Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them

Is your creativity enriched or curtailed by Twitter’s 140-character limit? Imagine the challenge to families of those killed in WW1, asked to keep an epitaph for their loved one to 66 characters.

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission decided not to repatriate hundreds of thousands bodies. Rather, the dead were buried with their comrades close to where they fell. A standard stone marks each grave, regardless of rank. But next of kin were invited to add a personal inscription. About half took up the offer. Together, these epitaphs form a striking record of grief and memory. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, France

This past Saturday, July 1, marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, a day for the country to rejoice, reflect and reconcile. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was also Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate. Continue reading


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Firing Lines

Beatrice Nasmyth. Mary MacLeod Moore. Elizabeth Montizambert. Three names we likely don’t recognize today. But during WW1, countless Canadian, British and French readers read their war dispatches from London, Paris and points closer to the front. Debbie Marshall brings them back to life in Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War.

We met the three journalists briefly in Marshall’s last book (Give Your Other Vote to the Sister), when they joined Roberta MacAdams on a media tour of the military hospitals at Étaples and the lines of communication behind the front. In Firing Lines, we dig deeper into their backgrounds and how they came to report on the conflict. Continue reading


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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


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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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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


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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


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White Feathers

TO THE YOUNG WOMEN OF LONDON

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.