Book review: We Shall Never Surrender - Edited by Penelope Middelboe, Donald Fry and Christopher Grace

The Second World War was fought not just on the front line but in the hearts and minds of the men and women who lived through it.

During six long years, the British psyche was changed irrevocably with men and women forced to endure bombings, anxiety and privation as well as take life-altering decisions.

What no-one could predict were the consequences on the family and on society of these independent journeys taken by husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers and siblings.

Through the diaries of just nine of those people, We Shall Never Surrender tells us the remarkable story of the war as they experienced it, whether at home struggling to keep going, in high office with direct influence on its outcome or protesting against it.

The diarists – five women and four men – were all living in Britain when the war began in September 1939 and offer a range of distinct voices, professions and geographical locations.

Some like author and pacifist Vera Brittain and politician Harold Nicolson are familiar figures, others are ordinary people, but all have been selected for their ability to write well and to conjure up a moment in time when the whole world was locked in conflict.

From 56-year-old Coventry housewife Clara Milburn, who first jotted down her thoughts in an exercise book in 1940, to Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, 32, who endured the Blitz during his London posting, all these diarists wrote about their reactions and opinions rather than just wartime events.

As Clara finished her eleventh notebook in 1944, she could have been speaking for them all when she wrote: ‘The only thing is to stick it and stick it, and STICK IT till the war is ended.’

Their thoughts often seem as relevant today as they were over 70 years ago ... concerns over the quality of political leadership, the ethics of war, the plight of refugees, control of information, changes in attitude towards gender, class and race and community cohesion all still strike a chord.


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Each chapter puts the progression of the war into context and then allows the diarists to reveal just how the experiences of disrupted routines, separation, loss, worry and fear of the unknown impacted on their everyday lives.

‘Writing all this,’ observes insurance clerk George Beardmore from North Harrow, who was turned down for military service because of his asthma, ‘is perfectly useless except that it serves as an outlet for a mind oppressed with too many images.’

Of course, this ‘outlet’ – a chance to complain without being though negative, to criticise without being disloyal and to howl or rage without being heard – has now become our insight into the lives of people living under extreme stress.

And the physical endurance, mental resilience and human endeavour that shines through their testaments is both moving and inspirational to generations that have never lived through war on such a vast scale.


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(Macmillan, hardback, £20)