Beneath Hill 60 by Will Davies, is a 2011 non-fiction account of the tunnelling activities of the war, with particular emphasis on the 1st AustralianBeneath Hill 60 by Will Davies, is a 2011 non-fiction account of the tunnelling activities of the war, with particular emphasis on the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, Captain Oliver Woodward, and the mining under the Messines Ridge, the detonation of which kicked off the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917. Will Davies edited "Somme Mud", and was asked to prepare this book to tie in with the 2010 film "Beneath Hill 60".
This book is a very readable piece of nonfiction. It relies heavily on Woodward’s diaries, but situates them in the broader context of the war, tunnelling activities that the Germans and allies undertook, and the movements of the AIF generally. It also provides some technical details of tunnelling, which you can either focus on or skim according to your wont (I skimmed). Davies gives prominence to the bravery and engineering skill of other tunnellers, mostly on the allied side, including the tunnelling at Gallipoli, which I had never really considered, and famous explosions such as that at Hooge. He also talks about the various horrid ways the tunnellers could die, and the effects on the nerves of the men, both those in the mines, and those above it, who were constantly paranoid about the enemy tunnelling activities.
The narrative jumps around a bit in time, but is always anchored by Woodward’s path towards the Hill 60 mines and then his path away from it, which works well. Woodward’s diaries lend Beneath Hill 60 a really nice narrative and human element that keeps it quite engaging even through the drier technical details. He was one of only four Aussies to earn the MC three times during the war, and comes across as very courageous and also with humour and insight. Woodward was a successful mining supervisor in his late 20s when war broke out, and he did not join up because he felt that with the AIF currently just in training in Egypt, he could be of more use in the mines. When the tunnelling companies were established, he enlisted and was selected for officer training. He went across to France in late 1915, and was then in almost constant action until early 1919. His stress over the Hill 60 mines and his constant checking that they hadn’t been compromised come across very well, and his later actions are also included.
All in all, this is a quick, engaging read for anyone whose interest in the tunnelling activities of WWI has been whetted by the film Beneath Hill 60, or by Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong or its recent adaptation....more
The Secret Battle, a 1919 book by A. P. Herbert, available free at Project Gutenberg. It is fairly short, but very well worth it for the amazing descrThe Secret Battle, a 1919 book by A. P. Herbert, available free at Project Gutenberg. It is fairly short, but very well worth it for the amazing descriptions of the struggles, both petty and major, experienced by junior officers in Gallipoli and France. It is written as a sort of fictional memoir from the point of view of a narrator, who is writing to set the record straight about his friend, Harry Penrose. The story is a protest against the mercilessness of the military machine, and does a very effective job of showing that Penrose has been failed by the system. Winston Churchill called it,
“One of those cries of pain wrung from the fighting troops … like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon [it] should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means.”
A. P. Herbert was probably partly inspired by the case of Edwin Dyett, whose fate apparently haunted him. It is difficult to talk about this story without spoiling the ending (and you may be able to guess what happens), but I’m going to try because I think knowing probably changes the way you read from the beginning. However, most reviews will discuss the ending of the story, so be warned.
The Secret Battle is also closely based on Herbert’s own wartime experiences, with some scenes being drawn directly from his memory. Penrose also bears some similarity to Herbert, who was also midway through his Oxford education when war broke out, enlisted, and was eventually pressured by his relatives into applying for a commission. It is interesting that Herbert based Penrose’s background on himself, distancing the fictional him from the narratorial “I”. I suspect all young officers would have heard about Dyett and reflected on how close they themselves could have come to being in his position. The descriptions, particularly those of the Gallipoli campaign, are so evocative they will instantly provoke sympathy with what the men suffered in terms of uncertainty, heat, cold, flies and vermin, exposure, sickness and the inevitable strain on nerves that this hardship produced.
The narrator first meets Penrose on the ship to Gallipoli, and then they are consistently in the same company with him for the rest of the war. Penrose starts out as a curious, determined officer who inspires his troops and tries very hard to serve the battalion well. The traits that will ultimately lead to Penrose’s downfall are explored by the narrator from the beginning. He is an idealist and suffers from an excess of imagination, which over time makes it increasingly difficult for him to cope with the stress and trauma of leading men in combat. Penrose is in many ways a tragic figure, whose fatal flaw is his need to be brave and “do the right thing”. This leads him to stay at Gallipoli even when he is crippled with dysentery, and later leads him to return to France twice despite the recognition of his contribution and the prospect of an honourable retirement from the field of war. Even when he is manifestly mentally unfit, and he, his wife and the narrator all recognise it, he still chooses to return to his battalion. Like all tragic heroes, Penrose is a victim of his own nature (which is in many ways admirable) and a set of circumstances which the strengths of a civilian into tragic weaknesses.
