Exploration of grief in war wins top book prize

  • Date

    Wed 8 Jun 22

Portrait of Professor Lucy Noakes, Department of History at University of Essex

Professor Lucy Noakes has been awarded the 2022 Social History Society Book Prize for her book Dying for the Nation: Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain.

Judges described the book, which explores how individuals, communities and the state coped with mass death during World War II, as “an innovative, at times intimate, account of an important, neglected aspect” of the war that is “beautifully written.”

Reviewers have described it as a “timely, poignant insight into how an earlier generation coped with…loss and emotional suffering” and “a fresh perspective on what morale means and how it can be managed.”

Professor Noakes, from the Department of History, was inspired to write the book after public engagement work around the centenary of World War I: “I was struck by how much our shared cultural memory of the First World War is shaped by the idea of 'sacrifice', and participant's deaths and their legacies, but how absent this is from our understanding, in Britain at least, of the Second World War.”

“I wanted to remind people that the celebratory approach to the Second World War that we tend to take in Britain hides the death and misery that it brought in its wake. I felt a real responsibility towards the people whose lives (and deaths) I was writing about,” she added.

Drawing on numerous different sources, including letters, diaries, memoirs, films, magazines, novels and government planning papers, Dying for the Nation traces the management, experience and memory of death in Britain in wartime Britain.

It explores the experience and meanings of death, grief and bereavement, considering the ways that the demands of war shaped the British emotional economy.

Detailed research of the sources took Professor Noakes to all four nations of the UK. While official records of death were easy to source the biggest challenge she faced was sourcing records of grief: “The emotional culture of the time meant this was little spoken, or written about,” she explained.

Since publication in 2020, Dying for the Nation has become more relevant as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded.

“Successful 'management' of mass death by the state relies on good communication and on trust in national leaders. If this isn't the case then morale and a subsequent willingness to 'follow the rules' breaks down,” said Professor Noakes.

“Death in war (or in a pandemic) matters. How it is managed is really crucial to morale and to maintaining a sense of 'all in it together'. If people feel that their loss is not recognised by those in power, things can fall apart pretty quickly,” she added.

The power of emotions such as grief, and what they do as well as what they are became an unexpected focus of Professor Noakes’ research which she says will continue to shape her future work.

Professor Noakes will collect the award, which is worth £1,000, at the Society’s annual conference in July.