Book Group Meeting 21st November 2017

By Jane Wilson

Our November meeting started with some book recommendations from someone who has read the Book Group reports and he offered his own top three books relating to WW1.

First was ‘The First Day on the Somme 1st July 1916’ by Martin Middlebrook, a compelling read about the one day of the Somme Battles that stand out in most peoples’ minds. Secondly, ‘Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914 – 1918’ by Richard Holmes, a comprehensive look at how the British Army operated during WW1. Lastly, ‘A History of the Great War in 100 Moments’, edited by Richard Askwith, originally in series form in the Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers, covering many WW1 topics.

The Book Group members also looked at two books from a Museum volunteer who helps with German translation work. Both look at the war from the German perspective, the first book being ‘Images of War; The Germans in Flanders 1915 – 1916’ by David Bilton, accounts of German action accompanied by rare photographs from wartime archives. The second book is ’Uniforms of the German Soldiers’ by Alejandro M de Quesada, and traces the evolution of German military uniforms from 1870 to the present day, illustrated with hundreds of detailed photographs. These books are available to read in the Museum’s Reading Room to anyone wanting to visit.

The next book recommendation from the group was ‘The Final Whistle’ by Stephen Cooper, which followed the WW1 activities of fifteen members of the Rosslyn Park Rugby Club in London. An interesting read for either rugby or history fans, the author traces their passion and skill for rugby, as well as their bravery and dedication as they serve in theatres of war as varied as Mesopotamia, Italy and Turkey.

The front cover and title of the next book, ‘The Englishman’s Daughter’, initially made some of the group think it was to be a fiction selection, until we read the subtitle on Ben McIntyre’s book and realised this was a true story of ‘love and betrayal in World War 1’. Four British soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines on the Western Front and for many months are hidden by the French villagers, despite the village also billeting many German troops. The book follows the love story between a British soldier and a villager, the birth of their daughter, and then also the betrayal of the soldiers to the Germans.

Leon Wolff bases his book ‘In Flanders Fields; Passchendaele 1917’ around the 3rd Battle of Ypres, and his narrative is illustrated and expanded on with newspaper story extracts, diary entries from high ranking officers, military maps, minutes from War Cabinet meetings as well as sketches of the battlefields. The harsh conditions of this battle prompted our group into discussion over the physical and mental strength that the soldiers required to get them through war service, and whether someone such as a County Durham miner joining up to serve would have had been better prepared for the conditions around Passchendaele than a city centre office worker.

Moving on to the biography of ‘Edith Cavell’ by Diana Souhami, we learn about Cavell’s early years as the daughter of a Norfolk vicar, her career choice as a governess in Brussels, before re-training as a nurse. While following her nursing career prior to the war, Souhami also documents the developments in hospital care and nurse training. The second part of the book closely details the arrest and trial of Cavell for her part in assisting over 200 Allied soldiers to escape from German occupied Belgium. Her subsequent sentencing to death by firing squad, and how she was remembered then and now by a nation, brings the book to its conclusion.

Originally published in 1989, A J Hoover’s ‘God, Germany and Britain in the Great War; A Study in Clerical Nationalism’ contains concise chapters that highlight various aspects of the war from a religious perspective, and how both British and German clergy found justification for their own countries’ participation in the war while emphasising how the enemy country was deemed to have sinned. Material used by the author included many British and German war sermons of the time, as well as speeches, pamphlets and books produced by clergymen of both countries.

A novel from a Russian author was our next port of call, namely Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘August 1914’, a book that was first read by quite a few members of our group in the early 1970’s. Historically and factually correct events, battles, troop movements and military personnel provide a background against which the author creates his fictional story set during the first month of WW1 and the Russian move into East Prussia. Each chapter introduces different characters, the story presenting their lives against the confusion of communication, management of troops and military strategy during the war.

‘One Boy’s War’, written by County Durham writer Lynn Huggins Cooper and illustrated by Ian Benfold Haywood, is a beautiful picture book with a story following sixteen-year old Sydney as he joins up to fight in WW1, swept along by the initial recruitment enthusiasm. Once at the front, the reality of war sets in and as he writes a diary and letters home to his mother, his feelings about fighting so far away from his family are brought home to the reader both in the story and the beautiful illustrations. Publisher’s notes indicate the target audience for the book is 7 – 11-year-olds, but we all felt this was a wonderful book for any age to appreciate.

A book that our group returns to again is ‘The World’s War – Forgotten Soldiers of Empire’ by David Olusoga. Each chapter of the book brings forth interesting information about people from all parts of the Empire who are prepared to fight alongside the British, as well as those nations who sided with Germany, and we talked in the meeting about a chapter covering the alliance among Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Our final selection for November was ‘The Edinburgh Companion to the First World War and The Arts’ edited by Anne-Marie Einhaus and Katherine Isobel Baxter, who have produced an authoritative work on the influence of WW1 on the Arts, both at the time and since. They edit contributions about the artistic and literary response to WW1 from the point of view of those involved in the worlds of theatre, literature, memorials, music halls, photography, trench art, publishing, newspapers, official war films, sculpture etc. all the way through to the influence of WW1 on modern day computer games. The book comprises short chapters or essays contributed by a variety of experts in the arts, and they question the variety of responses to the war, and how those responses have changed over time.

We are looking forward to our next Book Group meeting on Tuesday 19th December, at 2.30pm, and would warmly welcome new members to our group.