This is juxtaposed (perhaps unintentionally) with the narrator, who is with Penrose most of the time and who nonetheless seems not to suffer the way Penrose did. He isn’t crippled with dysentery, he isn’t tortured by neurasthenia, is periodically shown to be progressing up the ranks, serving for a while as adjutant, and doesn’t make incidental enemies the way Penrose does. The contrast with the narrator made me ultimately feel that part of Penrose’s problem was that he was fundamentally unsuited for war, but the pressure of expectations and his own nature made it impossible for him to bear stepping out of combat and accepting a civilian position. This in many ways strengthens the argument of the book, because it also goes to the immense social pressure to “do their bit” brought to bear on young men who had been pushed beyond their endurance.
This story is worth reading. It is very thought-provoking and quite haunting, and A. P. Herbert’s autobiographical inclusions make it a phenomenal primary source on the experience of junior officers in its own right, their duties and struggles, and the way they interacted with their men, each other, and their commanders. It is also flat-out the best description I have read so far of the experience of the Gallipoli campaign....more
Letters from a Lost Generation, is a collection edited by Mark Bostridge and published in 2008, of the letters between Vera Brittain, her brother EdwaLetters from a Lost Generation, is a collection edited by Mark Bostridge and published in 2008, of the letters between Vera Brittain, her brother Edward, and their friends Roland Leighton, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Both Edward and Roland sent their letters back to Vera for safe-keeping, so the collection of letters between those three is almost complete (barring some letters between Vera and Edward in the last year of Edward’s life). Many of Vera’s letters to Victor and Geoffrey were also returned to Vera eventually. These letters, along with Vera’s diary (published as Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917) formed the backbone of her excellent memoir, Testament of Youth. I loved reading this book.
It should be fairly obvious that reading Testament of Youth before reading Letters from a Lost Generation would be sensible. Leaving aside the fact that the narrative overlay of Testament of Youth really helps with tracking the events behind the letters (although Bostridge does provide some bridging descriptions).
Being familiar with Testament of Youth helps with contextualising the colour of the letters. The occasional references to Roland’s Quiet Voice, which is one of the things that really gives a sense of him as a person (and his reaction to being admonished when he uses the Quiet Voice), make a lot more sense understanding the place he held in the Uppingham trio of Edward, Roland and Victor, as Brittain explains in Testament of Youth. Actually, I found Roland’s letters completely charming. Although Roland’s view of his own grand destiny—distinguished war service and then a life as a famous man of letters—gave me a sense that he was too big for his boots in Testament of Youth, he doesn’t come across that way in his letters. He comes across as very young, quite awkward, and really damaged by the loss of his illusions in war.
Edward, Victor and Geoffrey are also an interesting study in contrasts. To quote the Amazon description:
"Roland, ‘Monseigneur’, is the 'leader' and his letters most clearly trace the path leading from idealism to disillusionment. Edward, ‘Immaculate of the Trenches’, was orderly and controlled, down even to his attire. Geoffrey, the ‘non-militarist at heart’ had not rushed to enlist but put aside his objections to the war for patriotism's sake. Victor on the other hand, possessed a very sweet character and was known as ‘Father Confessor."
Each of the boys writes in a different tone, but their concerns are the same: the wish to do their job and be brave, a nostalgic yearning for their old public school days, the growing conviction that there is nothing glorious in war. At one point, Vera comments to Victor to the effect that he is very gung ho about the war, and he responds that if he didn’t maintain that way of thinking, he would break down in tears. Geoffrey frequently comments that he is very “windy” (frightened), and in fact was at one point invalided back to Britain to be treated for shell shock. He seems to want to just survive the war. Edward is reticent and controlled, and Roland seems willing to share most of what he is feeling with Vera. This, again, makes his letters touching and fascinating.
Vera anchors the letters. Few of the letters between Roland, Edward, Victor and Geoffrey have been preserved, so in the main the correspondence is between Vera and each of the others. She writes about what is being reported in the papers, such as Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack being missing in action, buying maps of the Western Front to try and figure out where they are, her fear that Edward might be sent to Gallipoli, and her empathy with their frustration at being stuck in camp in England, which ultimately leads her to volunteer as a VAD. I was surprised by how consistently her hatred of VAD work came through in her letters. This was more muted in Testament of Youth (probably with the benefit of hindsight). She repeatedly considered quitting, but her duty and the prospect of overseas service kept her working at the hospital until Victor’s serious injury ultimately brings her home from Malta.
