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Forgotten Voices of the Second World War by Max Arthur

11 November 2007

An appropriate choice for Remembrance Sunday, I think.

Forgotten Voices of the Second World War by Max Arthur

This book is something of a sequel to Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War, and both books have a similar backstory. Arthur went to the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive, a repository for recorded interviews, broadcasts, speeches, and sounds that capture in audio format the experience of wartime. Soldiers and civilians alike had their stories recorded by interviewers and kept by the IWM, and for this book Arthur went deep into the archives and pulled together a truly remarkable collection of narratives that present World War II from an eyewitness perspective.

The selections are short, most under a page long and some only a few sentences in length. The majority of the snippets come from British people (and of those, mainly men), though voices from other nations are scattered through the book to provide a little contrast or alternate colour. But naturally, each story is different, and it’s truly fascinating to hear an Australian soldier talk about what it was like in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, or read what an evacuated schoolgirl felt when she boarded the train and left her parents behind in London shortly before the Blitz. These personal stories bring the war to life in a way that a book of purely military, social, or political history couldn’t duplicate.

Reading this book does make me wonder what Arthur had to leave out, though, whether for reasons of space or other reasons. The selections in a book are on the whole very Anglo-centric, which is hardly surprising considering the source of the material and the book’s target audience. And the story of the war is certainly told through the British perspective, leaving out much of the war in Russia, China, and the South Pacific in order to focus on the fall of Singapore and the battles for control of Burma and Egypt and other colonial areas invaded by the Axis powers. But there’s enough of a narrative thread to make the book a fascinating work of ‘living history’, even though I hardly dare to think that a quarter of those interviewed in these pages are still alive today to read this book. If ‘living history’ or World War II history interest you, you’d be well-placed to enjoy the fruits of Arthur’s extensive work.

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