Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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In Falling Snow

We’re women. We do things. (p 78)

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were founded during WW1 to help the war effort by offering medical assistance. The founders were committed to promoting women’s rights and believed that contributing to the war effort would help women win those rights.

The British Army refused their help. The women were not daunted, offering hospitals instead to other allied countries. The French were the first to accept. The second Scottish Women’s Hospital was established in the Abbaye de Royaumont, a 13C Cistercian abbey north of Paris, with Dr Frances Ivens as the chief medical officer. The hospital team cared for more than 10,000 wounded soldiers from 1915 to 1919.

Jump forward 70 years. Mary-Rose MacColl found herself in the wrong aisle at the library, having transposed two digits in a call number. She noticed a title, Women of Royaumont: A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front. Eileen Crofton’s book was the spark of inspiration for MacColl’s novel, In Falling Snow, which pays tribute to the women who served at Royaumont throughout the war. It also explores how the challenges for women in medical service have evolved (or not) from WW1 to the 1970s. Continue reading

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Despised and Rejected and The Absolutist

Tragic gay love story meets WW1 conscientious objectors.

This will not end well.

A number of novels on the Great War 100 Reads list have touched on issues of homosexuality in WW1.* Now it comes front and centre.

Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (published as AT Fitzroy) and The Absolutist by John Boyne – two books published 93 years apart – both sensitively present the joy of realizing and the anguish of hiding what was considered a “perversion” at the time. 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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Let Darkness Bury the Dead

Murdoch Mysteries (Les enquêtes de Murdoch in France and The Artful Detective in the US) is a popular TV series featuring William Murdoch as a Toronto police detective in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The series is based on seven novels by Maureen Jennings. The novels went on hiatus when the TV series took off, and after 11 seasons the TV storylines have gone beyond the books.  

A decade later, Jennings has published an eighth Murdoch novel, Let Darkness Bury the Dead. To avoid TV-vs-novel plot confusions, the latest book jumps ahead to November 1917. Murdoch is now a senior detective, widowed for many years. (His wife died giving birth to their daughter, leaving him alone with their young son.) Jack, now 21, is returning from France as a wounded soldier. His father longs to reconnect. But Jack is troubled and distant, more concerned about his friend and fellow veteran, Percy. Murdoch Sr is not his confidante of choice. 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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The Deep

It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. Had one thing that they’d seen or heard, that they couldn’t shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart. … We thought if we could gather those things together we would call it ‘The War Book’. And that would be the only way to communicate it, to give someone an idea of how it was. (The Deep, p 40*)

From time to time, I have described my small efforts to put some order into my reading, grouping a few books together by place (the Western front or home front, for example), by person (nurses, perhaps, or civilians in the war zone), by author (a trilogy by one author, or a series of Irish authors let’s say), or by time (eyewitness accounts or modern ones).

Occasionally I come upon a common thread unawares. Like now, I find myself having read a series of the most exquisitely written books, all by authors new to me. In each work, the authors evoke time, place and mood in lovely turns of phrase. The horror of war is conveyed by the beauty of words.   Continue reading


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The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

I read the preface, then paused, then read it again. Such is the beauty and feeling in the picture that P. S. Duffy paints to start The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, engaging all the senses in a two-page vignette.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land captures two stories, moving back and forth between the Western Front and the fictional Nova Scotia fishing village of Snag Harbour. Angus MacGrath is the bond between the two. He leaves behind his wife Hettie Ellen, his son Simon Peter, his father Duncan – enlisting in the hope of finding his brother-in-law and friend Ebbin Hant, who is missing in action. With skills as a painter and drafter, Angus believes he will be a cartographer in London, able to search from the relative safety of a desk job. But mapmakers are plentiful and cannon fodder is in constant need of replenishment. He finds himself instead in the front lines. Continue reading


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A God in Every Stone

The parallels of history stretch far in Kamila Shamsie’s novel, A God in Every Stone … a sweep of over 2000 years, from the Persian Empire and the explorations of Scylax in 500 BCE, to the Western Front in WW1, to the strife between Armenians and Turks, to the Indian independence movement and the Qissa Khawani bazaar massacre in the 1930s.

The lesson: “We take from the Empire what it has to give – but in the end, our loyalties are with the people we loved first, love most deeply.” (p 25) Continue reading


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Our Horses in Egypt and Bunny the Brave War Horse

Two books this week, looking at the work of horses in WW1 and after. Both a thoughtful commentary on the relationships between humans and other animals. Neither with a happy ending.

Our Horses in Egypt starts a few years after the war. Englishwoman and war widow Griselda Romney discovers that one of her horses, used by the army during the war, may still be alive. She had thought of Philomena fighting and dying on the Western front. Instead, she learns that the horse had been sent to Egypt. Off she goes to Egypt, daughter and nanny in tow, in search of Philomena.

Author Rosalind Belben alternates the adventures of Griselda and entourage with those of Philomena at war. It makes for an interesting perspective on the hierarchies of Empire. While Griselda certainly benefits from the privileges of her class and race, she can just as easily suffer when she steps out of the boundaries of “suitable” female behaviour. While the humans about her question Griselda’s impulse to find a horse (shouldn’t she be grieving her dead husband and caring for her children instead?), she feels a responsibility to a fellow creature – one of her own. And she may hold her own – the horse – in higher regard than “foreign” humans.  Continue reading


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The Ghost Road

Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them. (p 46)

Everyone touched wood, crossed fingers, groped for lucky charms: all the small protective devises of men who have no control over their own fate. (p 147)

Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of WW1 novels have been sitting in my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. The wait has given me the chance to read them in relatively quick succession, interspersed with works by some of the real-life people who feature in them.

The Ghost Road is the last in the trilogy. Regeneration was set in Edinburgh at Craiglockhart Hospital, The Eye in the Door in London and northern England. The Ghost Road moves from London to the Western Front in the last months of the war, with psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr William Rivers and the fictional Billy Prior again in prominent roles. Poet Wilfred Owen (another Craiglockhart patient) returns in a cameo. Continue reading