Another thing that is interesting is how quickly letters travel between Vera and Roland during the early years of the war. Not quickly enough to prevent days of terror when Vera read of a battle near where she thought Roland was, but they exchanged letters every few days. This means the sheer volume of their correspondence is enormous; a stark contrast to the amount of time they spent together in person, which if I remember correctly could be counted in days on one hand. Towards 1916 and 1917, Vera frequently expresses frustration at the lag of up to two weeks for letters to travel from the front to England or back. Even the great British postal service brought to her knees under the ravages of war.
I thought Testament of Youth was a magnificent book, and Letters from a Lost Generation just adds to the emotion and understanding. Reading these young people’s experiences and their thoughts, hopes and fears in their own voices is fascinating and it is absolutely heartbreaking when there are no more letters from each in turn....more
Somme Mud is a memoir by E. F. Lynch, written in the 1920s, and published in 2006. This book has been repeatedly called the Australian All Quiet on thSomme Mud is a memoir by E. F. Lynch, written in the 1920s, and published in 2006. This book has been repeatedly called the Australian All Quiet on the Western Front, and has apparently started to be included on school reading lists to try and make callow young school children understand What Their Forefathers Went Through. This book is an absolutely startling testament to the psyche of the soldiers. It will resonate with anyone who is interested in the ANZAC experience, but I think it has broader appeal as well.
The story of Somme Mud’s genesis captures the imagination. After his tour in Flanders from 1916 to 1919, Lynch returned home and got on with his life. He went to teacher’s college, married, and had children. But during the 1920s and 1930s he wrote the first draft of Somme Mud into notebooks. Later, he typed it up and tried to get it published to earn some money during the depression, but there was no appetite for books about the war, and it sat in the family archives until 2002 when Lynch’s grandson showed it to academic Will Davies, who was enthralled by the story and had it published. I picked up Somme Mud because of the story of its inception. My grandfather wrote a similar memoir of his time in the Merchant Marine and the Navy during WWII, the five bound copies of which are passed from hand to hand around my family. So I identified personally with Lynch’s family and the eighty-year journey this book has been on to get published.
Somme Mud has the same feeling as All Quiet on the Western Front of the author trying to work through the images and memories of Flanders that are stuck in his mind. It reads as a series of vignettes, covering some moments in detail and in other places skipping over months at a time. Both reflect at length on the futility and cost of war; Nulla often reflects on people who have gone west, and is particularly bothered by the suddenness and meanness of death in the trenches, and the number of Australian soldiers buried so far from home. He reflects ironically at one point on Rupert Brooke’s “corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” There is no context of where the engagements Nulla participates in sit in the overall battles, or where the battles sit in the war. It’s written for an audience that is familiar with at least the general shape of the WWI Western Front (or is comfortable going with the flow). I suspect this is partly due to a hatchet job by the editor, trying to cut it down to a readable length.
Like All Quiet, Somme Mud operates exclusively at the level of the narrator. Like Paul Baumer, the narrator, Nulla, is commonly understood to be the author himself, probably with a few details of his friends and cronies thrown into the mix. But where All Quiet is ultimately pessimistic, as Baumer watches his friends die and be crippled until he loses himself entirely, Somme Mud is more optimistic, and peppered throughout with what one might characterise as the ANZAC spirit. As a result, Nulla is probably a more interesting narrator than Paul Baumer. Despite periods of exhaustion, depression and trauma, Nulla remains essentially upbeat. He epitomises mateship, that great ANZAC virtue, and enjoys the simple pleasure or stealing an officer’s kit, a relief’s clean blanket, or a French farmer’s goose (and blaming it on the Liverpudlian regiment next door). You also get a better sense of the totality of infantry operations from Nulla, who moonlights as a runner and signaller at various times, and of the fundamental resilience to trauma that enabled these men to come home from the war and somehow take up civilian life. You see the discipline and determination that allowed the ANZACs to distinguish themselves at Pozieres, Amiens and Mont-St-Quentin. You also see the lack of respect for authority and the juvenile sense of humour that annoyed the British so much.
However, Somme Mud doesn’t employ any of the literary techniques that All Quiet does. If there was a sense of narrative developing, it was lost in the editing. It’s a pity that Lynch wasn’t alive when this was prepared for publication, because it would have benefited from the author being able to go in and provide bridging passages in places, to try and develop (or preserve) the sense of narrative. As a result, there are bits of this book that are a hard slog, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who wasn’t innately interested in the subject matter. Other books have done a better job of blending memoir and fiction.
I would be inclined to include Somme Mud on a compulsory reading list for WWI, which may be partly my Aussie bias speaking, but I think it is a fascinating view of everyday life in the war, and a tribute to the men who went through it: those who died and those who survived....more
"Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder in the Australian Imperial Force" by Peter Stanley is a 2010 non-fiction book that does what it says on"Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder in the Australian Imperial Force" by Peter Stanley is a 2010 non-fiction book that does what it says on the tin. Stanley trawled through the AIF court martial files and basically put together this book about the various miscreants of the AIF. This is interesting on its own and also useful as a reference book for people studying the era.
