BOOK TALK: Writing the horrors of war

This summer will mark a major milestone. The First World War erupted at the beginning of August in 1914, exactly 100 years ago, in the midst of one of the most glorious summers anyone could remember. When the cataclysmic conflict mercifully ground to an end, the world had changed forever.

For those wishing to learn more about this pivotal historical event, or even for the well informed, the following four works will serve well.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August (1962) by renowned historian Barbara Tuchman re-creates the first month of the First World War — 30 days in the summer of 1914 that determined the course of the conflict, the century and ultimately the world of today. It is a tremendously vital work that begins with the death of Edward VII and traces each step that led to the inevitable clash, a war all sides plotted for a generation.

The Guns of August is brilliant military history more dramatic than fiction. It is unbelievably comprehensive and the key players are spectacularly portrayed by Tuchman, a historian acclaimed for exquisitely evoking the characters of historical figures. Winston Church once described the first month of the First World War as “drama unsurpassed.” The same can be said for The Guns of August.

A splendid two-volume history about how this country fought the Great War by Canadian historian Tim Cook is an essential read. At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1918 and Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, Volume II (2007), comprehensively covers the fighting, weapons and generals. But much of the focus is clearly on the ordinary soldiers at the sharp end in the front lines, unlike much of the “old” history written about the conflict.

We read and learn about tactics, about the ways the Canadians harnessed technology to war and how mustard gas lingered in the mud and rose silently at dawn to maim and kill. We learn about the home front and politics to make sense of how Canada’s leaders planned, or, more accurately, failed to plan, the raising of the armies and Cook also closely examines the “butcher’s bill” or the tragic cost of the war.

Shock Troops, the second volume of the brilliantly researched work, follow the Canadians as they capture Lens, fight through the horrors of Passchendaele and play a decisive role in the Hundred Days, the period from Aug. 8, 1918 to the Armistice. Cook’s account of this last period is marvellous, a detailed examination of the great battles when the Canadians smashed the Germans at Amiens, crossed the Canal du Nord and breached the Hindenburg Line and advanced to Mons where they ended the war.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque is a timeless classic that demands to be read. It is the incredibly stirring story of a group of German soldiers narrated in a jagged active tense by one of them, a 19-year-old named Paul.

The power of the novel has not diminished with time. The book’s modernity remains stunning and the imagery is simply unforgettable. In one scene dozens of horses are injured by artillery and the air is filled with the sound of their dying: “It is the moaning of the world, it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror and groaning.”

Despite being published more than eight decades ago, the work remains intensely alive and the story of a generation destroyed by the war resonates long after the  final page is turned.

The Beauty and the Sorrow (2011) by leading Swedish historian Peter Englund is a masterly, highly original narrative history, a brilliant mosaic of perspectives that shifts between the home front and the front lines. The author allows twenty individuals during the First World War to tell about their experiences through diaries and letters. These men and woman include an English nurse in the Russian army, a British infantryman awarded the Victoria Cross, a German seaman and a Venezuelan cavalry officer in the Ottoman army.

Englund’s deft reconstruction of the feelings and impressions of the twenty individuals provides insights into more than the gruesome carnage of the battlefield: for example, a French infantryman at Verdun knows, despite lower figures in newspaper reports, that he entered battle with one hundred men and only 30 survived the maelstrom. The narrative is written in the present tense, an approach that fuses the work with a surprising suspense and immerses the reader in the events as they unfold. The eloquence of the voices is also memorable: a German schoolgirl describes the war as “ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it.”

These four works are all available at your Okanagan Regional Library www.orl.bc.ca


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