Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

A memorable date…

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The 28th of June 1919 is one of the very few historical dates I never forget. One hundred years ago today, the victors and vanquished of “the war to end all wars” gathered in Paris to sign the treaty that brought the Great War officially to an end – the Treaty of Versailles. On the same day, in a small town in the north of Scotland, my grandmother gave birth to her youngest son, my father, conceived while her husband was home on leave from that war. Twenty years later, the world would be plunged into another devastating war, and my father would spend six years of his youth fighting in it.

The generally accepted view is that the harsh terms meted out to Germany in the Treaty contributed to its economic collapse, creating the conditions in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and thus were a major contributory cause of the Second World War. In this book, Margaret MacMillan looks in depth at how the Treaty was formulated and argues that, flawed though some of its terms were, the peacemakers did as well as they could in fairly impossible circumstances. She goes further, arguing that the reparations demanded from Germany were not as punitive as previous historians have suggested, and can’t be seen as having led directly to WW2.

I’ll start by saying MacMillan failed to convince me of the latter, but mainly because I felt her argument was based on something of a false premise. In fact, I felt she over-emphasised the importance that history has given to the reparations element of the Treaty, thus enabling her to knock down an argument that few people would make in quite such black and white terms, except as a convenient shorthand. I was once tasked at University with writing an 800-word essay on the causes of the First World War, and found it an impossible task because how can one possibly condense so much complexity into such a tiny word count? (MacMillan herself took 500 pages to do it, in her later, excellent book, The War That Ended Peace.) Saying that the reparations in the Treaty of Versailles caused WW2 seems to me the equivalent of saying that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused WW1. It’s true, but not the whole truth.

The Big Four – David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.

In fact, though, her argument is only a tiny part of the book, crammed into a few pages at the end. The bulk of the book is a detailed look at the negotiations that led up to the Treaty and, like the war itself, ranges far beyond western Europe in scope. Macmillan first introduces us to the main peacemakers – the heads of government of the Allies. She sketches their characters and explains their motivations as they sat round the table – Wilson of the USA and his desire for a League of Nations, Lloyd George trying to defend and expand Britain’s empire, Clemenceau of France, after repeated Franco-German wars desperate to take this opportunity to crush Germany so it couldn’t represent a future threat, and Italy’s Orlando, out for a land grab of the other side of the Adriatic.

MacMillan then takes us around the world, nation by nation, explaining how and why the peacemakers decided to carve them up and reshape them in the way they did. Some of their motivations were altruistic, to protect minority ethnic populations within nations and to give (some) peoples the right to self-determination. Some were designed to build a bulwark between western Europe and the newly revolutionary Russia. Some were simply a matter of expedience – the art of the possible. And some were frankly down to national greed and expansionism. Many of the decisions they made are still reverberating today, such as the uneasy amalgamation of different ethnicities and religions crammed together and called Iraq, or the decision to create a Zionist homeland for the Jews in land belonging to the Palestinians. The dismissive treatment of Arabs and Asians, and non-white people generally, isn’t unexpected but it’s still breath-taking in its arrogance, and we still pay the price for it every day. That’s not to say that the peacemakers could have somehow waved a magic wand and made all these problems disappear, and to that extent I agree with MacMillan. Even at the time, though, many warning voices were raised but ignored.

Spectators climbing over furniture to watch the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

MacMillan writes well and clearly, and spices the dry facts up with anecdotes that are revealing about the various personalities involved in the process. I’m afraid I have to admit shamefacedly to being far more interested in the major western powers than in all the little nations in the Balkans and the splintering Ottoman empire, so I found some chapters considerably more interesting than others, but that’s down to my biased worldview rather than MacMillan’s writing. While I found it tedious to learn all about these amalgamated countries which were created after WW1 only to disintegrate again post-WW2, I found that many of the sections gave a great deal of insight into the origins of some of our on-going problems today – Syria, Palestine, Iraq, even the background to the philosophical reasoning behind the rise of ISIS, although this book was published in 2001 before that became a thing. Closer to home, it also explains a lot about what happened in western Europe over the next couple of decades, and in the US and the Far East, too, to a degree. Perhaps the scope is a little wide, so that some parts, such as Japan and China, felt rather shallow and rushed, but that in itself gives some idea of the immense complexity the peacemakers were forced to deal with in a short space of time.