The AIF was, of course, famously “ill disciplined” - they viewed the army as a job, which meant they expected to agitate for pay and conditions, be informed, and challenge the “bosses”. They didn’t think the army had a right to control what they did in their leisure hours, or to waste their time with pointless ritual or subservience. They expected to get into the trenches and do their job, and then have a good time afterwards. Sensible officers behaved like bosses, and consulted their men; "Pommy" officers were treated with round contempt. The incidences of AWL and absenteeism were astronomically high compared to other forces. General Haig found this so galling he constantly pressured the Australian Government to allow Australian soldiers to be executed, but for political reasons this was never agreed.
Many of the stories relate to discipline, pranks, industrial action and the like that give a sense of what the culture of the AIF was like. Some of the stories are really touching - the man who hesitated to enlist because he was gay and worried about the possible consequences of that - or tragic and disturbing - the man who returned home and in a moment of probable PTSD murdered his sister. Stanley approaches this book with a "to know all is to forgive all"’ attitude, which allows him to tell each story engagingly and without moralising.
There was a lot that worked for me in "Bad Characters", both as a history source, and as an engaging read about the life and times of the men of the AIF. One big thing that didn’t work was that the book was structured by year, not by type of crime. Since the categories of crimes committed each year were not mutually exclusive, this was pretty confusing and didn’t really work for me. It might have worked better if I’d read the book cover to cover, but I was using it as a reference, which meant I jumped around a bit.
"Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny and Murder in the Australian Imperial Force" won the Prime Minister’s prize for Australian History in 2010-11, so if you don’t believe me that it’s worth a read, believe her!...more
'Undertones of War' is a 1928 memoir by Edmund Blunden, based on his experiences in France and Belgium from late 1915 to early 1918. It does require s'Undertones of War' is a 1928 memoir by Edmund Blunden, based on his experiences in France and Belgium from late 1915 to early 1918. It does require some knowledge of the overall shape of the war to stitch together towns and battles, and I would hesitate to recommend it to a casual reader, because probably for the “human factor”, 'Good-bye to all That' and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' are justly more famous. However, 'Undertones of War' is a lovely read, and provides more insight into the day-to-day lives and stresses of the company officers.
'Undertones of War' is poetically written, with intentional allusion to the style of pastoral elegiac popular in the 19th century. In some places tis works better than others. Some of the series of rhetorical questions, or the addressing of a town or attractive tree in the second person could probably have been skipped, but I understand the intention behind it. The language itself is beautiful, but a bit obscure. It requires attention and concentration to read - skim readers beware.
Blunden was 20 when he enlisted in 1915, and was described as one of the youngest, shyest officers in the regiment. Blunden quickly acquired the nickname Bunny (later, Rabbit) when he arrived in the trenches. He won an MC for a daring reconnaissance mission that is described in 'Undertones of War' (although with no mention of the MC), and other than being gassed once, was not seriously injured during his service, and was invalided home in early 1918 apparently largely because it was felt he had been “out” too long.
This isn’t a harrowing read in the way that some WWI memoirs were ('Testament of Youth', for example)—although his experiences were traumatic and haunted him the rest of his life, Blunden is able to recount them with light-hearted and self-reflective humour. Although Blunden deals with the horror of trench life (particularly effectively when he talks about 3rd Ypres), he also spent quite a bit of time away from the line - as transport officer, works officer, intelligence officer, and the like, so there is an interesting view of the support functions of the battalion, and less of the dynamics of platoon and company.
I think much to the charm comes from Blunden’s narrative style. I found myself smiling while reading when Blunden talked about how the mercenary behaviour of the residents of Thievres provided occasion for some puns on the town’s name, or when, upon it being decided that patrols should wear white for camouflage in the snow, they were provided with a consignment of women’s nightgowns. He comes across as a bit of an affable dork, not the typical WWI officer-type, and his narrative voice is really quite charming.
'Undertones of War' is a memoir of the purest sort: a recounting of Blunden’s experience in the war. Although as I said above other memoirs/novelisations arguably have more value because they engage with the politics and virtue of what was occurring, it is nice to read something that has no agenda except a very mild lament for the England that was lost in the upheaval of war....more
This book was originally published in limited release in 1929, then as an expurgated edition entitled "The Middle Parts of Fortune" in 1930. The unexpThis book was originally published in limited release in 1929, then as an expurgated edition entitled "The Middle Parts of Fortune" in 1930. The unexpurgated version was not widely available until 1977. Commonly considered one of the best novels based on experiences of WWI, with fans such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and T. E. Lawrence. Reminiscent of "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Siegfried Sassoon’s Sherston Trilogy in that it centres on Richard Bourne, a character who serves mostly as a channel for Manning’s own wartime experiences. Like Sassoon, Manning wasn’t a wide-eyed teenager when he enlisted (he was in his early thirties); but like "All Quiet", it reads as something of an exercise in nihilistic self-negation. Like Remarque, there’s a good dose of survivor’s guilt that comes across from Manning.
