Books about the First and Second World Wars

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Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on April 21st 2011, 6:49 am

Britain's War Machine by David Edgerton – review

This is a muscular, myth-busting study of Britain during the second world war

David Reynolds The Guardian, Saturday 16 April 2011


Back from Dunkirk ... British soldiers after the evacuation. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Britain's War Machine takes on some of our cherished national myths about the second world war. First, the image of a beleaguered but heroic island – encapsulated in "Very Well, Alone", David Low's celebrated cartoon after the fall of France in June 1940. David Edgerton calls this "one of the most misleading images in British history", noting that when Churchill spoke of fighting on "alone" he almost always referred to the British empire rather than the British Isles.


Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War by David Edgerton

Edgerton reminds us that wartime Britain was the heart of a global empire formed by trade as much as by colonies. The outbreak of war did force global Britain to reorient its trading patterns: "near supplies" such as Danish bacon had to be replaced from outside Europe, with America becoming much more important, particularly after Japan's whirlwind victories of 1941-42, which denied Britain vital rubber, tin and oil from south-east Asia.

But Edgerton stresses the continued reliance on traditional suppliers, such as wheat and meat from Canada, Australia and Argentina, and oil from the Caribbean and the Middle East, much of it transported in British ships. Britain had the largest merchant marine in the world, and this proved vital to keep Churchill's island going until American shipping capacity developed later in the war. These imports, mostly on credit, enabled Britain to concentrate on war production rather than food supply and consumer needs.

Britain's global reach was vital on the battlefield as well. Two of the key divisions deployed against possible invasion in 1940 came from Canada; at Alamein in 1942 (now a famous "British" victory), nearly half of Montgomery's infantry were Indians, Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders. In 1945 British manpower constituted just over half the empire's fighting strength.

Britain was also a "warfare state", an "empire of machines". This fact, Edgerton argues, has been obscured by the likes of CP Snow and his view of the "two cultures" anti-technological bias of Britain's elite. Sometimes his chapters on technocrats and experts slide towards the encyclopaedic, with too much detail, but he makes several compelling points. For instance, the powerhouse of WMD development was not the universities, despite their contributions to the bomb and short-wave radar, but the big government research institutes such as the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, and major industrial corporations such as ICI and Vickers. Again, the imperial dimension was vital: faced with a shortage of rifles in 1940, the government set up Lee-Enfield factories in Canada and Australia as well as America.

Britain's War Machine is a stimulating exercise in muscular revisionism. Yet I feel at times that Edgerton – an outstanding historian of science and technology – distorts the nature of war. Technology always matters – be it longbows at Agincourt or rifles at Gettsyburg – but ultimately battles are decided by men, not machines. Take France in 1940. German victory had less to do with overall technological superiority than the success of its surprise armoured thrust through the Ardennes and the collapse of the French command and control system.

Edgerton argues that the fall of France should be seen as having had only a "minor" impact on the British war effort compared with the south-east Asian disasters of 1941-42. Yet 1940 forced a wholesale redefinition of British strategy. Previously the government had focused on naval and air power, with France expected to bear the brunt of the land war. Edgerton insists that the British Expeditionary Force on the western front in May 1940 was highly mechanised, but to call it "a great modern army" surely misses the point. The BEF boasted only 10 divisions, half the Belgian contingent and a tenth of the French.

As 2 million French soldiers trudged off to German POW camps in June 1940, Britain had to invent a mass army almost from scratch and to teach those novice soldiers how to use their machines. Haunting memories of the Somme and Passchendaele (about which Edgerton might have said more) strengthened the determination of British leaders from Churchill down to fight a war of machines rather than men.

Yet Edgerton is surely right in his conclusion. Britain came out on the winning side thanks in significant measure to its industrial capacity and its global resources. And the British people, for all their privations, were spared the total war that ravaged eastern Europe. His book offers a fresh and provocative view of our much-loved and much-misunderstood "finest hour".

David Reynolds's books include In Command of History (Penguin).

