Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Fear – La peur

We are pinned down under a systematic bombardment. Once again our lives are at stake and we are powerless to protect ourselves. We are lying in the ditch, flat as corpses, squeezed together to make ourselves smaller, welded into a single strange reptile of three hundred shuddering bodies and pounding chests. The experience of shelling is always the same: a crushing, relentless savagery, hunting us down. You feel individually targeted, singled out from those around you. You are alone, eyes shut, struggling in your own darkness in a coma of fear. You feel exposed, feel that the shells are looking for you, and you hide among the jumble of legs and stomachs, try to cover yourself and also to protect yourself from the other bodies that are writhing like tortured animals. All we can see are hallucinations of the horrible images that we have come to know through years of war. (p 288)

Jean Dartemont. Alter ego of author Gabriel Chevallier. Poilu in the French army. Signed up for adventure early in the war. Lived to tell the tale. Not a tale of bravery or heroism. The prime feeling is fear. Continue reading

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Under Fire – Le Feu

These are not soldiers, these are men. They are not adventurers or warriors, designed for human butchery – as butchers or cattle. They are the ploughmen or workers that one recognizes even in their uniforms. They are uprooted civilians. They are ready, waiting for the signal for death or murder, but when you examine their faces between the vertical ranks of bayonets, they are nothing but men. (p 223)

In his field notes, an unnamed narrator describes the other poilus in his French army squad and their exploits in the trenches. They are thrown together from all walks of life and forced to survive.

Le Feu: journal d’une escouade, Henri Barbusse’s fictionalized account of the war was published in 1916, while France was still at war. The English translation, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad was published the following year. It is staunchly anti-war – one of the first works to turn a mirror on the war and become a moral witness to its horrors and impact. It won France’s Prix Goncourt. Continue reading



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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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Thomas Ricketts, Victoria Cross, Croix de Guerre

Each soldier tells a story.

Tommy Ricketts left his birthplace, an isolated fishing hamlet, to answer the clarion call of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in September 1916. He claimed to be 18 years old. He was 15.

Two years later, a seasoned soldier and still underage, Ricketts’ action in battle earned him the Victoria Cross. As described in the citation: 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


A Very Long Engagement – Un long dimanche de fiançailles

Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that is the way of the world. (p 3)

Eskimo, Six-Sous, That Man, Common Law, Cornflower. Five French soldiers, court-martialled for cowardice for self-inflicted wounds intended to send them home. Normally, they would face the firing squad. Instead, they are marched on an exhausting and aimless journey through the trenches as an example to others, then forced into no man’s land under cover of night. They are officially listed as casualties of the following day’s battle.

Exploitation, corruption and the atrocities of war are not reserved for the enemy. 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.



Frances Itani’s Deafening traces the intersections of language, communication and understanding through the disparate experiences of a young deaf girl growing up in small-town Ontario and a stretcher bearer on the Western front.

In the first part of the book, we travel with Grania O’Neill through her silent world. Left deaf by scarlet fever at age 5, Grania’s family shelters her from the hearing world. Her grandmother teaches her to speak and to read lips. She and her sister make up their own language with their hands. Her mother reluctantly agrees to send her at age 9 to the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. (The school was renamed the Ontario School for the Deaf in 1913.) There she learns to sign and to speak, as well as receiving vocational training.

Grania works in the school infirmary when she graduates. There she meets and falls in love with Jim Lloyd, a hearing man who assists the town doctor. Weeks after they marry, he enlists as a stretcher bearer. The novel then moves back and forth for the duration of the war, from Jim’s living hell on the Western front to Grania’s vigil on the home front.

Itani’s lean and graceful prose evokes the blessings and curses of sound and silence. She delves into the early 20C politics of communications by and with those who cannot hear. We see how touch and sight are as much a part of communication and understanding. How understanding can precede or follow information. How a man who is constantly singing and a woman who can never hear can connect and learn from each other.

Grania must pay attention every second, every minute. If she doesn’t, people will think she’s stupid. She has to be ready all the time.

