Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
The British Working Class
Geoffrey Field’s book Blood, Sweat, and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939-1945 examines the social, economic, and political atmosphere of Great Britain during World War Two. In particular, Field focuses his attention on providing an analysis of the British working class during this period and attempts to demonstrate the enduring impact that the war had upon everyday citizens, their way of life, as well as their social identities.
Field's Main Points
Whereas the interwar years (between 1917 and 1939) promulgated a sense of class division and conflict, Field makes the argument that World War Two remedied Britain's social problems in a number of ways. As he states: “The war marked the beginning of a long, sustained period of full employment, rising wages, and improving conditions for workers” (Field, 374). More important than this, however, Field points out that “the war deepened a sense of class identity and reshaped class relations” (Field, 6). In other words, while WWII did not erase social divisions among classes in Britain altogether, it succeeded in promoting a deep sense of unity and kinship among working class individuals. Why is this the case? Field argues that the massive mobilization of workers for the war effort allowed for a burgeoning of class consciousness. As a result of the patriotic sentiments instilled by the war effort against Nazi Germany, Field points out that the war instituted a strong sense of “togetherness” amongst the working class due to their close proximity to one another and the common goals that they shared. By the end of the war, this heightened sense of unity translated into an equilibrium, of sorts, among the various social classes, an advancement in women’s rights and privileges, greater power for “organized labour,” as well as a marked increase in the power and influence of the Labour Party that had not been seen in years prior.
Field’s thesis is both well-written and compelling, given the vast amount of primary source material he includes within his book. Moreover, his analysis of the British working class is particularly interesting since it offers an interpretation that deviates significantly from the existing historiography on this topic. Whereas other books have focused on the experience and perseverance of workers during this time period, Field's book differs in that it showcases the social results rather than the economic and political gains made by a war economy.
My only complaint with Field's work is that his thesis is a bit hard to decipher until the final chapters of his book. A more straightforward and clear explanation of his thesis in the opening sections of the book would have been tremendously helpful to the reader. Yet, this is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as Field does provide a good summary of his arguments in the conclusion.
Overall, I give this book a 4/5 star rating and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the social history of the Second World War -- particularly from the perspective of the British working class.
Definitely worth reading!
Questions for Further Discussion
1) In what ways was class division exposed by the war?
2) What does Field mean by the phrase, a "People's War?"
3) What roles were women expected to meet during the war effort? How was this role different for them, when compared to years prior?
4) How did the war affect labor unions during this period?
5) How did the war affect the political landscape of Great Britain? After the war, was the defeat of the Conservatives an inevitable outcome?
6) What was the enduring impact of an empowered working class in Britain?
7) Did you find this book to be engaging?
8) Who was Field's target audience?
9) What type of primary source material did Field rely on?
10) Were you satisfied with Field's conclusions and the manner in which he ended the book?
11) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Do you have any suggestions for improvement?
12) Does Field organize his chapters in a logical manner?
13) Did you find Field's thesis/argument to be persuasive? Why or why now?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Calder, Angus. The People's War: Britain 1939-1945. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969.
Gardiner, Juliet. Wartime: Britain 1939-1945. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2004.
North, Richard. The Many Not the Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Marwick, Arthur. Class: Image and Reality in Britain, France and the USA Since 1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Price, Richard. Labour and Society in Britain, 1918-1979. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1984.
Rose, Sonya. Which People's War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Field, Geoffrey. Blood, Sweat, and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- "Recruiting Women for British Factories." British WWII Poster - Come into the factories. British women on the Home Front. Accessed December 19, 2016. http://worldwar2headquarters.com/HTML/posters/british/factories.html
© 2016 Larry Slawson