Book group report, December 2017

By Jane Wilson

What better way to start the New Year than with a look back at the reading selections from the final Book Group meeting of 2017.

‘Executed at Dawn’ by David Johnson is a non-judgemental account of the WW1 executions of British and Commonwealth soldiers, as seen by those involved, ranging from military police, medical staff, chaplains, senior officers, even comrades and friends chosen to be part of the firing squads. Executions took part against a backdrop of non-understanding of shellshock, as well as a military need to provide a deterrent against other soldiers overstepping military rules and orders.

A complete record of his experiences in WW1 gave T E Lawrence the material he needed to write ‘Revolt in the Desert’. First published in 1927, the book is an abridged version of his work ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Having volunteered for service on the outbreak of war, by 1916, he was working closely in liaison with Arab forces in the Arab Revolt. He participated in, and sometimes led military action against the Ottoman armed forces, and the book is his account of the key WW1 role he played in this part of the world.

One group member brought along a catalogue from the current Paul Nash exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle (running until 14th January 2018). While having admired all of Nash’s art works on display, she referred in particular to the pieces of art depicting scenes of WW1, and the extra information given in the catalogue. A copy of this catalogue is available to read in the Reference Library in the Reading Room at the Bowes Museum.

The 2017 Wainwright Book Prize was won by John Lewis Stempel’s ‘Where Poppies Blow’, and the competition website describes the book as a ‘unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on’.

The group member who recommended this book loved the inclusion of soldiers’ poetry in each chapter, as well as the wide range of aspects of nature written about, including birds, vermin and pests, army horses, soldiers attempts to create gardens in trenches and billets, as well as the lists of those that died and their connections to nature in jobs such as gardeners, botanists etc.

An illustrated WW1 diary forms the basis of the next book recommendation, ‘Drawing Fire; The Diary of a Great War Soldier and Artist’ by Len Smith. Having managed at the end of the war to smuggle home the scraps of paper on which he had kept journal entries during his war service, artist Len Smith wrote up his diary which is reproduced in book form along with many of his own illustrations, sketches and cartoons. So, while a war diary that represents the horror read about in other journals, his humour and excellent sketching ability bring a lightness to the book that makes it a pleasure to read, and the illustrations a joy to look at.

Much as children get to bring toys and games to school on the last day of term before Christmas, some of our group took the opportunity of the pre-Christmas meeting to bring along some non-WW1 books and share with each other some of the reading material we enjoy when not immersed in Great War reading.

One choice was ‘King David’s Report’ by Stefan Heym, the pseudonym of the German-born writer Helmut Flieg. The book, first published in 1972, is a modern day re-telling of a biblical story, where King Solomon commissions Ethan the Scribe to write an official biography of King David. Charged with creating an accurate and truthful book about King David, Ethan finds conflicting information about King David’s life and has a dilemma about which life to document. Heym uses the device of writing about a society in the past to be able to make comments on current society, and he uses satire when describing the workings of politics within history.

Another linked book choice was Orhan Pamuk’s book ‘The Museum of Innocence’, set in Istanbul and following Kemal, a young man from a rich and well-connected family, and the deep love he feels for a poorer, distant relative, Fusun. The reader follows Kemal’s eight-year deep pursuit of Fusun, as well as his obsessive habit of collecting objects that chart his long-term love affair. The author, Pamuk has also established an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, with many wooden cabinets housing the objects and mementoes that the books characters owned, wore, collected and dreamt of. A book about the museum shows photos of each cabinet, some of which were on display at a London exhibition at Somerset House in 2016. If two books were ever meant to partner each other, this is the perfect match.

The last two pre-Christmas choices were both non-WW1 fiction, firstly the ‘Complete Short Stories of Saki’ by Hector Hugh Munro. Published posthumously after his death in 1916 in the Battle of the Ancre, the collection of stories is an excellent satirical commentary on upper class Edwardian society. When describing his stories, many reviewers use terms such as sinister, bizarre, humorous, macabre, eccentric, unconventional – all inviting the reader to delve into a thoroughly enjoyable and satirical look into Edwardian life.

Our second fiction recommendation was from Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel’, published in 1900, and a sequel to ‘Three Men in a Boat’. The three Edwardian friends meet up again on a bicycle tour of the German Black Forest, and as well as following them on their travels, the story reveals small, humorous snippets that relate to the German way of life, and their desire to follow instruction, have a structured life and their reverence of authority. We discussed this satirical look at German life and culture, and how the three English friends highlight the differences between the German and English society.

Now that 2018 is here, and a whole twelve months-worth of book group meetings lay ahead, why not join us at the Bowes Museum for our first meeting on January 16th at 2.30pm.

Staindrop WWI group success

By Judith Phillips

Congratulations to Staindrop Remembers WWI Group who have recently been awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to continue an earlier project which told the stories of the forty local men who died while serving during the war or from the effects of the war and are named on the war memorial in St. Mary’s Church, Staindrop.

The group now aims to research and produce individual biographies of the men and women who came home.  Stories will include where people lived and worked, their family connections and details of their service records.

Volunteer researchers will visit and explore a range of archives and collections and study the close connections with the Raby Estate.  They will receive training in archival research from Durham Record Office staff.  Local people will be encouraged to come forward with their own family stories, artefacts, photographs and memorabilia to be recorded.