Overall, then, although I found it hard going in places and found myself unconvinced by MacMillan’s attempt to absolve the Treaty from its role in contributing to WW2, I learned enough to make it well worth the time spent reading it. Sometimes, though, I think historians shouldn’t work quite so hard at finding a “revisionist” angle…

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

An avoidable disaster…

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dead-wakeOn a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.

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Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.

U-20 - the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo...
U-20 – the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo…

Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.

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The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)

Wilson getting his priorities in order...
Wilson getting his priorities in order…

The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.

1915 painting of the sinking
1915 painting of the sinking

And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.

Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.

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Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

Duty, Honor, Country…

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douglas macarthurIn his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.

I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

douglas macarthur pipe

In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.

Arthur MacArthur - commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father's achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.
Arthur MacArthur – commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father’s achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.

Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.

Douglas and Jean MacArthur
Douglas and Jean MacArthur

While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.

Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.
Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.

However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines - a picture his detractors claim he staged.
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines – a picture his detractors claim he staged.

But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.

General MacArthur, in behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945
General MacArthur, on behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945

Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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1914 Goodbye to All That edited by Lavinia Greenlaw

1914 Goodbye to All ThatThe sum is less than its parts…

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In her short introduction to this collection of essays, Lavinia Greenlaw tells us that, a hundred years on from WW1, the contributors, all prominent writers, were asked to consider what it means to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict.

“They were asked to consider the loss of literary innocence or ideals, the discovery of new ones, the question of artistic freedom, and what it means to embrace new imperatives or to negotiate imposed expectations.”

The fundamental flaw is that, of course, none of the contributors’ artistic lives were affected by WW1. Some of them discuss aspects of that conflict, but without the ability to speak of any personal impact from it, while others have opted to discuss other more recent conflicts which have affected either them or their parents or grandparents. So from the beginning I fear the title looks like a rather shabby attempt to cash in on the centenary of the Great War, and some of the essays feel forced, as if the authors have been stretching to find ways to suggest that their own literary lives have been influenced by it.

As a concept, then, I feel the book fails. However some of the essays are still interesting, especially the ones from authors who chose to interpret the brief fairly broadly. On the other hand, some of them are pretty poor, and really contribute very little to the subject under discussion. For example, Ali Smith imagines herself in conversation with her dead father (also too young to have been in the war), remembers snatches of war poetry from school, and wallows in a level of bathos that must reach down to the bottom of the Atlantic; while Jeanette Winterson indulges herself in a little pro-Marxist polemic and an appeal for funding of the arts. NoViolet Bulawayo chooses to quote extensively from her own novel We Need New Names, which seemed a touch self-promotional, but perhaps she’s just not experienced enough yet to write in this format. I guess, having selected such big names, it may have been hard for the editor to exert some form of control, but the lack of it means the collection overall has no feeling of an over-arching structure.

* * * * *

Let’s move swiftly on to some of the better contributions…

Kamila Shamsie in Goodbye to Some of That discusses her own childhood and adolescence growing up in Karachi under coups and military dictatorship. She muses on how she transformed her own early memories of that period into what she calls her personal ‘Origin Story’, and that this influenced her to write exclusively about Karachi in her early works. She then discusses the thrill and terror of her first experiences of writing about other places and events outwith her own personal experience. The essay is very well written and addresses the question of how Shamsie’s literary life was affected by her own experience of conflict.

* * * * *

In A Visit to the Magician, Daniel Kehlmann tells of going to see a stage hypnotist (a subject that he had discussed in his book F: A Novel). While there, he realises that only those willing to be hypnotised can be, and finds himself suddenly comparing this to how people allow themselves to follow dictators. The essay is exceptionally well written – in a short space, he manages to say a lot about the German experience under Hitler (although Hitler is never mentioned),and more widely about a large proportion of humanity being keen to be like everyone else and to follow orders from those who set themselves up as leaders.

Now he’s sending the trio back into the audience, and he starts talking about freedom again. Anyone who can mould the world according to his own desires is free: he can see what he wants to see, hear what he wants to hear; his reality is the reality that suits him. Hypnosis thus teaches that you don’t have to be a slave to reality.

* * * * *

In In Search of Untold Stories, Elif Shafak talks of how in Turkey, not long after the end of WW1, they changed their alphabet from Arabic to Latin, and that as a result later generations have largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history. Apparently, the government went further – excising Arabic and Persian words from the language, and in the process losing much of the language’s nuance. This was something I didn’t know about, and found this real politicizing of language fascinating and thought-provoking.