Ready? For what?

To break through the silence.

But the silence also protects. Grania knows. Being inside the the silence is like being under water. Only when she wants to surface, only then does she come to the top. (p xiv)


“You’re canny, Jimmy boy. Canny will get you through.”

“Canny? I don’t think so. But I do things. I take measures―to hold things at bay. … You know. A chant under the breath, a line from a song. … Sometimes I say―fast―to myself: Infirtaris, Inoaknonis, Inmudeelsis, Inclaynonis.”

Irish laughed so hard he could scarely speak. “Tell me again.”

Jim repeated the verse, faster this time. “It’s supposed to sound like Latin. My grandmother taught me. She said it came from the time of Henry VI. It’s nonsense. But it helps if I say it in the noise of the guns, when we’re trying to get a carry out of a tight spot.” (p 327)

Speaking at the Canadian Literature of World War One conference in Ottawa in Aug 2014, Itani described the writer as a witness who bears an obligation to honour the subject matter. In writing Deafening and its sequel, Tell, she became a witness to the war. She studied diaries, albums, photos, catalogs, battlefield guides. The sheer numbers are difficult to take in. But for the novelist, war is about one person. Her story offers new understanding.


Note to Vicki … there are drive sheds in Grania’s home of Deseronto.

Note to other readers … is drive shed a term unique to Ontario, or do they exist elsewhere?

Read my interview with author Frances Itani.


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The Englishman’s Daughter … A Foreign Field

Continuing the exploration of civilians in or near the war zone, and their interactions with military personnel.

Author Ben Macintyre’s interest is piqued when he is invited to Le Câtelet, a small Picardy town near the Western Front, to report on the unveiling of a plaque to honour four British soldiers executed there in 1916. An elderly French woman from the nearby village of Villeret introduces herself as the daughter of one of the executed soldiers.

The story starts in the first days of WW1. Allied attacks against the initial German offensives were quickly turned around. The Allies in retreat, some soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines. Seven British soldiers found themselves in Villeret, a village under occupation. Several villagers rallied to conceal the soldiers. Eventually, the best strategy was to hide them in plain sight by integrating them into the village. In this way, they protected the soldiers for almost two years.

One of the soldiers, Robert Digby, fit in better than the others. Having lived in Paris for a brief stint, he already spoke French. He and Claire Dessenne, the most beautiful woman in Villeret, fell in love. In November 1915, she gave birth to their daughter. Six months later, he was executed by the German occupiers.

Claire and Robert’s relationship forms the core of the “true story of love and betrayal.” But that alone would not carry the length of a book. Interviewing people who lived through the events and their descendants, and combing through official and unofficial documents from the time, Macintyre pieces together a broader tale. A wealth of source material came from “the admirable and peculiarly French habit of bureaucratic history-hoarding, which prompted local officials to amass quantities of first-hand evidence from ordinary people, describing their experiences in the region behind the lines between 1914 and 1918.” (Note on Sources)  

Macintyre documents the horrors of war, and how the lives of the villagers under occupation and of the occupiers evolve in an area that saw some of the worst devastation of the time. He teases out the histories of the villagers and of the British soldiers.

The villagers tried to retain some semblance of a normal life. They had little news from outside. They could not know that the occupation would last so long. The occupiers’ demands were many and often arbitrary. Soon, every provision was diverted to the German war effort.

In early days, many villagers were defiantly willing to protect the lost foreigners. Others were fearful of the consequences. There was a daily risk in harbouring fugitive soldiers. Over time, some collaborated with the enemy. (Indeed, the hook could have been ‘The German’s Daughter.’) Some resented the relatively easy lives of the British soldiers, compared to the men of the village who were off fighting. Others remained … or claimed to remain … loyal throughout. “Just as the invisible barrier separating German from French began to crumble, so did the unspoken alliance that, in the first days of occupation, had united all French citizens against the German invader. … Every enemy invasion, every revolution provides an opportunity for old grievances to bubble to the surface …” (p 120)

The final chapter puzzles out several theories about the identities of betrayers. Why did the Villeret soldiers not try to escape when opportunities arose? Were they part of the spy network now known to have operated in the area? Were the soldiers traded for some favour to grasp at survival? Or is the common belief of the area true, that a spurned lover turned them in … cherchez la femme?