Bourne is not a hugely likeable character, but there are interesting aspects of his personality. He is generally portrayed as aloof and rigidly controlled. He sees himself as an outsider; at one point he notes that this isn’t his war (an allusion, possibly, to the fact that Manning was Australian). The book is peppered with anecdotes about his tolerance for alcohol. He is a heavy drinker (as was Manning – it cost him his commission and was ultimately put down to neurasthenia) and several times others try to put him under the table only to discover he easily outdrinks them. He rarely sleeps; there is a legend in his platoon that whatever the time, Bourne will be sitting up in his bunk smoking. He receives a number of assignments, to HQ or the signal corps based on his superiors’ impression of his intelligence. Yet despite his apparent coldness, he has a couple of close cronies, Shem and Martlow. He complains of being posted to HQ because he’d rather be with his friends, and this is also his reason for resisting the pressure to apply for a commission. In his view, comrades make the war tolerable. He is very passive and reactive, and the war seems to have narrowed his concerns to day-to-day interests of food and shelter and not being made to march up and down the parade ground. We know he has a larger intellectual life, and the book becomes more interesting towards the end when he starts to show a bit of it – for example, he pauses for a moment to admire the beauty of tree branches silhouetted against the crescent moon.
Bourne displays the common ambivalence towards the fairer sex seen in WWI novels and literature from this period generally; the French women are unattractive but fascinating (read: female). Bourne isn’t one of the reputed hoard of Tommies having “international relations” with accommodating French girls; the one time he gets close, it is because a French girl has asked him to help her write a letter to her Tommy sweetheart. Bourne is overwhelmed by masculine territorial instinct and more or less assaults her (I only say “more or less” because of different social mores; nowadays we would definitely consider it assault). The French girl is unimpressed and rebuffs him. He also makes enterprising use of his limited French (un-translated, which makes some passages difficult to follow) to woo a series of French women into cooking for him and hiding him from the military police when he’s bludging.
I sort of understand why this book is feted as one of the best, but it’s a hard slog. There isn’t a great deal of plot to string things together, other than various officers’ and NCOs’ exhortations to Bourne that he tarks tew fine tew be a privat and should seek a commission, and the looming threat of the “show” (i.e. battle), which takes up the last quarter or so of the book. Other than that, Bourne mostly meanders around France behind the lines with the battalion, displays the standard preference for being with his buddies, the standard contempt for the staff officers, and the standard view of the pointlessness of army ritual such as saluting superiors and doing endless parades. Most of the novel has the feel of a documentary team following Bourne around as he goes through the daily trials and tribulations of the British infantry private. The final quarter picks up, and some of the investment Manning makes in Bourne and his cronies, and setting up the impending show and the issue of the commission, pays off in this section, and my view of this book improved considerably having read the last section.
In many ways, I think this is the British "All Quiet on the Western Front" in that it doesn’t go straight for the foom-whoosh-bang, but displays the boredom and confusion of life behind the lines, where the vast majority of soldiers’ time was spent. It’s a bit more stiff upper lip, and a bit less lost generation, but it’s ultimately a cathartic rewriting of Manning’s own war experiences. It ends on a similar note to "All Quiet", with a feeling that something was lost in WWI that makes the resumption of civilian life impossible....more
Fly Away Peter is a 1982 novel (well… novella) by David Malouf. I read this in about three hours (it’s probably 40-50,000 words) and I am going to dasFly Away Peter is a 1982 novel (well… novella) by David Malouf. I read this in about three hours (it’s probably 40-50,000 words) and I am going to dash off a short review while I am working up to writing a review of "Letters from a Lost Generation", a task which continues to daunt me.
What to say about "Fly Away Peter"? First, a little background. I read this book in high school, as the compulsory UNDERSTAND WHAT YOUR FOREBEARS WENT THROUGH, CHILDREN book. As I reread, I had some vague memories of bird symbolism, the juxtapositioning of Ashley and Jim and issues of class, and some weird undertones to Jim’s relationship with elderly spinster Imogen. I also recall that I was extremely snide about the "poetic language" which made passages of this really obscure to my sixteen-year-old self.
"Fly Away Peter" is set on the coast near Brisbane, Australia, and covers the story of posh-landowner Ashley Crowther, who decides to make his property a bird sanctuary, slightly mystical working class man Jim Saddler who becomes his professional birdwatcher, and Imogen Harcourt, an elderly British spinster who takes photos and satisfies the female character quota requirements.