* * * * *

Another who told me about a part of history I was unaware of is Xiaolu Guo in Coolies. She describes the recruitment of 100,000 Chinese coolies by the British and French to dig trenches during WW1. They were treated more or less as slave labour, given numbers by their masters who couldn’t (wouldn’t?) pronounce their names or distinguish them from each other, and thousands died, their graves marked with their number. While this is more a historical point than anything to do with literary impact, I found it interesting to see how WW1 is seen from a different perspective.

* * * * *

The essay that touched me most was The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing by Erwin Mortier, a Belgian writer. This is a beautifully written and moving account of the silences in his family – about his grandmother and great-uncle who collaborated with the Nazis. He discusses how those silences shaped how he thought and felt about language. Silence, he suggests, does not lead to forgetting, it just prevents a resolution.

Writing, I have learnt, is not intended to solve riddles. It is speaking and silence at the same time, my way of dealing with the community of sealed lips. Not by breaking them open, but by giving them a farewell kiss and making their silences audible.

* * * * *

While I think the collection failed in its aim overall, in fact failed to have a clearly defined aim, I’m glad to have read the essays I’ve highlighted, each of which individually would rate 4 or 5 stars from me. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the poorer ones brings my overall rating down to a rather more lukewarm 3½.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song 2A Scottish lament…

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This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year
Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.

Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie
Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie

It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…

Book 9
Book 9

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Heath Robinson’s Great War

heath robinson's great warThe mechanics of war…

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William Heath Robinson was a British cartoonist and illustrator who is now best remembered for his cartoon contraptions. In fact, he’s one of very few cartoonists whose name has become a shortcut in everyday use – in his case, for any design that seems unnecessarily complicated or slightly ridiculous. (Makes me think of these wine bottle openers that require a gas canister, a physics degree and a diploma in Health & Safety to operate.) His career having begun in 1897, he was already well established by the time of the outbreak of WW1, and this collection from the Bodleian Library brings together three of his wartime books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

An introduction by Geoffrey Beare of The William Heath Robinson Trust gives a brief biography of the man. Starting out as a book illustrator he gradually moved on to drawing humorous sketches for some of the periodicals of the day. His first ‘contraptions’ appeared in The Sketch in 1908, in a series entitled Great British Industries – Duly Protected. Over the following years, while book illustrations became less prevalent, his humorous work steadily became more popular. He remained popular between the wars, still entertaining the country with his cartoons during the Second World War, until his death in 1944.

 

These First World War cartoons are satirical and absurd in tone and directed as much at the British war effort as at the enemy. Apparently they were hugely popular with the troops as well as at home. Some of the things he poked fun at – poison gas warfare, for example – made me think that somewhere during the last century we seem to have lost our willingness to laugh collectively at horrors while keeping our individual fears hidden, or perhaps even as a method of keeping those individual fears at bay. We’re much more likely now as a society to protest and publicly emote. I’m not sure which is the healthier reaction, to be honest, since neither seems to prevent war, but these made me think very much of the old ‘stiff upper lip’ approach we used to take. I suppose in a continent that had been fighting amongst itself since pre-history the people had to have a way of lightening the emotional toll or survival would have been well nigh impossible; and perhaps it’s the long years of relative peace (in Western Europe) since WW2 that have caused us to react differently now. The book certainly made me feel that the idea of Tommies trudging through the mud of the trenches cheerily singing Tipperary is not so far-fetched and propagandistic as our generation might think. I like the thought that, even in the midst of the hell around them, the boys at the Front were able to laugh at the tragic absurdities of their situation. It doesn’t make the idea of war better but it makes it somehow more bearable.

Anyway… as well as his contraption cartoons, Heath Robinson also drew a series of silhouettes depicting German officers and soldiers performing acts of kindness to old ladies and animals, as an ironic response to the daily reports of atrocities, many true but many propaganda, that were appearing simultaneously in the press. As Mike Webb of the Bodleian Library points out in his preface, “Although in his gentle way Heath Robinson was drawing attention to these stories, there is no rancour or hate in his depictions, and perhaps one can detect too an undercurrent of mockery of not only German propaganda, but also more hysterical sections of the British Press.”

