If I was so empowered, I would insist that everyone read an absolute minimum of two books about The First World War every year from now until 2019. Why the extra year? Because in 1919 we sowed the seeds that we are reaping now in The Middle East, the Ukraine, recently in The Levant and so on, and so on.
I would go further and say that at least one book should be non-fiction and one should be a novel. Because reading the massive non-fiction tomes that have already been published, and no doubt will come out in great numbers going forward through this period, gives one a sense of the enormity of the War: the losses, the strategies, the mistakes and the machinery and all that; while reading a novel brings the whole thing down to a small focus: one couple, one family or even one person – but it exposes that heartbreak in a way that non-fiction cannot; for in such great numbers it becomes horrifically meaningless.
To slightly mis-use a quotation made by Joseph Stalin in 1947 about the famine in Ukraine, found by the exceptional researcher Stephen Goranson.:
In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.
The first time I came across First World War literature was when I was doing exams, O Levels, and we had some poetry to study, I cannot now remember the anthology but it contained several poems written about or at the time of the war, so we needed to do some background reading and I read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.
That began what has become a life long interest, stoked up I am not ashamed to say by marrying into a family which still had deep scars from losses in both World Wars, and also by the increasing numbers of books, non-fiction and fiction, that deal with this conflict.
I cannot possibly list every book. So I shall concentrate on a few that I think really brought home to me what happened, and how what happened next shaped our world today.
For an over view of the conflict itself, it is hard to choose between Martin Gilbert and John Keegan, both magnificent accounts and scholarship lightly borne in the text, so that it is not a difficult task to read and learn from.
But I would also recommend during this period that a reader would choose to read two astounding accounts of the Battle of the Somme, one English and one German: Peter Hart The Somme and Ernst Junger Storm of Steel (translation by Michael Hofmann).
Equally, there are hundreds of novels, maybe Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is the best know, followed by The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, Strange Meetings by Susan Hill and many, many others. It is invidious to select only a few, but I am going to do it anyway: two by Louisa Young, two by Robert Edric and a book which I read in translation (and cannot now find my copy) by Sebastien Japrisot.
Louisa Young’s grandmother was Kathleen Scott, a sculptor who made the casts for maxillofacial surgery being carried out in Sidcup and in writing her biography, Louisa came across many letters, diaries and photographs and one day in an exhibition in The Wellcome Collection saw one of the standard postcards that wounded soldiers were given to send home.
My Dear, I wanted to tell you (which is how these postcards began) is the title of a novel which follows two couples: Nadine Waveney and Riley Purefoy, and Julia and Peter Locke. During the events of the war, these people combine to create a story that takes us right up to the mess of battle, “going over the top” with men on the Front Line and also staying at home with waiting, anxious wives and girlfriends, through these people we learn about loss, physical damage, mental damage and survival at all costs.
The reader is drawn inexorably into the lives of these people, soldiers and their women who represent, while fictional, a tiny part of the devastating statistics of the war, but concentrate our focus on their emotions, struggles and humanity.
The second book The Heroes’ Welcome tells us the story of the end of the war and the struggle these soldiers (and their women) had to return to “normal”. Peacetime, for some of them, was anything but peaceful and for others – young widows, grieving mothers and others it was a long haul for the rest of their lives…
The Robert Edric titles are very different. Both these two titles deal with the aftermath of war. In Desolate Heaven is (one might be tempted to say) entirely fictional while In Zodiac Light is a novel about Ivor Gurney, poet and composer, who suffers a complete mental breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital in Dartford, Kent (and yes, that really is the hospital). Abandoned by the military (a common experience of demobbed service personnel) and by his family (mental illness was a disgrace), Ivor was supported by only a few friends and the staff at the hospital, only some of whom recognised his genius, but very few of whom understood or had any idea of his anguished sufferings during almost three unbroken years on the Western Front. Both these books lead the reader to a developing understanding of the post traumatic disorders – so completely misunderstood – of surviving servicemen and women (many of them VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses who were right at the Front dealing with daily horrific injuries, deaths and constant noise from the fighting).
Finally, but not exhaustively, A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. (no image) This is a novel based on one of those unimaginable acts of war which make the blood run cold. Based on a true story, it tells of a young French woman who waits seemingly forever to find out what happened to her fiancé, officially “killed in the line of duty”. After being tipped off by a dying soldier she discovers and exposes a brutal act of cruelty involving 7 French soldiers who were bound by their own side, and dragged into “no man’s land” to be killed in the cross fire. Her search exposes not only conspiratorial deception and brutality but also acts of kindness brought about by the exigencies of war.
It is not a coincidence that so many of these titles have been made into films – but before that they were, and are, exceedingly good books. I have not even begun on the Children’s Section, the poetry and the memoirs…