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011


Last edited by eddie on May 9th 2011, 2:41 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on April 21st 2011, 6:52 am

"My grandfather, the bomber pilot" thread from the old ATU site:

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:uOOg35v_10AJ:acrosstheuniverse.forumotion.com/t4794-my-grandfather-the-bomber-pilot+acrosstheuniverse+%2B+bomber+pilot&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk&source=www.google.co.uk

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  Doc Watson on April 21st 2011, 9:02 am

When I was involved with a book shop , war books were big selers.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on April 30th 2011, 4:27 am

Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany by Frederick Taylor – review

A vivid and compelling account of Germany's postwar years debunks many myths about the country's road to redemption

Victor Sebestyen The Observer, Sunday 24 April 2011


German children cheer as a US cargo aeroplane arrives in Berlin with food and supplies after Soviet forces surrounded and closed off the besieged city, 1948. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

For more than half a century, the rise of modern Germany as an exemplary liberal democracy, as an economic power, as an exporter of decent European values and superb motor cars, has been an object lesson in how a violent pariah state can cleanse itself.


Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany by Frederick Taylor

The consensus among historians and the political class in the west has been that the Marxist experiment in the east was but a blip. Led by an Anglo-American coalition that encouraged freedom, open markets and introspection about its recent past, Germany's rehabilitation was a seamless story of redemption earned through decades of good works. The subtext was that the success owed as much to the wise policies of the Americans, the British and even the French, as it did to the Germans.

And so it was, up to a point. Frederick Taylor's compelling book debunks many myths about the immediate postwar years. Through vivid storytelling he shows that the story was far more complicated than has invariably been told in the English-speaking world.

Yes, the west and its values triumphed, but the road was rocky and there was a big price to pay – in East Germany, by millions behind the Berlin Wall who endured life under one of the nastiest police states in Europe. In the bigger, richer West Germany, as Taylor tellingly explains, it was paid by an entire generation that was largely taught to forget about the past.

Taylor has great narrative gifts, as he showed in his books on the bombing of Dresden and the history of the Berlin Wall. Here his account of the last days of the war is brilliantly told. He begins on 11 September 1944, with American GIs crossing into Germany. It is a literary conceit that at first glance seems contrived – he could have begun at any time after D-day – but it works surprisingly well.

He writes sensitively on the attitude of the vanquished to the victors, contrasting the fear of Soviet atrocities – perhaps half a million German women were raped by Russian troops – to the sullen bitterness people felt against the western allies. "Germans loathed the hypocrisy and the arrogance of the allied assumption of superiority," he says.

It is hard for most people under 40 to remember that Germany – both Germanies – was occupied by "foreign" troops for decades after the war. On both sides of the iron curtain Germans' independence was circumscribed. The Soviets knew what they wanted in their eastern zone: they created a state in Stalin's image, reliant on the Stasi to retain power.

The western powers were less sure. A powerful lobby in the US wanted to return Germany to a pastoral middle ages, with no industry with which it could ever again make weapons to threaten its neighbours. Thankfully, they lost out to practical leaders in America and Britain. The Marshall Plan "exorcised" Hitler, gave birth to the West German economic miracle and made the German match with France that has been the centre of the EU.

They were even less certain about how to punish the Nazis and find the "good Germans" to govern the country. Taylor explains that the process, after the high-profile Nuremberg trials, was characterised by realpolitik. In 1945 there were 8 million Nazi party members, more than 10% of the population. Among teachers, lawyers and civil servants the percentage was far higher. Basic services could not be run without them.

The British were the most pragmatic and quickly gave up looking for any Nazis apart from major war criminals. Many prominent Nazis moved to Britain's zone of occupation – perhaps not our finest hour. The leaders in Washington had a good line in rhetoric about "no safe havens" for Nazis. Yet America's record was poor, not helped when it spirited to the US various rocket scientists who had been Hitler's favourites.

West Germany was left to cleanse itself. It was not the seamless process of confronting the truth that is usually told. As Taylor puts it, Konrad Adenauer's conservative, complacent country took "the sleep cure". The 1950s and early 60s was an era of forgetting. Germany paid billions of Deutschmarks in compensation to Jews, but few Nazis were prosecuted. In 1952, 60% of civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis. It was in the 60s, when a new generation of Germans began asking their parents "What did you do in the Third Reich?", that the real transformation began and New Germans sensitive to their recent history emerged.

