Monday April 23, 2012

Great War stories

"Wild Eye", the Souvenir King

“Wild Eye”, the Souvenir King – Private John ‘Barney’ Hines (1873–1958)

There are many accounts of the First World War. Ahead of the 96th remembrance of Anzac Day, we select some that spoke to us.

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Gallipoli – Les Carlyon 2001

Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli first published in 2001 is well researched and thoroughly readable. Carlyon’s lyrical narrative sweeps the reader along. He gives great insight into all the players in this tragic military episode. Experiences and motives are weaved together seamlessly — from political leaders down to the soldiers on the ground.

Although the focus of the book is slightly ANZAC-centric it is still a well rounded work. Turkish perspectives are well represented and the author gives almost a tourist eye view of the battlefield – its focus moving in and out – from the hell that was the campaign of 1915 to the modern day – and examines the meaning behind the futility of the campaign and the reality behind the ANZAC myth.

After the dawn ceremony a few years ago, a surviving Gallipoli veteran was bailed up by one of the TV presenters (cringe!). With self-effacing honesty and quiet dignity, the old Digger said that he was there for those who hadn’t made it, and that he never wanted anyone to go through what he’d experienced. You could see for him there was no past glory – just haunting memories and raw emotions seeking reconciliation and catharsis – of a profoundly personal experience, echoed in the public words of ceremonial remembrance:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Gallipoli – Peter Hart 2011

If you like your history straight up, without the froth, then Peter Hart’s Gallipoli is for you. He is able to expertly get to grips with the subject matter (from a macro to a micro level) and keeps the narrative flow streamlined and engaging. Like all the books recommended here, this one is hard to put down.

In a nutshell the content of his arguments are as follows;

  1. Gallipoli should never have happened. The idea of taking Constantinople and linking up with the Russians was just a waste of time and resources. The main game was Europe and would be decided in northern France and on the high seas. Full stop.
  2. Even if the broad idea had any merit, the whole campaign became a series of miscalculations and disasters, due to (amongst other factors) lack of planning and sheer incompetence. Hart lays the blame and responsibility for so many Allied casualties squarely at the feet of those politicians and military leaders who directed the fiasco from start to finish.
  3. Hart is just as unstinting in his praise of troops on the ground — both sides making the best of a terrible situation. He argues the Turkish soldiers were highly motivated and competent adversaries. Hart also addresses the importance of the French (and Indian) contributions to the landings, which in official histories have been somewhat airbrushed over.

Peter Hart is an Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum. He has a lot in common with contemporary military historians such as Paul Ham or Max Hastings. He is prepared to put forward new findings and de-bunk old myths based on sound factual research and eyewitness accounts (believe me as far as primary and secondary sources is concerned, this book is “block-quote” heaven)… and to top it off he gives a battlefield tour with maps and plates and new photographs. What more could you ask for? (…and not a red bandanna in sight!)

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Somme mud : the war experiences of an infantryman in France 1916-1919 – E. P. F. Lynch ; edited by W. Davies 2006

Dangerously visceral account from an Australian foot soldier that will take you into the trenches and over the top with the not-so-ordinary men of the A.I.F. Although published in 2006, the narrative’s immediacy to events is real. Private Edward Francis Lynch wrote the book on his return in the 1920s and 1930s while working as a school teacher in Goulburn. An accompanying volume by its editor Will Davies (who prepared the memoir for publication in 2006) takes you through France in the footsteps of Private Lynch, revealing some of the fictions in the narrative that make the original even more compelling. Of interest too is Davies’ assertion that Lynch may be one of the soldiers pictured in one of the most well-known photos of the Allied advance to victory in 1918.

Beneath Flanders Fields: the tunnellers’ war 1914-18 – Peter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan Vandewalle 2004

A large format book, well illustrated, that shines a light on those who went under the wire – often 20+ metres under. Peter Barton’s accessible text highlights the ingenuity of these military moles who sank shafts and drove tunnels through quicksand, clay and ‘hero juice’, a story told recently in ‘Beneath Hill 60’ but at much lesser depth. Those with an interest in sound ranging and other more obscure auditory experiments in WW1 will appreciate the section on sound and vibration underground.

In all those lines : the diary of Sister Elsie Tranter 1916-1919 – Elsie Tranter ; edited by J.M. Gillings & J. Richards 2008

The other Anzacs by Peter Rees gives a popular and comprehensive account of the nurses’ experience, but this personal narrative – published relatively recently, but difficult to get hold of – is worth tracking down. Sister Tranter writes with great feeling but no affectation of her time at casualty clearing stations near the front and with base hospitals in the rear. War threw up torn and shattered bodies that taxed the nurses to their limits, but it also offered them a sort of freedom. Like the men, the women were keen to get amongst the historic and fabled sights they’d only read about, and that joy and interest in travel – and occasional distaste for Old World standards of hygiene – is not so different to that of backpackers and tourists today. The Anzacs defined themselves against the British; in Sister Tranter you can see already a modern Australian outlook.

Anzacs on the Western Front : the Australian War Memorial battlefield guide – P. A. Pedersen with Chris Roberts 2012

A new work that covers the key battles by Australian and New Zealand forces, with excellent photographs and interpretive commentaries that resurrect long-gone deeds in the now-bucolic fields of France and Flanders. It makes an ideal companion to the seminal battlefield guide by distinguished military historian, John Laffin (who, incidentally, was born in Mosman). The differences in the two books – landscape and cultural – will be of interest to those who read both. And thanks to you can travel even further back. Michelin produced guides to the battlefields in 1919 and 1920 – among these are guides to the Somme volume 1 and volume 2, Amiens before and during the War and Ypres and the battles of Ypres.

Birds on the Western Front – Saki (H.H. Munro) c.1916

A short piece, collected in The Square Egg (1924), by one of the many whose falling deprived us of an artist’s response to the first industrial war. We are fortunate to have this. Saki was shot dead by a German sniper near Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916. His last words were – famously – “put that bloody cigarette out.” Saki inspired P.G. Wodehouse and his sharp, macabre short stories afford those unfamiliar with his work an unexpected, economic treat – you can download them from Project Gutenberg. Among them is When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, Saki’s contribution to that niche genre not represented by its own sticker in our fiction section, invasion literature.

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They also wrote : further recommendations

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L E S T   W E   F O R G E T

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