- At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz by Susan R. Grayzel
The aerial bombardment of civilians, and the death, devastation and fear this has unleashed on non-combatants, have been hallmarks of the wars of recent decades. In this timely study, Susan Grayzel locates the origins of this modern form of air warfare in the air raids of the First World War. Encompassing the period between 1914 and 1942, her innovative account traces the political, social and cultural responses to the transformation of the civilian experience of war. By skilfully interweaving a wide range of sources, including letters, diaries, memoirs, popular and literary fiction and films, alongside press accounts and government documents, Grayzel has produced an accessible and compelling narrative that deepens our understanding not only of both world wars but also of the ways in which the state has attempted to mobilize civilians in defence of the national interest.
The experience of the Blitz over Britain in the Second World War has become emblematic of the breakdown in the distinction between the home and military fronts in modern warfare. Grayzel argues, however, that it was the smaller-scale and lesser-known air raids between 1914 and 1918 that first transformed the relationship between soldiers and civilians and, crucially, between the state and the home. Home was no longer a place of safety, distanced from the frontline, but had become part of the war zone. The raids produced fear, shock and anger among civilians and in the press, and eventually forced the state, albeit reluctantly and in a piecemeal way, to acknowledge its obligation to protect civilians and to introduce limited civil defence measures. The First World War thus began the process whereby the air raid became “domesticated and normalized in daily life” [End Page 463] (91), resulting in greater legitimacy for the state to intervene in home life. The home, once seen as a refuge from war, itself became militarised.
This new relationship between the state and home relied on the cultivation, by government and the media, of a new type of civilian identity which emphasised a “universal stoicism” (15) in the face of the raids, “underscoring the bravery of Britons of all ages and genders” (68). Grayzel is careful to underline, however, that government and press rhetoric about the fortitude of civilians was formed by gender, class and racial prejudices, and did not, for example, stretch to include “aliens” and “foreigners” who were repeatedly portrayed in the press as cowardly and more likely to panic (87). The construction of a new civic identity and official pronouncements about the stoicism and resilience of civilians could also mask private fears and worries (72). The experience of the early raids informed the imaginings of writers, film makers and state planners in the interwar years, who envisioned that a future war would rain down even greater terror on civilians. The ways in which the raids were remembered and represented in government reports, as well as in fiction, films and memoirs, helped to shape public debates about how civilians could be protected and mobilised for the coming war.
A major strength of this book is the way in which Grayzel incorporates an analysis of the relationship between gender and this new form of warfare throughout her discussions of the state, media and civilian response to air raids. She explores, for example, the ways in which the government and press recruited traditional stereotypes of women as the victims of war to bolster hatred of the enemy and, at the same time, attempted to mobilize women as active citizens in the defence of the home and, by extension, the nation. She also includes a detailed analysis of how female writers as diverse as Sylvia Pankhurst, Cecily Hamilton and Vera Brittain drew on experiences of air raids to contribute to public discussions about the legitimacy of war.
The book culminates in a re-examination of the civilian response to the...