Jim and Ashley are both charming and eccentric characters who are interesting to read about. I liked the facets of their characters that came out in the section set in Australia, and the contrasts and continuities between that and who they became when they went to war. Imogen is less interesting, but she’s really only in the story to be female and back in Australia, and she does all right at that.
Reading "Fly Away Peter" as an adult, I thought it was pretty decent. Couple of really memorable parts, very good description of the mud mud more mud part of the story. Beautifully written, very poetical, and manages to lift you above the mess while still somehow plunging you deeper into it (take that, snide sixteen-year-old self). Historical detail certainly feels "truthy"; nothing really jarred, and since this is more a prose poem than a work of historical fiction I’d be willing to let a bit of playing with the history slide.
As for the plot, well, it’s 50,000 words and it’s by David Malouf, so there isn’t a lot of plot. I can summarise it as birds, birds, Queensland, class distinctions, more birds, mud, death, mud, mud, more mud, fight, fight, death, without really spoiling anything. Although I am usually a bit irked by books with no driving force behind the plot (i.e. most "literary fiction"), I think in Malouf’s case this serves a purpose - encapsulated by this quote from Imogen:
"What had torn at her breast [...] had been the waste of it, all those days that had been gathered towards nothing but [...] senseless and brutal extinction."
So yes. Decent book - well worth the comparatively minimal time it takes to read it. And I support any writing about the AIF on principle....more
When I bought this, I’d been toying with buying a WWI poetry anthology for a while, and this was just a flat-out cover-purchase, because I was tossingWhen I bought this, I’d been toying with buying a WWI poetry anthology for a while, and this was just a flat-out cover-purchase, because I was tossing up between this and the Penguin Book of WWI Poetry, and this one just looked nicer. I am not much of a poetry reader, being quite finicky, but WWI occurred at the nexus of classicism and modernist poetry, and therefore melds a certain amount of structure, rhyme and meter with stripped-back language and an attempt at realism. Therefore, other than skipping some of the longer and more florid pieces, I found a lot in this book that I liked.
One thing I liked a lot about this book was that it was organised in chronological order, rather than by theme. I have no trouble grouping things by theme or tone in my head, but I’m terrible at contextualising them, so setting the poems out by roughly when they were written really worked for me. Each year had a brief summary of the major events of the war, which were supplemented by biographical details of the poets where this was useful or interesting.
It was interesting, too, to see the way the voices of the poets evolved from (to highlight the usual suspects) Rupert Brooke to Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney to Wilfred Owen. In particular, it highlighted the way the protest poets were responding to the patriotic, triumphalist poems of the civilian poets early in the war. The editors clearly had a narrative they were developing, and I am not sure how much of this narrative was real and how much was Hibberd and Onion imposing their order on a wide and chaotic field. And, of course, any anthology is going to irritate someone by excluding their personal favourite poems; I’m no exception to that – Robert Graves, for example, was very sparsely represented compared to other poets of similar prolificacy.
One issue was that the typesetting seemed as if it had been rushed (I have the paperback edition). Ordinarily I wouldn’t comment on design elements, but I think with poetry it does make a difference how it sits on the page, and it would have been better if each poem started at the top of its own page. I don’t think stanzas broke across pages, but poems would start halfway down, and sometimes the note text got widowed on the top of the page following the poem. In general, it seemed there hadn’t been a lot of thought put into the way the poems were presented visually.
Poetry is one type of primary source for trying to understand the experience of the war, and there were some truly gorgeous poems in this anthology. It is worth picking up and skimming through to find your favourites, then stopping to admire each one. Although it’s terribly unoriginal of me, and Owen didn’t necessarily speak for his contemporaries, I still think that on its own merits, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in English....more
My dear I wanted to tell you is a 2011 novel by Lousia Young about young up-and-coming officer Riley Purefoy, the girl he loves, his CO, the girl he lMy dear I wanted to tell you is a 2011 novel by Lousia Young about young up-and-coming officer Riley Purefoy, the girl he loves, his CO, the girl he loves, and his cousin, whom nobody loves.
Having been spoiled by Good-bye To All That and All Quiet on the Western Front so far, I was a bit suspicious of this book when I first started reading it. I also picked it up for a third of the cover price at a remaindered books stand, which for a 2011 novel didn’t strike me as a good sign. However, this book turned out to be a decent read. Did a couple of interesting things, was appropriately gruesome, interesting characters, and some facinating detail about an aspect of the war which I had not previously considered.
Captain Purefoy and Major Peter Locke are both interesting, flawed characters, and the different paths they take to cope with the trenches are fascinating. The three women mostly function as lenses into women’s lives at the time, and Young can’t resist a bit of authorial-standpoint posturing about feminism, the role of women and social change. Surprisingly low body count for this type of book, but given the givens, I think people would still find it appropriately emotionally exhausting.