There are weaknesses in this book – attempting to make it topical with references to the occupation of Iraq is entirely superfluous. Yet this is an enthralling narrative about a crucial period of modern Europe's history.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  Dick Fitzwell on April 30th 2011, 12:54 pm


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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on May 9th 2011, 1:53 am

Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski – review

Written as a cry for help from Nazi-occupied Poland, Jan Karski's wartime memoir now tragically reads like a 40s espionage thriller

Peter Conrad The Observer, Sunday 8 May 2011


Jan Karski: his attempts to bring Poland’s plight to the attention of allied leaders failed. Photograph: Reuters/Popperfoto

When Jan Karski first published his chronicle of Polish resistance to the Nazis in 1944, all he hoped for was to ensure that Churchill and Roosevelt did not forget oppressed Poland. Apart from a tormenting interlude in a Gestapo prison, Karski had spent the years since 1939 crisscrossing Europe as a courier for the underground; he witnessed casual genocide in the Warsaw ghetto, and was smuggled into a concentration camp dressed as an Estonian guard to watch Jews being herded into railway carriages that were coated in advance with quicklime, which (he claims) corroded their flesh and ate them alive – an inexpensive prescription for mass murder, conserving precious canisters of Zyklon B.


Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (Penguin Hardback Classics) by Jan Karski

Finally General Sikorski, the head of Poland's exiled government who presided over a secret, abstract state like Christ's unearthly church, dispatched Karski to deliver the news about the "final solution" to the allies. But Churchill wouldn't see him, and Eden vaguely wished him good luck; he was told that FDR was busy, and though he secured an interview he left with no promise of help from the president. After the war Poland was quietly consigned to the Russians, who had enslaved it before the Germans invaded. On its first publication, Karski's book appealed less for its admonition to humanity than because of the cloak-and-dagger skulduggery it described, complete with baffling disguises, daring escapes and uplifting evidence of sacrificial feats performed by ordinary human beings.

Eleven years after Karski's death, Story of a Secret State is published in the United Kingdom for the first time, and has excited a flurry of advance interest because the producer of The King's Speech is apparently angling for film rights. Reading it, I wondered if I had seen the unmade film already. Karski's exploration of the moral fog in which he and his colleagues operated – mistrusting one another on principle and resigning themselves to the slaughter of innocent civilians who would be held theoretically responsible by the Nazis and gunned down in reprisal for attacks by the partisans – made me recall thrillers like Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die, in which Fritz Lang investigates the blurry allegiances of spies and counterespionage agents, who serve a higher truth by telling lies and imitate the methods of their enemies.

Two episodes resemble scenes tantalisingly directed by Hitchcock. During a muttered rendezvous in a Warsaw church, one of Karski's collaborators notices that a devout beggar serving as a lookout is improbably clean-shaven: remember the phony nun with high heels in The Lady Vanishes? Even better, the members of a Krakow cell are disturbed during their preparation of cyanide pills, meant to be swallowed in case of capture. Some of the lethal powder is spilled on a table; an unsupervised child wanders into the room and dabbles his fingers in the poison. Life in this case is kinder than Hitchcock's art: whisked away to be dusted down and scrubbed clean, the boy is spared the fate of the juvenile bomb-carrier blown up on the London bus in Sabotage.

Hannah Arendt accustomed us to think of the Nazis as morbid bureaucrats, desk-murderers who exemplified "the banality of evil". Karski, who knew what it was like to be tortured by them, conjures up a demon who is gleefully malevolent and anything but banal. His interrogator in the prison is Inspector Pick, an obese and olive-complexioned Slav like an "elegant seal", whose swelling flesh "curved rather than bulged". He reeks of pomade, drums impatiently on a table with fingers that taper into manicured nails, and asks questions with a voice that is "resonant and mellifluous". He does not lay a hand on Karski, but cues an attendant thug to batter his skull with a rubber truncheon. The victim's stoicism does not impress him: "I don't have the slightest respect for heroism," Pick yawns. How will any putative director cast this role, which calls for the bloated body of the chuckling Sydney Greenstreet with the soul of Ralph Fiennes (who played a Nazi commandant in Schindler's List) somewhere inside it?

