Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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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


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A Long, Long Trail

Really? Really. Four years into the WW1 centenary and four years since the start of this reading odyssey. In 317 posts, Great War 100 Years has documented 90 books read, over 200 monuments and memorials each Monday, and more interviews and musings.

Year three ended and year four started with my exploring the growing scholarship on medical women in the war. (Bravo to those bringing these fascinating stories back to life!) Now I’ve turned back to fiction for the most part. Some by authors who lived through the war. Most written from a longer view perspective in the last 30 years. A few with most exquisite prose. A range of voices showing the experiences of war for women, men and beasts. Continue reading


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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


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An Interview with Mary Swan, author of The Deep

The tragedy of twins Esther and Ruth unfolds against the backdrop of WW1 in The Deep, a novella by Canadian writer Mary Swan. She has graciously agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.

Why did you write The Deep?

Mary Swan: Some years ago I heard an interview with the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who was asked a similar question about his books. He talked about ‘the collected tinder in your own heart, waiting for a spark to be thrown onto it’ and I think that’s the perfect way to describe how books come about, certainly how they do for me. I’ve always been fascinated by twins, although — or maybe because — there aren’t any in my family. And I’d been interested in World War I for a very long time too, and read a lot about it over the years, wrote a few short stories that involved the war in some way. Then one day a friend told me about a footnote she’d come across in an essay on a completely unrelated subject. This footnote referred to an historical incident and that was my ‘spark’. I began working almost immediately, with no real idea of what I was going to end up with, and very gradually the fragments of incident and character I was writing shaped themselves into The Deep. Continue reading


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Let Darkness Bury the Dead

Murdoch Mysteries (Les enquêtes de Murdoch in France and The Artful Detective in the US) is a popular TV series featuring William Murdoch as a Toronto police detective in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The series is based on seven novels by Maureen Jennings. The novels went on hiatus when the TV series took off, and after 11 seasons the TV storylines have gone beyond the books.  

A decade later, Jennings has published an eighth Murdoch novel, Let Darkness Bury the Dead. To avoid TV-vs-novel plot confusions, the latest book jumps ahead to November 1917. Murdoch is now a senior detective, widowed for many years. (His wife died giving birth to their daughter, leaving him alone with their young son.) Jack, now 21, is returning from France as a wounded soldier. His father longs to reconnect. But Jack is troubled and distant, more concerned about his friend and fellow veteran, Percy. Murdoch Sr is not his confidante of choice. Continue reading