The plot was interesting, and did a couple of things I really didn’t expect with the main characterl. I found the narrative style a bit hard to follow; several times I had to go back and reread to try and figure out what had happened. The internal monologues got a bit tedious after a while - long blocks of italicised text as Captain Purefoy and ors debate internally this or that traumatic war-related issue they’re having. Somewhere in the middle I lost interest in the romance plot(s), and the ending was quite abrupt and a little underwhelming.
The story frequently focuses on the emotional toll of the war, in the trenches, in the hospitals, in the homes of England. I got a little bit bored of that after a while - the narration periodically crosses over into melodrama which made me skim, get confused and double back several times.
The writing style and subject matter have some pretensions to the literary, while at other times it behaves more like a genre historical. Would probably have benefited from deciding what it was - literary (less plot, more navel-gazing) or genre (more plot, less navel-gazing) and sticking with it.
Ultimately, this book got me through two plane rides and I was totally absorbed in it from beginning to end. A good book, which was only let down by a few cliches and an ending which was satisfying, but not much more than that....more
Birdsong is a 1993 novel by Sebastian Faulks, about Stephen Wraysford, an orphan cum clothmerchant cum homewrecker cum infantry officer perpetually stBirdsong is a 1993 novel by Sebastian Faulks, about Stephen Wraysford, an orphan cum clothmerchant cum homewrecker cum infantry officer perpetually stationed in the line alongside a tunnelling corps. Focuses primarily on the tunnelling corps and their activities, with the obligatory couple of trips ‘over the top’ for Wraysford.
I was initially disposed to like this book. The preface impressed me with Faulks’ thoughtfulness about his characters and how the story would set up point and counterpoint between the characters and time periods. There was also some interesting content in terms of the section set in Amiens before the war, and particularly around the tunnelling company’s activities.
However, despite this good start, I didn’t particularly enjoy Birdsong. Ultimately I think I enjoyed this book so little because it was fundamentally character-driven, with several wishy-washy plots that meandered around and ended when the novel ended, not because they’d found their natural conclusion. The plotline of Wraysford’s granddaughter discovering his diaries in 1978 was particularly weak (she read like a throwaway character, and the plot relied on melodrama).
It probably isn’t fair of me to hang my criticism on this point, since it is partly an issue of taste not quality; I am a genre reader consuming everything produced about an era which seems primarily to inspire ‘literary’ writers concerned with character study, c.f. Pat Barker’s Regeneration. I think more recent writers have taken their cue from the memoirists such as Robert Graves and Vera Brittain in terms of the type of story and style of narrative used - hence all those shell-shocked officer heroes. But whereas Graves, Brittain, Sassoon, Remarque, etc, were drawing from life, Faulks and Barker draw from a caricature of life based largely on a monochrome myth of WWI and life in the trenches. I don’t doubt Faulks’ research, or the authenticity of what he writes, but Birdsong offered me nothing that other authors hadn’t done earlier, and better.
One thing that particularly irritated me was the relentless, one-eyed proselytising about the Horror of War. Some of this is to be expected, but it is constant. Wraysford, according to the preface, was supposed to be created as a man with the characteristics that would allow him to get through the war more-or-less intact. Although Wraysford ‘talks the talk’ on this, his actions show him as falling into the aforementioned standard shellshocked officer type. Again, I am not objecting to the realism; I just don’t think Birdsong offers anything that other authors haven’t done better.
There is also nothing wrong with preaching the Horror of War. But whereas Wilfred Owen or Erich Maria Remarque show it to us, Faulks tells us all about it, then tells us how we should feel about it. For example, upon seeing the Thiepval memorial to the missing of the Somme, Wraysford’s granddaughter sinks to her knees and whispers, ‘why did no-one ever tell us?’.
Ultimately, to anyone thinking of reading this, I would suggest they read Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That instead. Almost the same story, but without all the hand-wringing....more
Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of her youth, her time as a VAD, and her struggle to adapt to living on after the war when practicalTestament of Youth is Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir of her youth, her time as a VAD, and her struggle to adapt to living on after the war when practically everyone she loved had died. Brittain attempted to write her story several times between about 1916 and 1933, as a fictionalised narrative then by publication of her diary with the names changed, but found both to be unworkable. The diary, along with letters and poetry forms the backbone of the novel, and Brittain quotes directly from these sources in many places.