At this distance from the events it describes, Karski's book can only too easily be reduced to an adventure story. The climax is unabashedly cinematic, in the rousing manner of the 1940s. In driving rain Karski clambers on to a British patrol boat at sea off Gibraltar, awed by the Navy's "display of power and alertness". Soon afterwards, he sees "the Statue of Liberty emerging from the waters of New York harbour"; reading, we can hear the anthem on the soundtrack. After talking to Roosevelt, he strolls off to commune with the statue of the patriot Kosciusko in Lafayette Square opposite the White House. To undercut heroic solemnity, there is even a laugh line reminding us that Karski is as humanly vulnerable as the rest of us: he asks the Polish treasury for a loan so he can buy dentures to replace the teeth knocked out by the Nazis.

Of course there is more here than political melodrama. Karski's account of the systematic brutality of the Nazi regime is literally chilling. Told about those flailing bodies corroded by quicklime in the sealed railway carriages, a bourgeois Berliner says: "Very efficient. The Jewish corpses will not be allowed to spread disease as they did in life." But I can't help feeling that the book's resurrection is a symptom of our facile forgetfulness, not a belated appeal to memory and to historical conscience. In 1944, Story of a Secret State was meant to save Poland, which it failed to do. Reread now, it posthumously glorifies a single very valiant Pole: that, however, is not exactly an adequate recompense.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on May 9th 2011, 2:45 am

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild – review

Has dissent in Britain during the first world war been exaggerated?

Andrew Motion The Guardian, Saturday 7 May 2011


The lost generation ... British troops approach the trenches near Ypres during the first world war. Photograph: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Adam Hochschild opens and closes his history of the first world war with a couple of questions. The first asks "Why does it bring a lump to the throat to see words like sleep, rest, sacrifice [written in a visitors' book at a cemetery on the Somme], when my reason for being here is the belief that this war was needless folly and madness?" And the second: "If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the 20th century and undo one – and only one – event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?" Either one of these would give a pretty clear idea of the attitude Hochschild takes to his narrative. Put together, and combined with the subtitle of his book, they promise a powerful controlling argument. To End All Wars, we suppose, is a history of dissent, an account of pacifist movements, conscientious objectors and deserters who (we also suppose) created much more difficulty for the authorities than we are generally led to believe.


To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain by Adam Hochschild

Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book Does Hochschild deliver on the implications of his questions? Yes and no. On the one hand his strong feelings about the war (foolish and mad) provoke him into writing with a sense of personal commitment to its myriad tragedies – and this makes his book feel charged and moving. His attention to refuseniks of one kind and another is striking, too: the story of fighting in France is punctuated at regular intervals, throughout its long and winding course, with well-furnished accounts of people who challenged Kitchener's assertion that their country needed them to fight: Bertrand Russell and Emily Hobhouse; Keir Hardie and Charlotte Despard; Stephen Hobhouse and Sylvia Pankhurst.

On the other hand, Hochschild's ambitions to write revisionist history are hampered. One problem (if that's quite a sufficient word for it) is the facts themselves: despite the horrific slaughter of 1914-18, instances of loyalty to the cause, and of unwavering bravery in the face of impossible odds, remain vastly more numerous and often more compelling than the occasions of dissent. This is not to imply the objectors themselves didn't show extraordinary courage in their own way. They did – and, as proof, one of the most affecting passages in the entire book deals with a soldier named Albert Rochester, who was given the task of clearing up after the execution of three Bantam soldiers in early 1917 ("I helped carry those bodies towards their last resting place; I collected all the blood-soaked straw and burnt it").

But for complicated and interesting reasons the army held its shape, and the country kept its faith, right through to the bitter end of the war. The objectors were brave and sensible and far-sighted and (it's reasonable to argue) right. But they can hardly be said to have "divided Britain".

The other obstacle that stands in the way of Hochschild's argument is also to do with the facts of the war – but in a different sense. Although the well-known protesters (Russell et al) have their own drama and charisma, and the less well-known ones (Rochester) have their deep poignancy, our sympathy for them is continually being deflected, or reorganised, or even to some degree sapped by the monstrous experience of the soldiers at the front. The suffering of these men cannot help being the main focus of any history of the war – especially one so good at marshalling statistics as this one.

