Unless you have spent most of the last year asleep, on another planet or rowing solo across the Pacific you will have noticed that 2014 is the centenary of World War One. To mark this centenary there has been a wealth of programming on television, radio and events at Museums across the country, indeed the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, South London had been shut for months to accommodate a major refit which will include a significant World War One exhibition.
So, this is my small contribution with a selection of related fiction and non-fiction books that resonate with me. It’s been a few years since I have read any of them but they have all stayed with me.
The Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers
I first came across the 1979 film adaptation starring Michael York and then read the book some years later. It’s very much a slow burn in that it is short on action, long on narrative. I like this less for its literary qualities but how it reflects its time, written in 1903, for me it captures the pre-war intrigue and imperial rivalry between Great Britain and Imperial Germany. The plot concerns the discovery of a German plot to invade the British Isles which reflected a growing source of concern at the time and hinted at the carnage that would erupt on the continent a decade later.
Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front – Richard Holmes
To those in the UK the primary image of the First World War must be the British soldier, the Tommy amidst a scarred Belgium landscape of duck board and shell blasted trees. There are place names associated with the Tommy that are forever burnt into the British psyche, Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres, Mons. But who was the Tommy and what made him tick? What was the war like in those long months between major offensives? Richard Holmes brings the British soldier to life from recruitment to combat and explores the largest mobilisation of humanity this country has witnessed. At the same time the social changes that would follow the war are touched on, namely people from different segments of society and counties mixing day-to-day, reliant on each other in life and death.
I first came across this story as a teenager through the 1930 film adaptation and then the 1979 version starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine, both excellent; although I think the 1930 film has more pathos. The book is exciting, terrifying and compelling and guaranteed not to be read by the leaders who send young men to war in the first place. Read it, and feel Paul Baumer’s travails as his friends become casualties, and although the story can only end in one way, you will hope and pray the Armistice comes before the inevitable.
Biggles of 266 Squadron – Captain WE.Johns
My Father introduced me to Biggles; he was of the pre-war generation whose parents fought and died overseas and at sea. I loved the rip-roaring adventures in the Biggles books when I was a boy and although they are somewhat dated these days, I think they chimed with me as Dad had read them in his youth. I think Biggles, and in particular this book capture not so much a nostalgia but a certain dangerous mythology that all wars produce in their wake, the glamour, adventure and daring of young men and women on the edge of death.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T. E. Lawrence
Detailing his time as a liaison officer with rebel Arab forces during the revolt against the Ottoman Turks of 1916 to 1918 the book is an autobiographical coloured history by T.E. Lawrence more popularly known to posterity as Lawrence of Arabia. I have included it here as it illustrates how events of a century ago continue to shape our own political reality. Namely the turmoil in as Syria and Iraq; nation states whose boundaries were forged in the aftermath of the war and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
History, casts a long shadow…