Monday, 4 August 2014

Recommended books on the Great War

Bel Greenwood, co-organiser of Words And Women, has spent the past nine months reading books about World War 1. She says: ‘If it comes across as obsessive then I apologise but my reading has been allied to a day job.” The day job is Artistic Director of Wymondham’s Great War Commemoration Day. Click here for more information on this project.

Bel's research led her to discover some brilliant new books on the Great War and rediscover old favourites. Here are a few of her recommended titles, in her own words:

FIGHTING ON THE HOME FRONT by KATE ADIE, published by Hodder and Stoughton.
This is an excellent, intimate and inspiring book about the secret history of women during World War 1.  Women were extraordinary, proved they could do it all, did it all, sometimes working 100 hours a week and for less pay than the men and with the knowledge they would go back into the home when no longer required. Kate Adie exposes the attitudes of the day and the way those attitudes were modified by the women.  She also illustrates the battles that women had to fight to be taken seriously, to be valued and to be given the opportunity to be useful on the front line. This is an intimate book, Kate Adie tells individual stories of remarkable women with personal insight.   She reflects on her knowledge of her own family and the way it was in Sunderland in those years.  There are little known names of women in here who should be celebrated.  It’s shameful that Flora Sandes, the only British woman to fight in WW1, who attained the rank of captain, is taught about in Serbian schools but unknown to British children.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Although it isn’t a light read, it is vivid and compelling.

If there is one book that captures the transformation of lives from quiet summer certainty to the terrible, violent loss of loved ones, then this is it.  Vera Brittain’s autobiographical account of a lost generation, alive with detail, passionate and emotionally searing.  It was first published in 1933 and brought Brittain great popularity.  It’s a big book but a fascinating insight into what it was like to be an intelligent, courageous, capable young woman with academic ambitions in a stifling pre-war world and the innocence of first love before the war came along and wrenched her world apart. 

LOVE LETTERS OF THE GREAT WAR, edited by Mandy Kirkby, published by Macmillan.
This is such a human book.  There are so many different kinds of love expressed in letters written a century before in the mud of the trenches.  Whether it is a letter from a prince to his wife, or a German soldier to his sweetheart, a British volunteer to his mother, or a father to his children, these are real glimpses into the hearts of people who had to endure the Great War.  The war turned men into poets – there is so much eloquence as well as tenderness and passion in these letters, but also cruelty, jealousy and disdain.  Close to twenty thousand bags of mail crossed the channel every day to reach the trenches at the front. These are a handful of the letters that connected lost worlds.

Pat Barker’s masterful trilogy was inspired by her grandfather's experiences in the First World War. Regeneration, the first in the trilogy, is set in the Craiglockhart War Hospital where soldiers were sent to be "cured" of psychological trauma before being trundled back to the front. The story focuses on William Rivers, the therapist whose role of mind-mender in order to return these men to the horrors of the front, becomes increasingly difficult, as he uncovers the traumas and truth of the war.  In his care are the poets, Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen, as well as the fictional Billy Prior.  The trilogy is full of questions about the morality of the war, reflecting the issues and concerns of the Britain of 100 years ago.  It explores the conflict between duty and sympathy and exposes the questions that we must all answer about conflict, duty, sanity and humanity.  I could have read all three books, (Regeneration, The Eye In The Door and The Ghost Road, the latter shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995), in one sitting, so compelling is the world, Barker incisively writes into existence. 

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