By Judith Phillips
The WWI Book Group met last Monday (8th August), and once again the meeting produced a wide range of books. And it was great to hear that some of us had found time to read books suggested at previous meetings.
The Imperial War Museum has produced ‘The Battlefields of the First World War’ by Peter Barton – you might have seen his recent programmes on BBC about the Battle of the Somme. Apart from the wealth of information in this book including detailed maps, its outstanding feature for most of us was the number and range of reproduced photographs – they are so touching and compelling.
We’ve identified a few Teesdale men serving in the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the Royal Air Force, so it was very good to be introduced to ‘Sagittarius Rising’ by Cecil Lewis. The author served in the RFC during the war and was, in fact, the last surviving WWI flying ace. The film ’Aces High’ used scenes from this history of the service.
The war’s aftermath was the subject of two other books. ‘Singled Out’ by Virginia Nicholson looked at how single women, who were often stereotyped as a generation who lost potential husbands, coped and, in many cases, found a measure of freedom to make careers that would have been difficult, if not impossible, before the war. Most of us could recall from our childhood spinster aunts and neighbours who probably belonged to this group. Max Arthur’s ‘The Road Home’ deals with how war survivors coped with the effects of wounds on themselves and their friends and also with coming to terms with their survival and the loss of friends. It was a salutary reminder that about 80% of servicemen survived – a figure that is roughly what we had calculated from the information coming in for the project.
Another Max Arthur book brought some light relief. ‘When this Bloody War is Over’ is a collection of songs that were sung in the trenches and at home. Many of them are still familiar to us today, and show the resilience and ingenuity of the soldiers who frequently added their own (often rude) verses or used familiar tunes.
Music and words also underpin ‘The Durham Hymns’ for community choir and brass band, premiered in Durham Cathedral last month, with lyrics mainly by Carol Anne Duffy, the Poet Laureate, and inspired by WWI material in Durham Record Office. There is now a copy of the illustrated programme including all the lyrics in the Museum Reference Library.
We are all familiar with WI myths. Gordon Corrigan challenges many of our popular cultural beliefs about Britain and the war in ‘Mud, Blood and Poppycock’ – I’ll certainly be putting that on my reading list (along with the other suggestions).
The meeting ended with ‘The Radetsky March’ by Joseph Roth. This novel recounts the story of a family serving in the hide-bound and traditional Austrian Empire from the early 1800s to WWI.
The next meetings (at 2.30 in the Café Lounge in the Museum) will be on Tuesdays: 20th September, 18th October, 15th November and 13th December. Feel free to drop in for any meeting – bring a book if you want but it’s not compulsory.