Another fascinating selection of books! As 2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, we started with Dr Gary Sheffield’s The Somme. Sheffield offers an important reassessment, seeing it as a ‘qualified success’ because it relieved the pressure on the French at Verdun, ground down the strength and morale of the German Army and taught the British some valuable lessons. As I’m writing this, I realise there is a 3-part programme about the Battle of the Somme on BBC2 starting Monday 18th July.
In contrast, The Wipers Times treats the war and the difficulties faced by soldiers with a touch of (very British) black humour. You might have seen a dramatisation on BBC2 (Monday 11th July) about the newspaper and the men who produced it. This book is a reprint of all the editions of this newspaper (and its successors) produced by soldiers in the trenches, including while serving on the Somme.
Two books highlighted the emotional cost of the war. Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War by Peter Barham deals with the contrasting medical and psychiatric services offered to officers and men as well as changes in public attitudes. In The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, Michael Roper looks at the importance to men at war of letters and news from family members.
A modern novel, The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear, uses letters to and from a newly-married couple as a main strand in the story. The wife describes in loving detail the lovely meals she is preparing with her husband in mind, and he writes cheerful letters home from the trenches. Both are writing lies to protect and support each other. In On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin writes of a farming family torn apart when one twin son is exempted from conscription to work the farm and his twin brother refuses conscription because he is a conscientious objector.
The final recommendation was The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Arnold Zweig who fought in the German army in France, Hungary and Serbia, and later became a pacifist and Communist. The novel follows a Russian soldier on the Eastern front, captured by Austro-Hungarian forces, whose ultimate fate is largely decided by internal military politics.
Our discussions, prompted by these books, ranged over German attitudes to the Somme, difficulties faced by men returning after the war, the importance of humour, and how little we know about ‘the enemy’. It might sound grim but it was fascinating and enlightening. Why not come along and join us at the next meeting? You can bring along a book if you want, but you don’t have to.
The next meeting will be in Café Bowes in the museum at 2.30 on Monday 8th August. Please note the change of date.