Our War: How the British Commonwealth Fought the Second World War, by Christopher Somerville, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1998, $24.95.
Our War tells the story of how people from all parts of the British Commonwealth came together to assist the mother country in its fight for survival against the Axis powers in World War II. The largest Commonwealth contributors were, of course, the Canadians and the Australians, but contingents of varying sizes and skills arrived from all parts of the former British empire–on which the sun never set. That they did contribute appeared unremarkable to the participants themselves because of a nearly universal sense of patriotism and gratitude that one would not expect to find among former colonials.
Not all Commonwealth members were supportive, however, the notable exceptions being the Irish Free State, which declared its neutrality early on, as well as some political elements in India. Indian nationalists set up the Indian National Army, which was staffed with Indian POWs captured by the Japanese in Southeast Asia and any other Indians who could be persuaded to desert the Indian army.
Our War is told from the perspective of the men and women who took part in the action. About a third of the narrative is in the actual words of the participants themselves. This is a particularly good method to convey the ambiance of the times and allow the reader to understand the feelings and views of the former colonials in a way that could not be accomplished in any other manner.
It is a straightforward concept to fight for your country. It becomes a bit more complicated to leave home and hearth to fight in a foreign land on behalf of a third country that one may have never seen. Yet that is what the Commonwealth volunteers did, and did so cheerfully for the most part. The Australians did withdraw several of their divisions from Africa at one point to counter the threat of Japanese invasion of their own country, but that seems completely logical, even if British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not understand it at the time. Practically all of the contributors to this book survived the war and happily returned to their native lands, though some 170,000 others who fought did not.
John I. Witmer