Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Empires of the Dead and Sounding Thunder

Two books – unrelated except for their WW1 connection – offer insights into the mindset of an imperialist or dominant culture.

Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves

In Empires of the Dead, David Crane chronicles the life of Fabian Ware, first head of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and Ware’s role in creating over 2000 cemeteries and monuments to commemorate those who died in WW1.

Born in Bristol to a prosperous Plymouth Brethren family, Ware turned away from his religion but remained an idealist. At Oxford, he was taken by Alfred Milner’s ‘New Imperialism’. He proved himself to be a skilled administrator and diplomat early in his career.

As a commander in the Mobile Ambulance Unit in WW1, he saw firsthand the cavalier treatment of the dead. He was appalled. He started to record the graves systematically. This lead to the formation of the Graves Registration Commission. Ware negotiated the expropriation of land to bury the dead from the British Empire, first at the local level, then with the French government. A properly constituted authority of Britain and the Dominions would control the future maintenance of the graves. Continue reading

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Alfred and Emily

Even though I was born several decades after WW1, veterans and others who had lived through the war were all around as I was growing up. The influences of the war were woven into the fabric of my life.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919, much closer to the war’s direct impacts. As she says in the introduction to her 2008 book, Alfred and Emily, “The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.” (p viii)

Lessing’s parents had come together because of the war – her father an injured soldier, her mother one of his nurses in a London hospital. Lessing came to realize the extent to which their lives had been damaged by it. Her father dreamt of being a country farmer, but lost his leg in the war. Her mother worked at the Royal Free Hospital after her love of her life was killed, showing promise for a career in hospital administration. Continue reading


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Wake and The Backwash of War

Two books for the price of one in this review, looking at the effects of war from different vantage points.

Wake

“Wake” takes on many meanings in Anna Hope’s novel of the same name: emerge or cause to emerge from sleep, a ritual for the dead, consequence or aftermath. The lives of three London women play out in the wake of the five days leading to the burial of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. Hettie (19), Evelyn (29) and Ava (mid 40s) still live with lingering effects of the war in November 1920. In juxtaposing the everyday with the momentous, remembrance and moving on are tied up together in the same event. The three women and the men around them convey the range of fallout from the war and the path to healing. Continue reading


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Goodbye to All That

I’m alternating my reading of the Regeneration trilogy with books by some of Pat Barker’s real-life protagonists. Robert Graves shows up in Regeneration, getting Siegfried Sassoon before a medical board and then to Craiglockhart War Hospital after Sassoon published his declaration against the war. Both were officers in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Goodbye to All That is Graves’ account of events – his childhood and prep school days, his war experiences, his early career and first marriage in the few years afterwards. Well … one version of his account of events. First published in 1929, Graves made extensive revisions for the 1957 re-publication. And yes, memories can change with circumstances. More about that later. Continue reading


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Memoirs of George Sherston

Having dived into the Regeneration trilogy, it seemed like a good time to read some of Pat Barker’s real-life protagonists. Siegfried Sassoon is first on the list. The Memoirs of George Sherston trilogy is Sassoon’s faintly fictionalized autobiography. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (the first two in the trilogy) recount his life from childhood into the war, to his arrival at Slateford, his fictional version of Craiglockhart War Hospital where Regeneration begins. (Sherston’s Progress is still on the reading list.) Continue reading


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The War Diary of Clare Gass

A fine day in spots only. My ward is filled & I am very busy but enjoy my work if it were only possible to forget its cause. (March 2, 1916, p 106)

The dominant memory of WW1 is that of men. Soldiers were, after all, the vast majority on the front lines. But as Susan Mann points out in her introduction to The War Diary of Clare Gass, 1915-1918, wounded soldiers were accompanied and cared for by nurses at every stage of their journey through the military medical system except at the very first points closest to the front lines. Continue reading


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War-Torn Exchanges and Your Daughter Fanny

Continuing my explorations of women in the medical services, in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes, and Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, VAD. Both books bring to life women’s war service close to the front. Continue reading


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Lights Out!

Firsthand accounts of WW1 from the medical women who served are hard to come by, and in reverse proportion to their position in the hospital hierarchy: practically none from doctors; a few more from nurses; most from VADs.

Lights Out! The Memoir of Nursing Sister Kate Wilson, Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1915-1917, based on Kate’s diaries, started as a souvenir for her family written shortly after the war. Later in life, a frustration with mostly male accounts of the war that “tended to romanticize events” led to “a tremendous desire to tell my story, in my own way.” After all, “I have been there too.” (Foreword) Continue reading


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Firing Lines

Beatrice Nasmyth. Mary MacLeod Moore. Elizabeth Montizambert. Three names we likely don’t recognize today. But during WW1, countless Canadian, British and French readers read their war dispatches from London, Paris and points closer to the front. Debbie Marshall brings them back to life in Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War.

We met the three journalists briefly in Marshall’s last book (Give Your Other Vote to the Sister), when they joined Roberta MacAdams on a media tour of the military hospitals at Étaples and the lines of communication behind the front. In Firing Lines, we dig deeper into their backgrounds and how they came to report on the conflict. Continue reading


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An Interview with Katrina Kirkwood, author of The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads

Katrina Kirkwood’s book, The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads, is two tales in one. She tells about Isabella Stenhouse’s adventures as a doctor in WW1 as well as her own journey of discovery. Katrina joins me today at Great War 100 Reads to discuss her work.

What first interested you in finding your grandmother’s war stories?

Katrina Kirkwood: Romance. Amongst the medical instruments that I inherited from my grandmother Isabella was a strange string of beads. Rumour had it that they had been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war, an idea that entranced me. As a teenager, I dreamt up a glorious romance in which love trounced international enmity. The fact that Isabella might have been a pioneering woman doctor, fighting fierce male opposition for the right to practise her hard-earned skills in the profession of her choice didn’t cross my mind until years later. Continue reading