Book Group Meeting January 18 2017

By Jane Wilson

The new year got off to a great start with a variety of literary choices with World War One as the primary theme.

Our first recommendation was the satirically titled “We Danced All Night” by Martin Pugh. The book takes a thought provoking look at the inter-war years, which have typically been portrayed as a period of depression. The author presents a more balanced view of the social lives of people between the wars, covering areas as diverse as crime and violence, food, medicine, sport and pastimes, property ownership, as well as links with the politics of the time. The distance of time between WW1 and now allows a chance of viewing the inter-war period with a more detailed, and maybe optimistic viewpoint.

We moved on then to David Olusoga’s book, “The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of the Empire”, which outlines the array of races and nations that provided the soldiers fighting in the many theatres of war around the world. The author examines the roles played by colonial troops serving from all across the Empire, drawing on their diary entries and eye witness accounts to show the roles they played, and the racial attitudes towards them.

“Mud, Blood and Poppycock” by Gordon Corrigan was our next reading choice. One edition of the book has on its front cover the enticing statement: ‘this will overturn everything you thought you knew about Britain and the First World War’.  The group member recommending the book talked about how the book will make you question what you have learnt about WW1, was the war fought in vain, and whether in hindsight the war would be allowed to happen again?

We then moved on to a book containing a collection of interviews with WW1 survivors, the author starting his project in 2004 when there were only 21 veterans still alive. Beautifully illustrated with photographs of the interviewees during their periods of service, and also now at ages of often over 100 years old, the veterans talk about their childhoods, WW1 service, family, careers and then how they are spending their final years. Each veteran in Max Arthur’s “Last Post” gives their own view on WW1, their part in it, and how the war marked their take on life – be it a positive stance, or tinged with regret.

Another recommendation this month was “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan, a book that covers the Battle of the Somme, as well as earlier historical battles of Agincourt and Waterloo. Keegan writes from the perspective of the individuals in battle at the immediate point of danger in warfare. He investigates the effects of battle on individuals, the physical conditions they were fighting under, their emotions and behaviour and the willpower to stay and fight, rather than fleeing battle.

“A War in Words” by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis is a compilation of letters and war diary entries that bring the reader the experiences of a wide variety of WW1 participants from theatres of war all over Europe, Africa and Asia. The updates at the end of the book help us understand the lives of these people once the war was over, and include vignettes of an eclectic group of survivors: a German U-boat captain, a Belgrade doctor, a soldier from Guinea, a Turkish officer, and most extraordinarily, the youngest of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassins, Vaso Cubrilovic. As the book cover states, “Powerful individual stories are interwoven to form an extraordinary narrative that follows the chronology of the war, in words written on the battlefield and on leave, under occupation and under siege – from the Western Front to East Africa, and from the North Sea to the southern Balkans”.

A final book mentioned being read by one of our group was from WW2 experiences, called “No Picnic on Mount Kenya” by Felice Benuzzi. The author was from an Italian mountaineering family and was held as a prisoner of war in Kenya during WW2. He and two fellow POW’s decide to break out of the camp and attempt to climb Mount Kenya with equipment they have put together themselves. Our group member has read part way through the book so we must wait until our next meeting to find out how the three intrepid POW mountaineers fare…so watch this space.

The Reading Group meets again on Tuesday 21 February at 2.30pm – new members always welcome!