Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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The War Diary of Clare Gass

A fine day in spots only. My ward is filled & I am very busy but enjoy my work if it were only possible to forget its cause. (March 2, 1916, p 106)

The dominant memory of WW1 is that of men. Soldiers were, after all, the vast majority on the front lines. But as Susan Mann points out in her introduction to The War Diary of Clare Gass, 1915-1918, wounded soldiers were accompanied and cared for by nurses at every stage of their journey through the military medical system except at the very first points closest to the front lines. Continue reading

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An Interview with Eric McGeer, author of Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them

Eric McGeer has studied epitaphs from WW1 graves in Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them,* and from WW2 in Words of Valediction and Remembrance. Eric joins me on Great War 100 Reads today to discuss his work.

What first interested you in the epitaphs on Commonwealth war graves?

Eric McGeer: About twenty years ago I made a long desired trip to the Canadian battlefields of both world wars in France and Flanders. It was one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life, and it stirred the wish to write something about what I had seen and learned. It was about this time that I read Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble, a study of the myth and memory of the Great War that took shape in Canada during the 1920s and 1930s, which triggered my interest in the epitaphs as an overlooked source for the effect of both wars on the Canadian population. The value of an epitaphs book really hit me while I was walking through the Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer (near the D-Day landing zones). There was one in ancient Greek, a quotation from the Iliad, which I recognized from my background in classics. It made me wonder who else would understand it, not just the words but the context of the quotation and the ennobling farewell it conveyed from a father who had served in the First World War to a son who was killed in the Second. The more I examined the epitaphs, the more I came to see how they were the most powerful and authentic responses to the tragedy of the wars from the people, mothers, wives, children, who used these farewells to express so many things — sorrow, consolation, gratitude, love and loss. What occurred to me was that the cemeteries and memorials attest to the courage of the battlefield, whereas the epitaphs record a different kind of courage, the kind it takes to accept and endure such devastating loss and to leave a lasting record of the moral fortitude with which two generations of Canadians faced the ordeal of the wars. Continue reading


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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