Sessions about Staindrop and the First World War will be delivered in local school and to some uniformed organisations to help young people understand the impact of the war on the village.  A community event will be held to rededicate the Scarth Hall’s 1920 extension, built by public subscription in memory of the fallen.  An illuminated plaque, listing the names of the fallen, will be commissioned for this area and a smaller plaque sited on the Hall’s exterior will highlight the presence of the Memorial Room in the building. 

The research results will be made permanently available in a Book of Remembrance and online through the project’s website.  The digital data will also be shared with the Durham Record Office, Staindrop Local History Society and The Bowes Museum’s First World War Commemorative Project.  We very much look forward to working with the Staindrop group.

Apologies for absence

By Judith Phillips

As you know, I work on the WWI project for one day a week and I have usually managed to make that a day working in the museum building, usually during the Reading Room opening hours. It is likely that I will not be working in the museum in person for the next few weeks. I am sorry that I will miss seeing volunteers and people offering information in person but I know my colleagues at the museum will help out and I can still be contacted by email:

Probably until mid-February at the earliest, I will be spending a lot of time in Wiltshire helping to look after and support my daughter, son-in-law and grandsons. Abi broke her ankle just before Christmas and is likely to be in plaster for 6-8 weeks. With both my grandsons under the age of five, I will be needed to help out with childcare, housework and general management.

Thank goodness for emails! At least I can keep in contact even when not physically present in Barnard Castle. And I will still be doing project-related work in between school runs, shopping, hospital appointments and entertaining a lively two and a half year old. In fact, I will probably look forward to delving into WWI even more eagerly to give me a bit of a rest!

I am really looking forward to working through the last complete year of the project as there are lots of ideas about highlighting the last year of the fighting in the war and the amazing progress the project has made.

One of the things I can do while away is organise material to appear in the project’s e-newsletter. So I’d be very happy to receive notice of any WWI-related event you think people would be interested in knowing about, or reports on WWI events you have attended and, of course, anything you have written (or would like us to write up) about your family members during WWI. Just keep them coming!

Dan Snow and ‘The African Queen’

By Judith Phillips

I know they don’t seem likely companions but I found them both recently in the Radio Times.  You might be forgiven for thinking that I do nothing but watch TV when I’m not at work, especially as I’ve just written about YouTube, but it’s more about suddenly seeing the wealth of material with a connection to the First World War that is available.

I’m sure that many of you will already know about Dan Snow’s short programmes about the First World War on Radio 4.  If you’ve missed them, you can get them on BBC iplayer.  The programmes use the voices of people who were there – who were taking part in the war at all sorts of levels and in so many theatres of war – who were recorded in the 1960s for the BBC TV series ‘The Great War’.  I am sure there must be many of us for whom this series was our first introduction to the war – I can remember the impact of the film and newsreel shown.  I was a young teenager then but it was the first time it dawned on me that men and women of my grandparents’ ages had been through a war that seemed such a long time ago to me then. 

I was flicking through the Radio times that covers the Christmas and New Year period and saw that ‘The African Queen’ is being shown (again) on channel 5 on 30th December.  I’m sorry I will miss it as I’d look forward to seeing it in a new light.  I hadn’t really thought of it as First World War film and I suspect I’m not in a minority!  Actually, the war context is quite obvious, providing the essential background to the story.  I have to confess I’ve never read the book by C.S. Forester on which the film is based but the theme fits in with some of the reading recommended at our monthly WWI bookgroup (see the report from August 2017) and I’d also mention William Boyd’s novel ‘An Ice-Cream War’ which covers the run-up to the war as well as the war period in German and British East Africa.    

We often overlook the fighting that went on in Africa where German colonies were often next to or close to colonies run by the Allied powers.  Do you know of any Teesdale men involved in the fighting there?  Or perhaps a Teesdale woman working as a missionary (like Katherine Hepburn) or as a nurse?  We’d love to hear from you:

The serendipity of YouTube

By Judith Phillips

As I’m sure many of you know already, you can find some fascinating items on YouTube.  It’s a bit ‘hit and miss’ – well, it is for me, as I’m not that good on using modern technology.  But I recommend this one.

If you search for the Ottoman Empire, you should come across a short series – about four episodes – called ‘The demise of a major power – the Ottoman Empire’.  It’s a German production by deutsche Welle but it’s subtitled where necessary.  Two of the experts speak in English – Mark Mazower and Eugene Rogan.  I found it fascinating and one of the best explanations of the Balkan situation in the run-up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914.

The programmes also covered the problems the Ottoman Empire was having in other areas as well as the difficulties in balancing demands for reform with an autocratic system.  We tend to know about Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia and perhaps the campaign in Palestine but we don’t hear much about the involvement of the Allies in the Balkans or in Mesopotamia.  We’d love to hear of any Teesdale people caught up in these theatres of war.  We’ve identified only a very few.

The end of the war and the peace negotiations saw the end of the Ottoman Empire and the reduction of Turkey to a much smaller area under the new leadership of Kemal Attaturk.  The creation of new countries and kingdoms and of French and British mandates in the Middle East took little notice of what the populations might have wanted.  The new boundaries were drawn up sometimes rather arbitrarily.  The political and religious divisions in the area including Turkey led to one of the greatest mass migration of refugees and terrible slaughter of civilian populations – ethnic cleansing – which had started during the war and continued into the post-war period.

It brought together so many pieces of history I already knew, put them into context and then added some more.  It makes for sad viewing but I found it compelling.

If you have any particular TV programmes or films or books about the First World War that you’d like to share, please let us know.