Book Group – May 2018

By Jane Wilson

We started our May meeting with three book recommendations linked by the theme of medicine, in particular facial reconstruction following injury during WW1. We looked again at a book talked about in April, ‘War, Art and Surgery – The Work of Henry Tonks and Julia Midgley’ by Samuel Alberti. It includes watercolours and photographs of injured soldiers before, during and after surgery with brief biographies of the patients.

Another factual book on the same subject is ‘The Politics of Wounds – Military Patients and Medical Power in WW1’ from Ana Carden-Coyne. A very thorough and detailed book, the author explores the experiences of those injured during the war, and their treatment both at the front and in British military hospitals. The introduction and epilogue in the book were particularly informative bookends to a vast amount of factual information.

Linking with the medical theme, the third suggestion was a novel in a trilogy from Pat Barker, ‘Toby’s Room’. Henry Tonks’ work is used as a significant thread in the book, and the reader follows the main character Elinor, as she moves from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where much facial reconstruction surgery takes place. The other titles in the trilogy are ‘Life Class’ and ‘Noonday’.

Interestingly, two of our group members brought along a book to talk about that was a recommendation from a couple of months ago, and both had so far read part way through the book. ‘Paths of Glory – The French Army 1914 – 1918’ had fascinated both group members, and was written by Anthony Clayton, an acclaimed military historian and author. The book was the first full history of the French Army in WW1 to be written in English and looks at the make-up, leadership, and performance of the French Army, concentrating on both positive and negative aspects of the armed force.

Richard van Emden’s ‘Tommy’s Ark – Soldiers and Their Animals in the Great War’ considers the affection felt for the animal kingdom by soldiers fighting in the war. Using diaries and letters as much of his source material, the author takes the reader chronologically through the war, with each year of the conflict looking at events in the war, the natural world, and then soldiers memories of the animals and creatures they encountered. An amazing array of animals are discussed, ranging from a lion in the front-line trenches, a monkey at the Somme through to observations on voles, mice and even woodlice. The book also documents observations of flora and vegetation.

Continuing with the animal theme, our next book consideration was ‘The Lost War Horses of Cairo – the Passion of Dorothy Brooke’ by Grant Hayter-Menzies. Dorothy Brooke went out to Egypt in the early 1930’s because of her husbands work, and came across thousands of ex-British war horses, still working in intolerable conditions and suffering, even after their dedicated service during WW1. The author chronicles the challenges Dorothy Brooke found in setting up a charity to help these horses, as well as looking at stories of individual animals that were helped. The Brooke Charity still survives today, trying to improve conditions for working horses and donkeys throughout the world.

The last book choice this month was Wendy Holden’s ‘Shell Shock – The Psychological Impact of War’, its back-cover blurb describing it as ‘the story of the mind at war’. With WW1 as it’s starting point, the book acknowledges and investigates the effects of warfare on serving soldiers, and then takes the reader through other conflicts from WW2, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf Wars. The author charts the development of treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, using testimonies from soldiers and their families, as well as work completed by many psychiatrists and medical practitioners.

Underlined books are available through the County Durham Library Service

Our next meeting is on Tuesday 19th June at 2.30pm – come along and join us for some more WW1 book suggestions.

Vi gavareetye pa rooskee?

By Judith Phillips

Among the scanned images of documents that we were sent with Alice’s story were several letters written in Russian.  It would be great if these could be translated as the personal touch is so often the most poignant.  Alice’s family must have been worried about her safety all the time she was serving.  And we know that the family’s eventual journey from Russia was difficult and dangerous.

So, not only are the letters in Russian, they’re in Russian as it was written in the first World War period – and I am sure there will have been many changes in the language since then.  And, just to make the task more challenging they are handwritten.  Anyone who has tried to read handwriting in a language they know well in its printed form will understand that just being able to read the handwriting can be the biggest challenge.

I’ve attached one page from a letter written by Alice’s mother, so you can see if you think you can help us.  Please email if you would like further information.


From Gardener to Fusilier

By Judith Phillips

The next meeting of the Richmond and North Yorkshire Branch of the Western Front Association features a one of the newly-constituted branch’s members and a supporter of our project.  I’m only sorry that his story doesn’t fit the geographical limits of the project.

James Sadler has written a fascinating book about his father’s experiences in the First World War called ‘Gardener to Fusilier – an infantryman’s adventures during the Great War’.  It’s a mixture of his father’s personal account made while he was convalescing in England after being stretchered of the battlefield in 1918 and the official war diary of his battalion.  Together they allow the reader to build a picture of what life was like for a soldier and put his experiences into the wider context.  There are maps to show where the battalion was operating, along with photographs of the area as it is today.  James Sadler senior served from August 1914 until he was injured in August 1918, and his war saw him involved in a number of the major battlefields on the Western Front.

If you have a chance to go to the next meeting, I’d recommend it – James is fun to listen to and talk with and his book is such a labour of love that I am sure his talk will be great.  The meeting is on Wednesday 13th June at 7.30 at Richmondshire Cricket Club.  It’s open to everyone, not just branch members, and it’s free.  I am told there is plenty of parking opposite the club and the bar will be open!  For more information, please contact chris Robinson Tel: 01748 850385 or email