Book Group report – November 2018

By Jane Wilson

To coincide with the Museum’s WW1 exhibition “To Serve King and Country”, our next few Book Group meetings are being held as open meetings, so that members of the public can listen in to our discussions and hopefully be inspired to do a little of their own WW1 reading.  The next meeting is on Tuesday 22 January.

Our first recommendation for November was ‘Ring of Steel – Germany and Austria/Hungary at War 1914 – 1918’ by Alexander Watson. He tells the history of WW1 from the perspective of its instigators, and ultimately its losers, a side of the story that has not been commonly reflected in a lot of the book choices we have had in the Book Group so far. Watson investigates why the loss of the war for these once dominant nations led to the instability of the states in that region, and thus the effects on the populations of that area of Europe.

Shifting the literary emphasis to India, our next book was ‘Across the Black Waters’ by Mulk Raj Anand, a pioneer of Indo-English fiction. First published in 1939 and informed by many conversations with Indian WW1 soldiers, the fictional story follows the military life of Lalu, a sepoy (or private) in the Indian Army. From landing in Marseilles in 1914, we hear of Lalu’s experiences as he and his compatriots make their way through France, getting used to many new things – language, culture, countryside, the bitter winter cold, as well as the horrors of trench warfare and inevitably, death. A good read, our Book Group reader at times forgot the book was fiction as it felt such an accurate portrayal of an Indian soldier’s experience in France.

As a change, our next recommendation, rather than being for a book, was a highlight of recently read newspaper and magazine articles.

The first item was about the WW1 experiences of Norman Manley, a Jamaican lawyer and politician who eventually became the first Jamaican Premier after Jamaica gained independence. The article recounted a little of his WW1 experiences in the Royal Field Artillery and how he never truly got over the death of his younger brother, Roy. They had served along side each other and Manly was to comment “I cannot speak how I felt. We were good friends, and I would be lonely for the rest of the war.” This article was of extra interest to the group as two members had lived and worked in Jamaica for many years and had knowledge of the politician.

A second article told the story of another WW1 veteran, Harry Patch, a name well known in Britain as one of the last war veterans to have survived well into old age, dying in 2009 at the age of 111 years. In an extract read out from the article, Harry talks about having a pact with his fellow soldiers about not killing any of the enemy unless they really had to, and about aiming to injure and not kill when firing at the German troops. He described his thoughts on the futility of war, and how his war experiences haunted him for the rest of his life.

Moving back to book selections, we heard next about ‘Passchendaele – The Sacrificial Ground’ by Nigel Steel and Peter Hart. Passchendaele was the 3rd Battle of Ypres and by using accounts of men ranging from privates to majors, the authors cover the conflict in great detail. Starting with the planning and preparation for the battle from both the military and political viewpoint, the authors then brilliantly reflect the horror of the conflict, with first hand accounts painting an accurate portrait for the reader of the sights, smells and sounds that bombarded the troops. The book then goes on to cover the considerable losses of men on both sides, and to consider where blame may have been apportioned for the outcome of the battle and the loss of life.

Our last reading suggestion was John Keegan’s ‘The Face of Battle – A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme’. This is a seminal work that has influenced many books to be written since about the Somme. Keegan’s writing covers the Somme from the point of view of the soldier directly involved on the ground, and their experiences of being directly in the danger zone. Some interesting sections of the book discuss the concept of Pals Brigades, recruitment from public schools for officer training and relationships between officers and their men. More specific chapters look at why armies go to war, different sorts of weapons used, military tactics etc. and compares and contrasts the three battles in the book title. Keegan was a military historian, lecturer and author and has a prolific number of published works to his name, covering a wide range of conflicts and wars.

All underlined titles are available to borrow from the Durham County Council library system.