Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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The Deep

It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. Had one thing that they’d seen or heard, that they couldn’t shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart. … We thought if we could gather those things together we would call it ‘The War Book’. And that would be the only way to communicate it, to give someone an idea of how it was. (The Deep, p 40*)

From time to time, I have described my small efforts to put some order into my reading, grouping a few books together by place (the Western front or home front, for example), by person (nurses, perhaps, or civilians in the war zone), by author (a trilogy by one author, or a series of Irish authors let’s say), or by time (eyewitness accounts or modern ones).

Occasionally I come upon a common thread unawares. Like now, I find myself having read a series of the most exquisitely written books, all by authors new to me. In each work, the authors evoke time, place and mood in lovely turns of phrase. The horror of war is conveyed by the beauty of words.   Continue reading

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The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

I read the preface, then paused, then read it again. Such is the beauty and feeling in the picture that P. S. Duffy paints to start The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, engaging all the senses in a two-page vignette.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land captures two stories, moving back and forth between the Western Front and the fictional Nova Scotia fishing village of Snag Harbour. Angus MacGrath is the bond between the two. He leaves behind his wife Hettie Ellen, his son Simon Peter, his father Duncan – enlisting in the hope of finding his brother-in-law and friend Ebbin Hant, who is missing in action. With skills as a painter and drafter, Angus believes he will be a cartographer in London, able to search from the relative safety of a desk job. But mapmakers are plentiful and cannon fodder is in constant need of replenishment. He finds himself instead in the front lines. Continue reading


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A God in Every Stone

The parallels of history stretch far in Kamila Shamsie’s novel, A God in Every Stone … a sweep of over 2000 years, from the Persian Empire and the explorations of Scylax in 500 BCE, to the Western Front in WW1, to the strife between Armenians and Turks, to the Indian independence movement and the Qissa Khawani bazaar massacre in the 1930s.

The lesson: “We take from the Empire what it has to give – but in the end, our loyalties are with the people we loved first, love most deeply.” (p 25) Continue reading


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Our Horses in Egypt and Bunny the Brave War Horse

Two books this week, looking at the work of horses in WW1 and after. Both a thoughtful commentary on the relationships between humans and other animals. Neither with a happy ending.

Our Horses in Egypt starts a few years after the war. Englishwoman and war widow Griselda Romney discovers that one of her horses, used by the army during the war, may still be alive. She had thought of Philomena fighting and dying on the Western front. Instead, she learns that the horse had been sent to Egypt. Off she goes to Egypt, daughter and nanny in tow, in search of Philomena.

Author Rosalind Belben alternates the adventures of Griselda and entourage with those of Philomena at war. It makes for an interesting perspective on the hierarchies of Empire. While Griselda certainly benefits from the privileges of her class and race, she can just as easily suffer when she steps out of the boundaries of “suitable” female behaviour. While the humans about her question Griselda’s impulse to find a horse (shouldn’t she be grieving her dead husband and caring for her children instead?), she feels a responsibility to a fellow creature – one of her own. And she may hold her own – the horse – in higher regard than “foreign” humans.  Continue reading


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The Ghost Road

Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them. (p 46)

Everyone touched wood, crossed fingers, groped for lucky charms: all the small protective devises of men who have no control over their own fate. (p 147)

Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of WW1 novels have been sitting in my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. The wait has given me the chance to read them in relatively quick succession, interspersed with works by some of the real-life people who feature in them.

The Ghost Road is the last in the trilogy. Regeneration was set in Edinburgh at Craiglockhart Hospital, The Eye in the Door in London and northern England. The Ghost Road moves from London to the Western Front in the last months of the war, with psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr William Rivers and the fictional Billy Prior again in prominent roles. Poet Wilfred Owen (another Craiglockhart patient) returns in a cameo. Continue reading


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The Eye in the Door

Every day in this hospital one was brutally reminded that the worst tragedies of the war were not marked by little white crosses. (p 150)

Continuing to work my way through Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of WW1 novels – they’ve been sitting in my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. They are living up to the anticipation.

The Eye in the Door is the second in the series, looking at the work of psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr William Rivers. Where Regeneration viewed the war from the safety of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, The Eye in the Door takes us to London and beyond. Where several characters in Regeneration were actual people, the central character in The Eye in the Door is Billy Prior, whom we met as one of the few fictional folks in Regeneration. Continue reading


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Regeneration

You might say that Great War 100 Reads began with Regeneration. Pat Barker’s trilogy of WW1 novels has been sitting on my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. In the months leading to August 2014, I kept hearing about interesting projects for the WW1 centenary and thought about how I, too, could mark the occasion. First thought: I should finally get around to reading the Regeneration trilogy. Second thought: Ha! Reading a mere three books would be a pretty pathetic attempt at commemoration. And so began the idea that ultimately expanded to a reading list for the duration. Continue reading


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A Farewell to Arms

I last read a Hemingway novel in high school. The Old Man and the Sea did not inspire me to pick up another one. As I recall, my adolescent self yawned in boredom.

But that was in another century.

And A Farewell to Arms presents itself as the ultimate American WW1 novel.

So in I dive.

The plot, in 60 words: Frederic Henry meets Catherine Barkley. He, an American serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian army. She, a British nurse serving in a hospital behind the Italian lines. The war draws them together and tears them apart … together, apart … repeat a few times. We are to believe it is love. And then Catherine meets a tragic end. Continue reading


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The Crowded Room

War or no war, provincial towns have a habit of sucking the life out of young women. Every generation of young women needs a parable to warn them to escape. Winnifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street could be the parable for her generation.

Muriel Hammond is the eldest daughter of a prominent family in the Yorkshire town of Marshington. Her father makes the money and trusts her mother spend it, and to make wise decisions about their daughters. (He would have taken more interest in a son.) The prominent women make it their duty to know everyone else’s business and to match their daughters in marriage to the best sons. A daughter’s duty is to care for her parents and to marry well. Continue reading


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The Enormous Room

I had a notion that E.E. Cummings’ book, The Enormous Room, was about prisoners of war. It is, but not in the usual sense of the phrase. The Enormous Room is an autobiographical novel about Cummings’ time under arrest – not by enemy forces, but by the US allied French government.

First, a brief account of the facts: Edward Estlin Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown were Americans who served with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in WW1. In August 1917, the two were arrested by French authorities for suspicion of sedition. Brown expressed anti-war views in letters read by the censors, Cummings stood by his friend, and American functionaires offended by their fraternizing with French colleagues did nothing to help. They were held for four months at La Ferté Macé, a porte de triage, pending charges. Cummings was to be released on suspicion when consular intervention sent him home. Continue reading