 

Over this 100 year anniversary of the start of WW1, as well as reading a very good history of the lead-up to the war, I have found that reading some of the complementary publications of writings of the time has added a lot to my understanding of how it must actually have felt, particularly for those at home, as the war dragged on. This collection adds to that understanding, along with the excellent collection of war journalism in The Telegraph Book of the First World War. And on a lighter note many of the cartoons are still as fresh and funny as they would have been at the time. The book itself is good quality and well produced, and would make a great gift for anyone with an interest in the WW1 period. Or for yourself…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodleian Library.

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The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

the telegraph book of the first world warFrom our own correspondent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.

13th February 1915

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.

Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914 Photo: The Telegraph
British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914
Photo: The Telegraph

That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.

The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.

25th September 1918

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914 Photo: The Telegraph
The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914
Photo: The Telegraph

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?

Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.

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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

birdsongLest we forget…

 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Birdsong is undoubtedly one of the best known modern novels about World War I so it’s not surprising that a new edition has been issued to coincide with the centenary. I avoided it when it was going through it’s initial huge success – to be honest, I try to avoid books about war as often as possible; not easy when you live in a country as obsessed as Britain is by the two big wars of last century. However, Faulks swam onto my horizon recently with his very good Jeeves homage and so I was tempted to read the book that he’s most famous for.

The sweat ran down into his eyes and stung them, making him shake his head from side to side. At this point the tunnel was about four feet across and five feet high. Jack kept sticking the spade into the earth ahead of him, hacking it out as though he hated it.

Battle of the Somme 1916
Battle of the Somme 1916

There are three main parts to the book, and the connecting thread between them is the main protagonist Stephen Wraysford. By far the best written and most emotional part of the book is the middle section, when Stephen is on active service in the trenches of WW1. Faulks’ depiction of the mud and filth of the trenches, the bloodiness and horror that the troops faced on a daily basis, the sheer exhaustion and increasing hopelessness as the war wore interminably on, is convincing and sickening in equal measure. Faulks splits this part of the narrative so that we partly follow Stephen, an officer with certain privileges, and partly some of his men, especially Jack Firebrace, a miner who is digging tunnels for the laying of mines. As the war drags on, Faulks shows the futility of the small gains and losses for which so many lives were lost or shattered. There is a tendency for Faulks to take it too far on occasion – to slip almost into bathos, as he piles one tragedy after another on the same poor soldier’s head. And I found it a little trite that the only German officer we met was a patriotic German Jew. But putting these issues aside, this main part of the book is well worth reading and would probably have gained it a five-star rating from me.

The mine tunnellers
The mine tunnellers

BUT – unfortunately there are the two other sections. The third part is a rather pointless and extraneous strand set in the 1970s, when a descendant of Stephen sets out to find out what happened to him. This section is only there so that Faulks can give a pointed little ‘Lest We Forget’ message, suggesting that indeed we have forgotten and must now remember. I felt the main part of the book had made that point adequately without it needing to be emphasised with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the head.

Bombardment of Amiens
Bombardment of Amiens

Once when he had stood in the chilling cathedral in Amiens he had foreseen the numbers of the dead. It was not a premonition, more a recognition, he told himself, that the difference between death and life was not one of fact but merely of time. This belief had helped him bear the sound of the dying on the slopes of Thiepval.

And then there’s the first section – the pre-war love story, when young Stephen has an affair with the older wife of the man in whose house he is staying. I say love story, but it is actually a lust story – the two lovers rarely talk other than to decide where next they can have sex. And unfortunately, Faulks just doesn’t have what it takes to make sex sound like fun. As he gives us detail after detail of each positional change, each bodily fluid and its eventual destination, each grunt, groan and sigh, I developed a picture of poor Elizabeth, the love interest, as one of those bendy toys that used to be so popular. As so often in male sex fantasies, her willingness, nay, desperation, to have sex with Stephen knows no bounds, so we’ve barely finished the cigarette after the last session before we’re off again. Oh dear! It honestly is some of the worst written sex I’ve ever read. (I wonder if anyone has considered marketing it as a form of contraception?) And this affair which is so important at the beginning of the book fades almost entirely into the background and seems to serve very little purpose thereafter.

Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulks

All-in-all, I found the book very unbalanced – some great writing, some poor writing; a fragmented plot that perhaps tries to do too much; and a tendency on Faulks’ part not to trust his readers, but to feel he had to beat his ‘message’ into them with a blunt instrument. Although the section about the war is powerful and emotive, the rest of the book didn’t really work for me at all. I’m finding it hard to decide whether I’d recommend it or not, to be honest…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

“Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the war that ended peaceAs a Brit, studying the First World War at school in the seventies, memories of the Second World War were still fresh enough amongst parents and teachers that there was never really a question that the Germans were the ‘bad guys’ in both wars while we (the Brits, primarily, though a little bit of credit was occasionally given to the Allies) were the knights in shining armour. Enough time has passed since both wars now for a more rational view to be taken and this book by Margaret MacMillan is a well balanced, thoughtful and detailed account of the decades leading up to 1914.

MacMillan begins by giving an overview of the involved nations as they were at the turn of the century – their political structure, alliances and enmities, their culture and economic status. She then takes us in considerable depth through the twenty years or so preceding the war, concentrating on each nation in turn, and going further back into history when required. She introduces us to the main players: political, military and leading thinkers. She explains how and why the two main alliances developed that divided Europe and shows the fears of each nation feeling threatened or surrounded by potential enemies. And she shows how this led to an arms race, which each nation initially thought would act as a deterrence to war. Throughout she draws parallels to more recent history and current events, sometimes with frightening clarity.

Family at war - Nicholas II, George V and Willhelm II (Photos : Getty Images)
Family at war – Nicholas II, George V and Willhelm II
(Photos : Getty Images)

In the mid-section, MacMillan discusses public opinion and cultural shifts, highlighting the parallel and divisive growth of militarism and pacifism and how the heads of government had to try to reconcile these factions. She indicates that, although the peace movement was international, that at times of threat, the membership tended to split on national lines – an indication that the movement would falter in the event of war, as indeed it did.

Next MacMillan explains the development of military planning and how these plans gradually became fixed, allowing little room for movement when war began. She explains that the Schlieffen Plan assumed war on two fronts and that, when it came to it, the military insisted that it wasn’t possible to change the plan at the last moment to limit the war to the Eastern front, with all the implications that had for ensuring that France and therefore Britain would become involved. MacMillan also shows how the plans of each nation assumed an offensive, rather than defensive, strategy, taking little account of how modern weaponry would change the nature of warfare. Thus, when the war did come, the leaders still expected it to be short and decisive rather than the long drawn out trench warfare it became.

Schlieffen Plan
Schlieffen Plan

In the final section, MacMillan walks us through the various crises in the Balkans and elsewhere in the years leading up to the war. She makes the point that not only did these crises tend to firm up the two alliances but also the fact that each was finally resolved without a full-scale war led to a level of complacency that ultimately no country would take the final plunge. And in the penultimate chapter, she takes us on a detailed journey from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand up to the outbreak of war, showing how each government gradually concluded it was left with no alternatives but to fight. In a short final chapter, she rather movingly summarises the massive losses endured by each nation over the next four years, and gives a brief picture of the changed Europe that emerged.

Overall, I found this a very readable account. MacMillan has a clear and accessible writing style, and juggles the huge cast of characters well. I found I was rarely flicking backwards and forwards to remind myself of previous chapters – for me, always the sign of a well-written factual book. As with any history, there were parts that I found more or less interesting. I found the character studies of the various leaders very enlightening, while I was less interested in the various military plans (though accepting completely MacMillan’s argument of their importance to the eventual inevitability of war). I got bogged down in the Balkans (always a problem for me in European history) but in the end MacMillan achieved the well-nigh impossible task of enabling me to grasp who was on whose side and why. This is a thorough, detailed and by no means short account of the period, but at no point did I feel that it dragged or lost focus.

Lions led by donkeys
Lions led by donkeys

One of the problems with the way I was taught about WW1 was that we tended to talk about the nations rather than the people – ‘Germany did this’, ‘France said that’, ‘America’s position was’. MacMillan’s approach gives much more insight, allowing us to get to know the political and military leaders as people and showing the lack of unanimity in most of the governments. This humanised the history for me and gradually changed my opinion from believing that WW1 was a war that should never have been fought to feeling that, factoring in the always-uncertain vagaries of human nature, it could never have been avoided. This isn’t MacMillan’s position – she states clearly her belief that there are always choices and that the leaders could have chosen differently, and of course that’s true. However, it seemed that by 1914 most of them felt so threatened and boxed in that it would have taken extraordinary courage and perception for them to act differently than they did, and inaction may have meant their country’s downfall anyway. A sobering account of how prestige, honour and national interest led to a devastating war that no-one wanted but that no-one could prevent. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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