Our Longest Days : A People's History of the Second World War, Paperback

Our Longest Days : A People's History of the Second World War Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (6 ratings)


For six years the people of Britain endured bombs and the threat of invasion, and more than 140,000 civilians were killed or seriously wounded.

Men and women were called to serve in the armed forces in record numbers, and everyone experienced air raids and rationing.

In these terrible times, volunteers of almost every age, class and occupation wrote diaries for the "Mass Observation" project, which was set up in the 1930s to collect the voices of ordinary men and women.

Using many diaries that have never been published before, this book tells the story of the war - the military conflict, and, mainly, life on the home front - through these voices.

Through it all, people carry on living their lives, falling in love, longing for a good meal, complaining about office colleagues or mourning allotment potatoes destroyed by a bomb.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352 pages, 16
  • Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: European history
  • ISBN: 9781846680885



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Review by

Our Longest Days is a collection of excerpts from a handful of the diarists who participated in the Mass Observation Project during the Second World War; an eclectic mix of housewives, conscientious objectors, students, voluntary service workers, land girls, those with army and air-force backgrounds, young and old; those who had seen the First World War, and those to whom the deprivations and horrors were altogether new. The collection covers the war from beginning to end, and each significant event of those six years is touched on by more than one diarist. Nella Last’s diary was published (and filmed) separately, and this is unsurprising when you read these excerpts next to the others… although regularly domestic in nature, her writing is intimate, honest and covers the gamut of private reactions and public observances throughout the war. That said, Nella’s entries in Our Longest Days are sparse, and by no means the highlight… the wise observations of Edie Rutherford are particularly interesting, as is the reporting of Land Girl, Muriel Green whose enthusiasm for her new position provides an upbeat accompaniment to her matter-of-fact take on gender-discrimination and entries which could, if more self-conscious, have been labelled feminist. Meanwhile, the men’s excerpts tend towards describing public reaction to the notable events (air raids, ships sunk by either side, political commentary) and maintain the sense, throughout the collection, of the war’s progression both at home and overseas.The horror of the war has been better described elsewhere, but the casual terror and necessarily quick adjustment to changes of those in the UK, the opinions, both educated and instinctive of the people who were intimately involved and yet one step removed from the war is a thing of fascination – this is a vital addition to any war literature collection, but is also an important slice of the lives of ordinary people in a different time.

Review by

It must have been a Herculean task to edit the diary entries of over 500 people to attempt to give a coherent picture of those left at home during the Second World War.The twin strengths of the collection are the simple structure and a clever selection of diarists and entries by editor Sandra Koa Wing. The chronological structure provides a driving narrative familiar to anyone who's studied history over the past five decades while the diarists reveal reactions to wartime events and, more subtly, how British society changed during the wartime years. For instance, the female diarists clearly demonstrate the roots of feminism, both among the long term housewives and the younger girls whose youth is largely eaten by the war. We see the impact of the Blitz, evacuation, propaganda, US troops being sent to a country where most young men are absent and, of course, the news from the front.It doesn't shy away from revealing the prejudices of the writers, making them more human and showing the impact of the war on this country far more effectively than bare statistics or impartial academic overviews ever could. It's occasionally frustrating that diarists drop out without warning (I'd have been fascinated to learn what happened to the consciencious objector George Springett in the latter years of the war for instance) but the selection of views that come to replace them does compensate to this to a degree.An absolutely fascinating piece of social history on a still sorely neglected aspect of wartime Britain, a tribute to the enthusiasm and expertise of the sadly deceased editor. The only real downside to reading this is that her skills won't be brought to bear on further such volumes.

Review by

This book is mostly made up of extracts from diaries written by British people participating in a Mass Observation exercise. It is focussed on the years covering WW2. Notes are given at the beginning of each chapter highlighting key historical events, with particular reference to the development of the war, that are the background to the diary entries.As somebody who didn't study history at school beyond the age of thirteen, and therefore never studied WW2 history in any depth I found this book to be very helpful. The factual notes at the beginning of each chapter provided me with a framework which I didn't have in my head, but which ordered events for me usefully. The insights from the perspective of people on the ground were fascinating to me. The sheer grind of living under blitz, with men gone for long periods of time, with increased mobility of the population, with rationing, all of which have shaped our culture significantly. A particular element that was bought out well, and which surprised me was the way in which domestic political life, especially towards the end of the war, continued to carry on despite the war going on in the background.The nature of the source material does make this work a very specific kind of book, with factors that have to be borne in mind whilst reading. It has to be remembered that the Mass Observation survey were self selecting and therefore tend to be of a certain educational and political view point, and also that they were volunteers so they could stop contributing when they wanted to. These factors mean that entries do not provide a comprehensive view of the culture, and also I missed hearing the ends of specific people's stories as they just stopped sending diary entries to the survey. I did have a few quibbles with the editing of the entries. I would have appreciated the end notes appearing as foot notes so that I didn't have to keep flicking to them. I also feel that the brief biographical details of each contributor could have been repeated as it would have made it easier to keep track of them. In addition a brief indication in the text of the last contribution included from each diary would have been useful.

Review by

I found this to be somewhat disappointing - I'd read Nella Last's War and enjoyed that book, so was hoping for something similar. Mass observation can provide a fascinating sidelight on the difficulties of peoples lives, and how even the 'trivial' changes that war forces on the population can have far-reaching effects and I would like to have seen more of this sort of detail, particularly towards the end where there seemed to be mainly comment on the progress of the war and peace.One of the problems with this particular book is that there are a fair number of diarists, some only appearing at various times during the period (the diaries are arranged chronologically), so, at least initially, it can difficult to get a sense of whose perspective you are experiencing events through. I'd suggest reading the biographies (which are very brief) before getting into the diaries properly. As I got further into the book, I did find myself 'connecting' with one or two particular diarists and reading those were much more enjoyable. As is mentioned in the introduction, the diarists tended to come from a particular class and political leanings, so there are still many stories untold.

Review by

I found these diaries compelling reading. They brought to life the banality and difficulty and frustration of war. But at the same time they underline that life goes on, and amid the patriotism there is not only grumpiness, but humour and wonder and hope. One thing that stood out particularly sharply was that as these people wrote, they did not know how things would end, a perspective I think I am not alone in forgetting in the given narrative that is now World War Two's history. It is also fascinating to follow how the various diarists change and develop through the course of the war, as they discover themselves, their potential freedoms and how past conventions may have trapped them. A wonderful piece of history and a compelling work of editing by Sandra Koa Wing.

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