The story opens with Vera at school, then leading the life of a middle-class lady of leisure in the antechamber between childhood and married life. She is determined to go to Oxford, and enjoys the typically understated support of her younger brother Edward to do so. They are both supposed to go up in the same year, but after war is declared, Edward decided to join up instead. While this is happening, Vera is getting involved in a primarily correspondence-based romance with Roland Leighton, the undisputed leader of Edward’s clique at school, dubbed by Roland’s mother as The Three Musketeers - the third of the trio is Victor Richardson. Edward is stuck in camp in England for some time, where he meets Geoffrey Thurlow, who becomes the fifth of the group around which Testament of Youth is based.
Leighton struggles to get a commission because he doesn’t have perfect eyesight, but he’s eventually successful, and is the first of the friends to go to France. After a year at Oxford, Vera goes down to become a VAD, first at hospitals in Britain, then in Malta, then on the Western Front, and finally back in the UK after she breaks her contract in France to return to England for her mother’s sake. What happened to Roland, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward is well known, but on the off chance that someone reads this who doesn’t already know, I won’t say too much more about the segment of the book dealing with the war. After she is demobilised, Brittain returns to Oxford, where she finds that she is quantitatively and qualitatively older than the other scholars. She receives no empathy for the trauma of her war experience among women who were children at school when it was going on, and who now want to get on with their gay university adventure. This last segment tries to tie together the preceding story into a conventional plot, with Vera working through and emerging from her grief, and finding closure and the sense of a happy ending. I suspect this is owed in equal parts to autobiography and fiction.
Testament of Youth reads in many places like Brittain’s attempt to come to terms with how the war devastated her life. Brittain mentions repeatedly that the war killed an entire generation and cut down the finest British manhood. Vera’s social class, lost proportionally more of its young men – the death toll amongst company officers was twice what it was among the ranks – which probably accounts both of these views, even if it also reveals a certain degree of snobbishness. This book was something of a catharsis for Brittain; when she speaks of the loss of a generation in general terms, she is really speaking of the trauma of losing so many people she personally loved. In writing the book’s conclusion into a conventional happy ending, she is permitting her fictionalised self the happiness and peace she struggled to find in her own life.
Brittain’s emphasis on the loss and waste of war serves another purpose. By 1933, when Testament of Youth was written, Brittain was starting to develop the pacifist leanings which had emerged fully by the outbreak of war in 1939. Testament of Youth reflects this, stripping the young Vera and her cronies of their idealistic views of war, which come out in their letters (I’m reading Letters from a Lost Generation at the moment, incidentally). With Erich Maria Remarque and Wilfred Owen, Brittain really founded the meta-narrative that has dominated writing about WWI ever since. In this way, Testament of Youth feels less neutral than, for example, Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That. However, we might forgive Brittain for wanting her book to be a testament against war.
This book is absolutely compulsory reading on WWI. It is very readable, very engaging, and a very moving story about the effect of the war on a group of five people who were scarcely more than children in 1914....more
What really works about this book is the details. A lot of the context is missing, and it instead operates in postcards, showing the lack of control oWhat really works about this book is the details. A lot of the context is missing, and it instead operates in postcards, showing the lack of control of the private soldier over what he was doing on any one day, the change in what mattered to them, and the hopelessness felt by these boys who had joined up out of school and had no civilian life they could look forward to returning to.
I don’t like reading books in translation, because you never know whether you’re reading the author or the translator. The original English translation of this book changed the meaning of the title (“Im Western nichts Neues”). This is more properly translated as “Nothing new in the west” or, nothing to report in the west, which makes a lot more sense where the line appears in the book. Subsequent translations have translated the line in text as “nothing new in the west”, but left the title as-is because it has become an iconic phrase in English.
It was harrowing to read, but excellent, immediate and a testament of the sentiments felt by soldiers at the time, as opposed to the feelings we impute them having now, when we look back....more
This was a very matter-of-fact and calm autobiography of Graves’s early years, up until 1929. The early parts, when he is at school, are interesting iThis was a very matter-of-fact and calm autobiography of Graves’s early years, up until 1929. The early parts, when he is at school, are interesting in terms of the public school culture of the day, and for how much Graves writes as if the petty high school stuff was Extremely Serious Business. Interesting also to see how he writes his history given the numerous other primary and secondary sources which exist about it.
This book is primarily effective, I think, by way of the calm lists of the dead and wounded Graves gives. He kept track of everyone he knew before the war, and a large number of them appear to have died during it. This would partly be because the death rate among company officers (lieutenants and captains) was proportionally high.
He also talks at length about the tribulations of trench warfare, but these are written with an air of detachment which makes them much less harrowing than, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front. He is very frank about his own shellshock and the lasting effects the war had on him.
Very interesting, an easy read stylistically, and an important piece of history. Having read a few more books since this one, I would like to reread it. My initial impression was that others do the “feel” of WWI better, but it is unsurprising that in writing an autobiography Graves would prefer to remain at least somewhat detached from those experiences....more