WWI bookgroup meeting Tuesday 19th September 2017

By Judith Phillips

We started off with a report on the talk by Megan Leyland earlier in September on the project at Richmond Castle based on conscientious objectors (you can find the report here).  It made a good introduction to Telling Tales about Men: Conceptions of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service during World War One by Lois Bibbings.  This gives a balanced revisionist view of attitudes to conscientious objectors, including their experiences after the war.  The range of work that objectors would undertake was varied and depended on their religious, moral, philosophical objection to war in general and this war in particular.

Following on a theme we’ve addressed before, God and the British Soldier by Michael Snape argues that the importance of religion during the war, and afterwards, has been underestimated.  Actual church attendance and profession of faith were certainly not universal but most soldiers had some religious background that fed into a general religious sensibility.  Indeed, the war experience for some was a trigger to questioning and reaffirming faith.  By contrast, A Chaplain at Gallipoli: The Great War Diaries of Kenneth Best (edited by Gavin Roynon) recorded a gradual loss of personal faith that led Best to leave the ministry after the war.  Nevertheless, he maintained religious norms as far as possible for the soldiers he worked with because he recognised how comforting many of the men found them.

We then looked at selections of personal testimonies held by the Imperial War Museum – a fantastic source for learning about the day-to-day reality of war service.  Voices of the First World War is a DVD that, interestingly, includes contributions by women and Germans.  Lost Voices of the Royal Navy by Max Arthur covers the period 1914-1945.  Many of the entries relate to the Battle of Jutland but what also comes over is the harsh discipline in the navy, the huge losses when a ship sank, the different parts of the world covered by the navy, and its post-war involvement in the Russian campaign supporting opposition to the Communist government. 

1914: the Men who went to War by Malcolm Brown uses war diaries and other records at the IWM to look at the run-up to the outbreak of war and the first five months of the war.  Complaints about the poor training facilities and the food are very noticeable.  The Guns of August by Barbara W Tuchman was first published in 1962 and has been recently reissued.  It deals with the build-up to the war, starting from the funeral of Edward VII in 1911, in a world where the royal families of Europe were very much inter-related.

100 Days to victory: how the Great War was Won by Saul David selected 100 days from 1914 to 1918, again using the words of people involved at the time.  It includes references to events that do not always attract attention now such as the Palestinian and Mesopotamian campaigns.

The only fiction book was A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, an account of the war experience of a young Dubliner from a staunchly-loyal Catholic family whose attitudes and feelings are affected by experiencing the Easter Rising while on leave in Dublin in 1916. 

We finished with an unexpected aspect of life in the trenches.  One of the group who couldn’t come to the meeting had sent in an article that highlighted how soldiers grew flowers and vegetables in the trenches.  The article had been prompted by a book published last year – Where Poppies Grow by John Lewis-Stempel.  In it the author brings together accounts and images of soldiers creating gardens ‘for beauty’ and also for practical reasons – men and animals consumed a lot of vegetables.  What astonished me was learning that there were soldier-gardeners from France to Mesopotamia, and even in a POW camp in Germany. 

As always the books we had brought led to lively discussion and probably more questions raised than answered.  Our next meeting is on Tuesday 17th October at 2.30 in the Café Lounge in the museum – you’re very welcome to join us.