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.