Full-length exposés by journalists are not my favourite genre of books. I find that material best suited to a feature story or series is often over-stretched and padded to fit the longer format. Lots of blah-blah-blah in place of in-depth analysis. Macintyre doesn’t fall into that trap. He frames interesting personal stories into the larger context of the war.

The Englishman’s Daughter, the title in North America, is published in the UK under the title A Foreign Field.

Thanks to Laurie for suggesting this book.

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Grey Souls — Les Âmes grises — By a Slow River

What is the value of one small life when thousands are being slaughtered in a nearby war? What is the price of justice in such circumstances? Who defines the truth? These ultimately unsolvable puzzles are the subject of the narrator’s brooding in Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls.

The critical deeds of what becomes known as the Affaire take place during WW1 in a small town in northern France, literally over a hill from the front. The town is insulated in many ways from the carnage. The main industry is essential to the war effort, the men who work there exempt from military service. There is soon a divide. The townsfolk become disgusted with the droves of injured soldiers. The soldiers resent the townsfolk for being spared.

The narrator, a retired police officer whose name we never learn, recounts events from the vantage of hindsight 20 years later. He has been pondering the Affaire for all that time, obsessed with trying to piece together what really happened.

A 10-year old girl is found strangled, her body left by the canal. Deserters from the front are immediately under suspicion. They are tortured into a confession. But are they the true perpetrators? A year before, the young school teacher inexplicably hung herself. Why? Are these tragedies linked? Does privilege shield the guilty? Only the narrator asks in retrospect.

As the grim story unfolds, we see that nobody is free of guilt. As if the misery of war has permeated the morality of the town. Or perhaps this is human nature. We are left with these dark thoughts, these grey souls.

A rose by any other name?

You may be wondering about the three titles for this post. All are the same book. Les Âmes grises is the original title in French. Grey Souls (a literal translation of the French title) is the first English translation, published in the UK. By a Slow River is the US translation.

I could have read this in the original language, but I was feeling lazy and By a Slow River was the most readily available at the library. By page 5, I started to wonder how some passages were written in the original. To the point of distraction. A word or a turn of phrase didn’t seem quite right.

I am fortunate to live a city where the library has all three versions. I acquired Grey Souls and read it (mostly without pondering about particulars of language) while awaiting Les Âmes grises. When it arrived, I went back and compared all three.

In some cases, By a Slow River better reflects the colour of the original:

Des fouines s’étaient battues. Leurs pattes tout en griffe avaient laisse des calligraphies, des arabesques, de mots de fou sur le manteaux de neige. (Les Âmes grises, p 125)

Some stone martens had been fighting, and had left crazy curling words inscribed all over the blanket of snow. (Grey Souls, p 79)

Some stone martens had fought a skirmish here. Their claw-studded paws had left calligraphies, arabesques, a madman’s testimony on the snow. (By a Slow River, p 85)

In others, Grey Souls wins out:

Le maire l’inaugura le 11 novembre 1920. … On se quitta au bout d’une heure en s’apprêtant à rejouer ainsi, d’année en année, la comédie des coeurs lourds et du souvenir. (Les Âmes grises, p 226)

The mayor inaugurated our memorial on 11 November 1920. … It lasted an hour and everyone promised to put on this little show of heavy hearts and memories every year. (Grey Souls, p 147)

The mayor unveiled it on November 11, 1920. … The living parted an hour later, ready to reenact year after year this sham of heavy hearts and remembrance. (By a Slow River, p 154)

By a Slow River is probably the closest translation of the original words. Its editors admit to emending the original text. The changes and additions may make it clearer to a North American audience, but result in some passages that do not ring true to me. Grey Souls strips down the language, but better captures the overall atmosphere. In a moody novel about morality, I prefer that.