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Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939–1945, by Alan Allport, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2015, $40

In this amusing, anecdote-filled account historian Allport traces the transformation of a nation of relentlessly nonviolent individuals into effective soldiers.

After 1918 Britain dissolved its immense army and scattered the small remainder throughout the empire. Budgets were so skimpy that a private’s pay was half that of his Napoléonic wars predecessor, and the army had trouble recruiting even during the Great Depression

Matters changed as Adolf Hitler grew more pugnacious, and Allport’s account refutes the common view of 1930s Winston Churchill as the great anti-appeaser who knew what was coming. In fact, he never supported a larger army.

The U.S. Congress resumed selective service 15 months before the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Britain, on the other hand, didn’t pass a universal conscription bill until Sept. 3, 1939, the day it declared war on Germany. A predictable mess followed as men overwhelmed training facilities that often lacked buildings, running water and even weapons.

Though in poor health by American standards of the time, British recruits in 1939 were healthier than their World War I predecessors. More literate than their fathers, they poured out their outrage at the pettiness, cruelty and irrationality of military life in letters and journals from which Allport quotes generously.

The individual British soldiers fought well, though they never won the respect of the Wehrmacht, which regarded them as stubborn defenders but sluggish and easily discouraged in offense. This was not far off the mark, but in war stubbornness trumps brilliance.

Allport’s narrative gives the generals and primary campaigns their due, but mostly this is a delightful account of how individual Britons felt as they entered an army unprepared to receive them and then grimly did their duty.

—Mike Oppenheim