Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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The Alice Network

To tell the truth, much of this special work we do is quite boring. I think that’s why women are good at it. Our lives are already boring. (p 83)

Intelligence: knowing where the enemy is, what they are doing, what they are planning, what they are capable of. Information that gives a tactical advantage in war. One source of intelligence: unobtrusive eyes and ears. Add language skills to understand and code messages. Fine motor skills to write those messages in tiny letters or to pick locks. The people you would least expect. Women.

The true story of WW1 spy Louise de Bettignies is the launching pad for Kate Quinn’s novel, The Alice Network. Codenamed Alice Dubois (and nicknamed Lili in the novel), the “queen of spies” and her covert network worked behind German lines in northern France and Belgium. The information they passed to the British is credited with saving over 1000 lives. A message about the possibility of a German attack at Verdun planned for early 1916 was unfortunately not believed by the French military authorities. de Bettignies was arrested in October 1915 and died in prison in September 1918.

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A Divided Loyalty

Several WW1-related mystery series are on the Great War 100 Reads book list, but only one title is amongst the first 100 books I read and reviewed here: A Test of Wills is the first in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd (actually the mother-and-son team of Caroline and Charles Todd). Delving into the mysteries was a bit of a risk – with several books in each series, they could have taken over my reading.

Then this spring, I saw the latest Rutledge mystery, A Divided Loyalty. It’s set in Avebury. I could not resist being drawn into the prehistoric henge and stone circle. Continue reading

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Lucia’s War

When I interviewed Susan Lanigan after the publication of her first novel, White Feathers, I asked about her most interesting writing quirk. “Music,” she revealed. “Every character has a soundtrack – Lucia’s naturally is a bit longer since she is the most musical – and I stick in musical references whenever I can.”

Music is front and centre in Lanigan’s new novel, Lucia’s War. We meet Lucia Percival in London in 1950, a successful opera singer. She is scheduled to perform her last concert, but she has no intention of going on stage. A haunting secret from WW1 has caught up with her. She is baring her soul and telling that long-held secret to an admiring music critic. Continue reading

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Bolsheviki and Motherhouse

Bolsheviki and Motherhouse, two plays by David Fennario, recollect class struggles during and following WW1.

In Bolsheviki, a Montreal Gazette reporter wanders into a bar on Remembrance Day, in search of a human interest story. There he finds Harry “Rosie” Rollins, a veteran with a blistering view of the war and its aftermath. Rosie is based on Fennario’s 1979 interview with WW1 veteran Harry “Rosie” Rowbottom, who lost a finger in the Battle of Loos and was wounded at Vimy Ridge. Continue reading

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The Last Summer of the World

Can a fictionalized story add to our understanding of a famous person whose life is well documented? That is Emily Mitchell’s mission in The Last Summer of the World.

The novel centres on photographer Edward Steichen. At the beginning of the war, he and his family fled from their home in France for the safety of the US, leaving behind his paintings, photos and negatives. Now it is 1918 and he has returned to France as a reconnaissance photographer for the US army. In the interim, his marriage to Clara has fallen apart. Continue reading

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The Great Swindle – Au revoir là-haut

With war comes profiteering, and opportunities for graft, corruption and exploitation can continue after the end of hostilities.

Starting in 1915, the French government banned exhumation of dead bodies, saying soldiers would be buried near where they fell. After the war, many bereaved family members ignored the law and clandestinely claimed the remains of their loved ones. They bribed undertakers or appealed to unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

The government decided to identify the countless bodies that had been quickly buried or left on the killing fields, and to repatriate them or consolidate them in large military cemeteries. Contracts were tendered with private companies to undertake the immense task of exhuming and identifying the remains, placing them in coffins, transporting and reburying them. With contract payments per corpse, fraud and cutting corners were an attractive way to make the profits more lucrative. The press broke the scandale des exhumations militaires in 1922, and the government could no longer look the other way. Continue reading

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Fields of Glory – Les champs d’honneur

Every younger generation views their elders as comic, mundane, absurd. Every older generation strives to impart the lessons of history on those who follow.

In Les champs d’honneurFields of Glory in English translation – Jean Rouaud revisits childhood in Loire-Atlantique in the 1960’s. The eccentricities of grandparents and countless other relatives who surround the family are seen through the eyes of a young narrator and two siblings. Continue reading

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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


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