies were exhausted, a pint of porter (the soldier’s version of lager) had promised a tantalising moment of numbness before the recipient was expected to go and fight for his life. One soldier, Albert “smiler” Marshall, who did not like the taste, saved his ration, finding that the alcohol helped as a sort of anaesthetic for the pain he suffered from trench foot.

In between the conflict, boredom was intense. Albert remembered from his childhood the “glamour of the redcoats” as he watched them in admiration returning to his village after the Boer War. There was little glamour surrounding him in his trench. He missed four village Boxing Day celebrations, a day when the villagers would tie a lead and collar on all the pets, making a fine procession of pigs, goats, ferrets, cats, dogs, tame mice, and the splendid cockerel. The menagerie would race towards a greased pole in the middle of the green. The first to reach the dead duck attached to the top was the winner. Sergeant Jack Dinham found himself thinking of Otford, his village in Kent where at the Boxing Day meet the hounds would be treated to porridge bubbling in huge steaming metal pans, while in summer the Vicar, the Reverend William Lutyens, cricket-mad brother of the famous architect, would be seen in church, his white cricket flannels just visible beneath his cassock. Jack had wondered if his job at Knole, the big house nearby where he worked as Lord Sackville’s coachman, would still be open to him after the war.

While away at war, Siegfried Sassoon missed any sense of intellectual stimulus, or even the reassurance of clarity of thought. “Mental activity was clogged and hindered by gross physical actualities.” Loneliness was constant. Men missed women. Most of all they missed their mothers and called aloud for them with increasing frequency. They sang a song together:

H stands for happiness that you should find there
O stands for old folks in the old armchair
M stands for mother; you’ll never find another, no matter where you roam
E stands for everyone as everyone knows
H.O.M.E. spells home.

The men missed their wives and their fiancees, too. The Government and the army chiefs were well aware of the physical longings and the dangers of frustrated abstinence in an army made up largely of thousands of lusty young men, confused and ashamed of their feelings. Thousands of young British men had grown up in families where bodily functions and the natural instincts and affections of marriage went largely unmentioned. Even the coy enquiry concerning the proper functioning of the digestive system, “Are you consti?”, from a mother to her child was too intimate to express in full.

Not many men however remained ignorant of the ever-widening spread of venereal disease. Just behind the battle lines only a mile or two from the front, girls waited to “comfort” men, irrespective of whether they were German, British or French, waiting for them in abandoned chateaux, village houses, hay barns, caravans, farm buildings and the upper floors of inns. Different coloured lanterns indicated the rank of clientele allowed entry. Blue denoted a place reserved for officers, the light sometimes swinging from a pole that stood next to a sign declaring “No Admittance for Dogs and Soldiers.” Common soldiers were directed towards the red light establishments. Sometimes the queues outside these places could number a hundred men or more, with three worn-out French women waiting inside.

The price per slot varied from two and a half to ten francs or two to eight shillings, although a bartering system involving bread and sausages was also prevalent. One innocent young officer, hearing his turn called, made his way to room number six where in the bitter-sweet, dirt-smelling near darkness he could see the outline of a female figure who, turning towards him, hiked up her black nightdress to her waist and fell backwards on the edge of the bed. He realised that the highly anticipated delights of seduction were already over. She was ready.

These women estimated that operating a strict schedule of ten minutes per man, they could service an entire battalion every seven days, a production rate that most were usually able to sustain for only three weeks before retiring exhausted, and invariably unwell, but proud of their staying power. This experience had been, for many of the prospectively syphilitic young men, their introduction to the “joy” of physical love. Even the virginal Prince of Wales went in 1916 with some fellow officers to watch naked girls performing erotic poses in a brothel in Calais, concluding from his own “first insight into such things” that it was a “perfectly filthy and revolting sight.”

Only the Austrian army paid much attention to either contraception or hygiene, the prostitute requiring her “guest” to use a “preventative instrument”; if he refused, the girl was to “lubricate his organ with borated Vaseline,” a paste made of boric acid, and after the experience was concluded, he was required to visit the “disinfectant room.” No such rules had applied to British troops and the threat of venereal disease sometimes led soldiers to seek sexual relief with each other. The Field Almanac issued to Lieutenant Skelton cautioned men not to “ease themselves promiscuously,” although the detailed instructions on the necessity for cleanliness of the body at all times were impossible to implement in the filthy conditions of the camps. George V, hearing of the extent of homosexual activity in the army some two decades after the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, had been heard to mutter: “I thought men like that shot themselves. “There was also a belief that homosexuality might be infectious and Scotland Yard kept a register of known homosexuals. Recovery from prosecution was at best rare and in reality unknown. Two hundred and seventy soldiers and twenty officers were court-martialled for “acts of gross indecency with another male person according to the Guidance notes in the Manual of Military Law.”

At home morale was shored up by the belief in the value of sacrifice and the reflected pride it bestowed on those who survived. Edward Grey, the former Foreign Secretary, had said, “None of us who give our sons in this war are so much to be pitied as those who have no sons to give.” For those who had died young, the lines of Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem with its Shakespearian echoes continued to reverberate as the idealisation and myth-making of sacrifice was encouraged.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

Nearly ten million dead soldiers and sailors and airmen had died in the conflict, three quarters of a million from Britain. A further twelve and a half million had been wounded; nearly one and three quarter million of these were British. An estimated 160,000 women lost husbands and double that number of children emerged fatherless at the end of the war. An estimated 30 per cent of all men aged between 20 and 24 in 1911 were now dead. There were no figures for the fiancees, girlfriends, mothers, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends for whom life had changed for ever. On 11 November 1918 the colossal roar finally stopped. Those who had survived hoped the wound would begin to heal in silence. After the catastrophic death of Victorian certainties, silence was beginning to seem like the only possible articulation of the truth.