Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – London redux

Today, many people around the world turn to London and pause to remember Queen Elizabeth II as she is laid to rest. Great War 100 Reads revisits three WW1 monuments in London that have been featured here over the years. Click on each heading to read more.

Royal Artillery Memorial

Imperial Camel Corps Memorial

Edith Cavell Memorial

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Remembering Edith Cavell

British nurse Edith Cavell was executed on October 12, 1915 – 105 years ago today – for helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium. Her death became a rallying cry for the Allies. In honour of Cavell, I invite you to revisit past posts showing the many ways in which she is memorialized.

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Royal Artillery Memorial, London, UK

The Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London is dedicated to casualties in the Royal Regiment of Artillery in WW1: “In proud remembrance of the forty-nine thousand and seventy-six of all ranks of the Royal Regiment of Artillery who gave their lives for King and Country in the Great War 1914-1919.” That’s 49,076. Continue reading


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


White Feathers


Is your “Best Boy” wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU THINK he should be?
If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for – do you think he is WORTHY of you?
Don’t pity the girl who is alone – her young man is probably a soldier – fighting for her and her country – and for YOU.
If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU.
Think it over – then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO-DAY

British recruiting/propaganda poster, cited in White Feathers, p 175

1913. Eva Downey accepts a scholarship to a finishing school to escape an untenable family life and an unwanted marriage. At school, Eva and teacher Christopher Shandlin discover their mutual intelligence and fall in love. But Eva must cut her education short to care for her tubercular older sister.

Cue the war. Christopher has his reasons for not enlisting. Eva’s stepmother and stepsister force her to give him a white feather (for cowardice) or her sister will not get money for expensive medical treatment.

This will not end well.

Susan Lanigan packs a lot of elements into her novel:

  • Evil stepmother and stepsister
  • Consumptive sister
  • Feckless father
  • Suffragettes behaving admirably
  • Suffragettes behaving badly
  • Anti-suffragists behaving badly
  • Rich, upper class friend who is always there for you
  • Poor, smart friend who is always there for you
  • Coward shot at dawn
  • Manifestations of shell shock
  • Cruel, incompetent military leadership
  • Poet/soldier with a bad attitude
  • VADs
  • Lesbian awakening
  • Unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion
  • Nod to racial discrimination (passing mention of Chinese Labour Corps and British West Indies Regiment)
  • Irish parochialism
  • Irish nationalism
  • etc etc etc

Mention of several historical figures who influence the characters is more evidence of the depth of Lanigan’s research:

  • Dorothie Feilding (and her fictional cousin Roma)
  • R.W. Nevinson (and other unnamed war artists)
  • Emily Hobhouse
  • Lord Kitchener
  • Rupert Brooke (in adoration and in derision)
  • Emmeline Pankhurst
  • Mrs Humphry Ward (and the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League)
  • etc etc etc

Lanigan’s novel explores a thought-provoking premise: what is the fallout of a moral predicament that inevitably leads to betrayal. It is well researched and well written. And sometimes infuriating.

Eva and Christopher make one bad decision after another. (Without which, in fairness, the story would not be as interesting.) It often seems that only those behaving badly have the courage of their convictions. (Eva’s friends, Sybil and Lucia, are the exception to this generalization.)

Which leads to the other big question in the novel: who is responsible for the results of those bad decisions? Do individuals take responsibility for their actions, or denounce the system that lead to them. Good arguments on both sides of that issue, in my view.

Whether you agree with the conclusions, White Feathers is a provocative read.


“I would have thought you’d be rebelling against the war, not joining in.”

Eva smiled bitterly. “I think … that for a man, if you renounce war you’re a rebel, but for a woman it’s the opposite. To rebel is to fight. We’re supposed to marry well, be nice girls and stay out of public affairs. … Anyway, they’ve pulled the rug out from under us. How can we marry when they’ve taken our men? We might as well be the rebels.” (p 244)

Read my interview with author Susan Lanigan.

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Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

A surprize package arrived on my desk from Winnipeg this week. In it, an autographed copy of Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Many people who read about Winnie the Pooh are unaware that he is based on a real-life Canadian black bear. Lindsay Mattick tells the tale.

In 1914, Mattick’s great-grandfather, Harry Colebourn, was a veterinarian heading to war. His troop train stopped in White River, ON, where he bought a bear cub from a trapper. He named the bear Winnipeg after his home town (Winnie for short), so his regiment would never feel far from home.

Winnie was a remarkable bear. As mascot for the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, she learned “to stand up straight and hold her head high and turn this way and that, just so!” But when the order came to leave the training grounds on Salisbury Plain and head to France, Harry knew he could not take Winnie.

The London Zoo became Winnie’s home. There she met Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin named his own teddy bear Winnie. A.A. Milne brought his son’s stuffed menagerie to life in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

In Finding Winnie, Mattick tells the story of the real Winnie to her own son, Cole. It’s a lovely read-to picture book for ages 3-7, with a family album of photos and ephemera at the end.

Statues of Harry Colebourn and Winnie can be found in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg and at the London Zoo.

Winnie was not the only Canadian to land in the London Zoo during the war. About a dozen bears in all were brought to England and then left at the zoo when the troops were sent to the front.

A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977 tells of Teddy, a black bear cub presented to the 160th Bruce Battalion.

When the 160th Bruce Battalion left to go overseas they took with them a denizen of the woods of Bruce. In time, he grew to be a full-sized, well developed bear with a fine coat of glossy black hair.

