Book group July 2017

By Jane Wilson

July’s meeting started with the result of some detective work carried out into one of the books recommended in a previous meeting. ‘The Love of An Unknown Soldier’ was a compilation of letters written from a unknown soldier to his unknown sweetheart, and the book certainly tugged on the emotions of those of us at the meeting. Using a variety of on-line sources to try and find out more about this book, and the unidentified couple, we discovered to our surprise and disappointment that the book was a hoax, and had been written by an author called Coningsby Dawson. He was an Englishman who eventually served with the Canadian Field Artillery on the Somme. It is not clear why the publishers perpetuated the theory of the unknown couple, but for whatever reasons, this unauthentic book continued to be published, and bought by readers who like us, found it a fascinating read. An intriguing thought, that our small book group had been so taken by a work of fiction that we believed to be true, set off a conversation about ‘can you believe everything you read?’

The first recommendation for July was the play ‘Journey’s End’ by R C Sherriff. Based on personal experiences as an Officer in WW1, he writes of a small group of officers living in a dugout near the trenches at the Front, and the play follows them through the four days prior to an attack on the German trench opposite. Themes explored include the naivety of young soldiers, cowardice, feigning illness to return home, the class system, support mechanisms to help with obvious mental health issues in the trenches. A simply written, yet moving piece of drama, it made a refreshing change to read a play rather than a novel or factual book. Having already been made as a TV programme and a film, a new film is due out in the Autumn that is based around the ‘Journey’s End’ play.

Our next group member brought along three books that all have as their connection the role of horses during WW1. Two were books from Michael Morpurgo, the first being his now famous story ‘War Horse’, following the battles of WW1 through the eyes of Joey, the farm horse purchased by the Army to serve in France. We also talked about Morpurgo’s sequel, ‘The Farm Boy’ which follows the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson, in which the older man tells stories of the war, and of Joey the War Horse and his original owner, Albert.

Tying in with these two fictional books was the third book choice, ‘Warrior, The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse’ by General Jack Seely. General Jack Seely, also known as Lord Mottistone, was a politician and British Army General and famously led one of the last ever cavalry charges in the war at the Battle of Moreuil Wood. His writing told of the exploits of his horse during the war, and there are beautiful illustrations from Alfred Munnings all through the book.

The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge was brought up for discussion next and it follows life in Britain during 1914 in chronological order, taking English political and social history for much of its themes. Bostridge gives the background to campaigns around suffragism and Irish home rule, the worry over invasion and German spies, school children striking in support of teachers and many other 1914 stories. He gives great insight to all these home events that are happening, as the cover of the book says, in ‘a year that began in peace and ended in war’.

Lots of wonderful photographs and illustrations of posters and leaflets add context and understanding to the book ‘Home Front 1914 – 1918, How Britain Survived the Great War’ by Ian Beckett. Reminding us of the great part played in WW1 by those still back in England, the chapters in the book take us through men and women at work, women working the land, nursing, food production, rationing, munitions production, firewatch duties and many other facets of life that kept the Home Front going during the war years.

We listened lastly to the impact that WW1 had on the very youngest soldiers, covered by Charlie Connelly in his book ‘The Forgotten Soldier’. Not knowing much about his great Uncle Edward’s military service, and his death a week before the Armistice, the author sets out on a pilgrimage by walking from his relative’s birthplace in London to his grave in a small military cemetery in Western Belgium. The book not only recounts the story of his relative’s war life, but also that of similar young men who joined the forces, served in the war, and never came home to carry on with their young lives.

Yet again, a meeting with a diverse and interesting selection of books to consider, offering us all the chance to follow up on some books that we otherwise might never have come across. If you would like the chance to have reading selections offered to you, or you have choices of your own to recommend, come and join us at our next meeting, we’ll be gathering at the Bowes Museum reception on 15th August 2017 at 2.25pm.