Book Group Report – September 2018

By Jane Wilson

Fiction or based on fact, true author or pseudonym – the puzzle that our first book choice posed. The answer is that ‘Not So Quiet…’ by Helen Zenna Smith is published as a novel, where in reality the true author was Evadne Price and the book based on the real-life diaries and personal accounts of the WW1 experiences of Winifred Young, a volunteer ambulance driver at the Front.

An excellent read, the book gives an insight into life as a female ambulance driver, the harsh conditions they worked under and the poor treatment they received as volunteers from more senior staff. At times the book reads as though set at an Enid Blyton boarding school, the group of volunteers sharing humorous jokes, food packages from home, their dislike of the superintendent in charge of them and the nicknames they give her. However, the author cleverly manages to keep this light touch at the same time as exploring themes such as injury and death, societies view of those serving, a women’s place in WW1, pacifism and how WW1 could and did change people’s lives forever.

An in-depth afterword explores these themes further and gives more detail for the reader to consider.

‘Conscripts – Forgotten Men of the Great War’ by Ilana R Bet-El, as with many book group choices, uses diaries, letters and personal accounts of those who were forced to serve in WW1 after conscription was introduced into the British Army in 1916. Our book group member felt the book highlighted the experiences of and the respect deserved by those who were conscripted into the Army as opposed to the often-studied praise of those who were volunteers. The author follows subjects through enlistment, training, time spent fighting as well as their return home. With over 2.5 million men serving during WW1, their enforced transformations from civilians to soldiers are well documented.

Having previously recommended ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain, another book was suggested as an ideal accompaniment to read alongside. By writer Mark Bostridge, ‘Vera Brittain and The First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth’, the book tells of her role in the Voluntary Aid Detachment during WW1, nursing soldiers in London, Malta and France. While covering the effect the war had on Vera personally, and her conscious decision in later life to support pacifism, Bostridge also includes chapters on the making of the film ‘Testament of Youth’ in 2014, as well as previous film and TV adaptations. Interviews given by the films actors and producers are included, as well as those from Vera Brittain’s family, including her daughter, Shirley Williams.

Switching from the British viewpoint of WW1, the next reading suggestion was ‘Storm of Steel’ by Ernst Junger. Originally published privately in 1920, it is the memoir of Junger’s time serving on the Western Front. Alongside his German comrades, he fought in battles at the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Cambrai, and was also part of the Spring German Offensive in March 1918. Suffering many wounds during his time in service, and receiving various medals for his actions, Junger manages to recreate in his memoir the absolute horror and sickening sights that he faced during his four years in the Army. His writing emphasises the dependency each German soldier had on his colleagues for survival and helps us to understand that no soldier deserved what they experienced, irrespective of on whose side they were fighting.

Our next publication originates from a collaboration involving the Workers Educational Association in the North-East. Newly published and entitled ‘Turbulent Times 1914 – 1918’, it is a wide selection of writings, poems, illustrations, photographs and cartoons pulled together in ‘The Highway’, the regular magazine of the WEA. Subjects covered include those such as women and engineering during the war, the horror and impact of shell shock and conscientious objectors. More pertinent to the North East, there are also articles about the former Winterton mental health asylum at Sedgefield, the creation of the village of Elizabethville near Birtley to house Belgian refugees post-war, and an article about the army chaplain Reverend Herbert Cowl, the ‘Half Shilling Curate’.

Our afternoon ended with a book from Patricia Fara, ‘A Lab of One’s Own; Science and Suffrage in the First World War’. The main themes brought out in the book are the role of women during WW1, their involvement in suffrage campaigns around that time, and women’s roles in science at the point in history. All the group agreed that we could not name many key women scientists of the WW1 era, yet Fara gives us many scientists to learn of. Some are involved in key war work such as germ warfare, explosives or medical treatments, and their stories are told against the backdrop of the war, as well as exploring how class/education/money and gender impacted on their careers. Fara shows how the brief window of opportunity provided by the war gave women the ability to make major career advances in science, paving the way for women scientists to come in the decades after them.

We always look forward to welcoming any new-comers to our Book Group and the next meeting is on Tuesday 16th October at 2.30pm.

All titles underlined are available to borrow through the County Durham Library service.