One day in Bramshott, he got out, and being of a roving disposition, took a stroll around the camp. The first place he visited was the staff office, and the employees, never having had the pleasure (or terror) of a visit from a Bruce County bear, immediately vacated the premises and left Teddy master of all he surveyed. He found nothing to his liking there; he ambled out and strolled down the road. Seeing a hut door open, he walked in and caused a greater panic than a German would have done. Seeing that he was not a welcome visitor, he went out, and not finding a suitable tree to climb went up a telegraph pole, where he was captured a little later.

Teddy at the latest report was in the Zoo in London, England, with a number of other bears, having been turned down on account of flat feet. He lived for another three years at the London Zoo. Sgt. David William (Bull) Stephens of Wiarton was the soldier responsible for looking after Teddy.

Gordon Reid, editor, A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977. Published by the Elderslie Historical Society, Chesley, Ontario, 1977, p 213

Thanks to Nick for adding to my library of most important books about the world.


Monday Monuments and Memorials – Edith Cavell Monument, London, UK

One hundred years ago today, on 12 October 1915, British nurse Edith Cavell was executed for helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium. Her death became a rallying cry for the Allies.

This 10 foot white marble statue of Cavell stands against a grey granite cross in St Martin’s Place, opposite the National Portrait Gallery, in London. A woman and child at the top of the cross symbolise Humanity, and Britain protecting Belgium. On the woman’s skirt is a Geneva cross, symbol of the Red Cross. It was designed by Sir George Frampton and unveiled by Queen Alexandra in March 1920.

“Brussels, dawn, October 12th 1915” notes the time Cavell was executed. “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”, words she spoke on the eve of her execution, were added in 1924.

Faithful until death, devotion, fortitude and sacrifice are inscribed on other sides of the monument.

Observant folks will recognize the face of Cavell’s statue as my avatar.

British Pathé has posted a vast collection of its newsreels about WW1. You can watch the statue being placed here, and the statue being unveiled here and here.


Stella Bain

Marne, March 1916. A woman awakes in a French military hospital, injured, not knowing who she is or how she got there. Her uniform is that of a British VAD. Her accent pins her as an American. She senses that she may come from an unhappy place. The name Stella Bain comes to her.

When she recovers, her skills as a nurse’s aide and ambulance driver return, but only snippets of memory. She feels the Admiralty in London holds the key to the mystery. In London, she is found by Lily and August Bridge, who take her in. August is a cranial surgeon who offers talk therapy and other assistance to help her recover her memory. A friend from the past indeed recognizes her – she is Etna Bliss. Her memories flood back. She must return to America to confront her old life: a cold, abusive husband and two children.

Many things about Anita Shreve’s novel work. Many things miss the mark.

Several novels explore the effects of shell shock on soldiers in the trenches. Logic dictates that the horrors of war would also have an impact on those witnessing the war close by. Stella Bain is a rare look at a woman with shell shock. It was a condition new to the medical community and to the general public … hard to understand for those who were not part of the war. Women were more likely to be diagnosed with hysteria.

Shreve gives a good overview of the condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She shows the different attitudes toward it in the UK (where doctors were finding ways to treat it) and the US (where there was more ignorance and scepticism), as well as the gender differences in treatment. Her damning descriptions of Freudian therapy are entertaining.

What Drove Me Nuts (Spoilers ahead!)

So much of the plot relies on coincidence to move forward. Wandering around London, Stella just happens to collapse in front of the home of a cranial surgeon who wants to dabble in talk therapy. Lily conveniently dies in childbirth, leaving the inevitable romance between Etna and August free to blossom without that particular moral ambiguity. (And let’s leave aside the grey area of when the line was crossed from doctor-patient relationship to personal relationship.)

While the big picture of war is suitably described, there are some significant historical inaccuracies. On Stella’s visit to the Admiralty in January 1917, the receptionist is wearing a Wren uniform. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) was formed only in November of that year.

Would a woman with signs of mental illness, who has deserted her husband and children, really be granted custody in the 1920s? Highly unlikely that a judge would be sympathetic.

Stella Bain is fine read without critical analysis. The details got in the way of my fully enjoying the big picture.


Stella Bain is the North American title. The novel is published in the UK and Australia as The Lives of Stella Bain. Shreve’s earlier All He Ever Wanted tells some of the same story from the viewpoint of Etna’s first husband, Nicholas van Tessel.


Monday Monuments and Memorials – Canadians awarded the Victoria Cross, Ottawa

This plaque honours Canadians (including Newfoundlanders) awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. It was unveiled by Princess Anne on 10 Nov 2014, on the wall of the British High Commission on Elgin Street in Ottawa.

According to a UK government press release:

Bronze plaques were commissioned to recognise 175 Victoria Cross winners in total from 11 countries. Canada has the highest number of overseas recipients with 70. Other countries for whom plaques have been commissioned are Australia (66 Victoria Cross winners), New Zealand (16), South Africa (14), India (6), USA (5), Pakistan (3), Nepal (2), Denmark (2), Belgium (1) and Ukraine (1).

In the UK, a commemorative paving stone will be laid to honour each person in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War – 469 in all. Ceremonies will take place in the birthplace or hometown of each recipient on the anniversary of their winning the VC. Paving stones for overseas-born recipients will be unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire on 5 March 2015.

The Victoria Cross is the UK’s highest award for gallantry. It is given for most conspicuous bravery or a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. Medals are made from cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War.


The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan describes his 1915 breakout novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, as a ‘shocker’ – “where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” (dedication)

His description is dead on. The novel is a romp.

June 1914. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer has just returned to London after living for 30 years in South Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). He encounters a mysterious American spy who is suddenly murdered. Hannay goes on the run, carrying the dead man’s secrets about a German spy ring and in fear of being accused of the murder. Both sides are after him.  Continue reading