Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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The Eye in the Door

Every day in this hospital one was brutally reminded that the worst tragedies of the war were not marked by little white crosses. (p 150)

Continuing to work my way through Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of WW1 novels – they’ve been sitting in my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. They are living up to the anticipation.

The Eye in the Door is the second in the series, looking at the work of psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr William Rivers. Where Regeneration viewed the war from the safety of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, The Eye in the Door takes us to London and beyond. Where several characters in Regeneration were actual people, the central character in The Eye in the Door is Billy Prior, whom we met as one of the few fictional folks in Regeneration. Continue reading

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Regeneration

You might say that Great War 100 Reads began with Regeneration. Pat Barker’s trilogy of WW1 novels has been sitting on my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. In the months leading to August 2014, I kept hearing about interesting projects for the WW1 centenary and thought about how I, too, could mark the occasion. First thought: I should finally get around to reading the Regeneration trilogy. Second thought: Ha! Reading a mere three books would be a pretty pathetic attempt at commemoration. And so began the idea that ultimately expanded to a reading list for the duration. Continue reading


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Birdsong

No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.

When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.

We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us. (Birdsong, p 340)

The generation that lived through WW1 almost managed to keep its horrors to themselves. As time passed, survivors died and other atrocities succeeded it, the Great War risked becoming a forgotten war. Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong was part of a renaissance of remembrance when it was published in the 1990s.  Continue reading


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An Interview with “Maggie’s Choice” author, Susan Taylor Meehan

Maggie’s Choice explores aspects of the socialist and labour movements during and after WW1, through the eyes of a nurse who serves in the Canadian army. I am pleased to welcome author Susan Taylor Meehan to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.

Why did you write Maggie’s Choice?

Susan Taylor Meehan: Originally, I wanted to write a non-fiction book about the women who served as nurses at the front during World War I, in part because my great-aunt was one of them. However, I discovered that someone else had beaten me to it! Her book was excellent, and the world didn’t need another one. But there was still a story to tell, so I decided that since we can often convey more truth through fiction than non-fiction, I would write my great-aunt’s personal story as a fictional memoir. Every one of her reminiscences is in Maggie’s Choice, along with material both adapted and imagined from numerous other sources. For more info, check out my website.  Continue reading


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Maggie’s Choice

Finally, I understood, understood it all: Mrs. Orlofsky, taking in laundry, struggling to make ends meet, paying too much for even the most basic necessities; Mrs. MacLaren, entertaining in her palatial hone, living off the deposits of war profiteers, price gougers, and speculators who wouldn’t charge a fair price or pay their employees a living wage if it killed them.

That afternoon, I saw how the economic system worked. And no, it wasn’t right, how these people had to live. (p 78)

Susan Taylor Meehan is of an age to know ‘the personal is political.’ She conveys the concept in her short novel, Maggie’s Choice, following a young nurse to the Western front in WW1 and back to Canada and the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Continue reading


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An Ice-Cream War

And now for something completely different.

First, a bit of context. While thousands were being slaughtered in Europe, a small offshoot of the war was taking place in the colonized areas of East Africa. A small but vital force led by German commander Lettow-Vorbeck managed to outflank Allied troops about 20 times in number for the duration of the war. The plan was to divert as many Allied forces as possible from the Western front.

In An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd pokes a bayonet of satire into the East Africa war and twists the knife. Continue reading


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A Long Long Way

The centenary of the Easter Rising this spring has been a good excuse to delve into books by Irish authors on the Great War 100 Reads list. Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is the third on this theme, and the one that deals most directly with the events around Easter 1916.

Young Willie Dunne grew up within the walls of Dublin Castle with his father and three sisters – in lodgings allocated to his father as police superintendent. He joins the British army early in the war, to fight for King and Empire. He wants to help save Belgium and to prove himself to his father. Continue reading


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The Summer Before the War

If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you know that a comedy of manners can be coupled with serious matters of war. If you’re in Downton withdrawal, Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War might be just the cure. Simonson slices a knife through the class, race and gender prejudices in parochial small-town England with humour and gravity in turn.

Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye at the beginning of summer 1914. She is the new Latin teacher, well-qualified, travelled, young and single. Her father recently deceased and her inheritance in trust, she is determined to make her own way as an independent woman. Continue reading


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How Many Miles to Babylon?

Memories slide up to the surface of the mind, like weeds to the surface of the sea, once you begin to stir the depths where every word, every gesture, every sigh lie hidden. (p 20)

The centenary of the Easter Rising is my excuse to delve into more books by Irish authors on the Great War 100 Reads list.

Jennifer Johnston’s 1974 book, How Many Miles to Babylon?, explores tensions of class and culture through the friendship of Alexander Moore and Jerry Crowe. Alec is an only child, born to the manor in a sterile and loveless Anglo-Irish family. Jerry comes from large Catholic family of labourers. Continue reading


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A Test of Wills

1919. The war is over, but its effects live on in the mind of Scotland Yard’s Ian Rutledge. He was a gifted inspector who spent four years in the trenches on the Western front. Now recovering from shell shock, can he can still do his job?

Rutledge’s boss wants him gone. (What’s behind the animosity may become clearer as the series goes on.) He sends Rutledge to find the murderer of war hero, Charles Harris. It’s a no-win assignment: the prime suspect, Mark Wilton, is also a decorated war hero and a favourite of the royal family. Continue reading