It is an irony, of a sort. Hochschild meticulously assembles details in order to fuel his own and our dismay at the pointlessness of so much suffering – and the details are so appalling they quickly seize and dominate our interest: six million sandbags were being shipped to France every month by May 1915; 224,221 shells were fired by British guns in the last 65 minutes before the first attack on the first day of the Somme; 47,000 tons of meat were sent to the bottom of the ocean inside ships sunk during the first six months of unlimited submarine warfare; between September 1914 and November 1918 722,000 British soldiers were killed and 200,000 from the empire. "If the British dead alone were to rise up and march 24 hours a day past a given spot, four abreast, it would take them more than two and a half days."

Very few of these facts will be new to war experts, of which there are a good number. Several of them are now common knowledge – so great is our national preoccupation with the war. Given this, and despite the new angles Hochschild opens in his book, it's impossible to avoid the killer question: do we really need another account of this sort? The easy answer is no – because the standard histories are reliable, and even include a decent amount of material that Hochschild foregrounds. Instead of a rehash, however well-written, what we need is a book that builds on existing work to reveal more comprehensively than has yet been done the experiences and voices of "ordinary soldiers". That would be a memorial worth erecting, when we commemorate the centenary of the conflict in three years' time.

Yet for all that, Hochschild has done his work well. The book is thoroughly researched, wide-ranging in its curiosities, and always compassionate and sympathetic. It is also significant as the latest in a long series of books that prove a melancholy point. During the first few decades after the war, despite (or because of) the large number of important first-hand accounts that appeared, the majority wanted to shift their attention away from thinking in public about loss and suffering.

In the last couple of generations, thanks in part to the canonisation within the curriculum of the poets of the first world war, the scars of the trenches have been identified as our national psychic wound. Hochschild, being American, might feel some distance from this, but the experience of reading his book suggests not. He suffers the same compulsion that we do: to remind ourselves afresh, several times every new generation, of the generation that was lost.

Andrew Motion's The Cinder Path is published by Faber.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on May 9th 2011, 2:56 am

The Gurkhas: Special Force by Chris Bellamy – review

Chris Bellamy makes a strong case in arguing that the Gurkhas are a 'special force' for the British military

Tony Gould The Observer, Sunday 8 May 2011


Above: a group of prospective Gurkas run the doko race at Pokhara, part of the gruelling selection process. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

It used to be said that theses on Moby-Dick had replaced whaling as New England's major industry. Similarly, it could now be said that the fewer the Gurkhas serving in the British army, the more books are written about them (I should know, as I wrote one of them). Many of these are written by ex-Gurkha officers. But Chris Bellamy is not an ex-Gurkha; he used to be a defence correspondent – "a dying breed", as he calls it – and has also been a professor of military studies.


The Gurkhas: Special Force by Chris Bellamy

The Gurkhas: Special Force is thoroughly researched and clearly written. By and large it sticks to conventional military history, covering the many campaigns and battles in which Gurkhas have fought over a period of almost 200 years (and providing a number of useful maps of these). The text is studded with the Victoria Cross citations of individual British officers and after 1911, the year in which VCs were made available to non-British troops, Gurkhas as well.

Professor Bellamy's grasp of military theory and in particular Russian history enables him to put the "Great Game" and the 19th, 20th and 21st-century wars in Afghanistan in illuminating context. He also has an interesting chapter on Gurkhas – or Gorkhas, as they're more phonetically called – in the post-independence Indian army, where their numbers have expanded in inverse proportion to their contraction in the British army; so that while the four British Gurkha regiments have been reduced to the single Royal Gurkha Rifles, all six of the Gurkha regiments that went to India continue to flourish intact and the 11th Gurkha Rifles, which was raised during the first world war and did not long survive it, has been revived.

Bellamy does have an axe to grind and this is reflected in his subtitle. His mildly controversial thesis is that Gurkhas have always been used as "special forces", not just in such obvious examples as Orde Wingate's Chindits in Burma during the second world war. From their "irregular" beginnings in the army of the East India Company, as "scouts" through the earlier wars in Afghanistan and on the North-West Frontier correctof India (now Pakistan) and in the Borneo campaign of the 1960s, right up to the present conflict in Afghanistan, Gurkhas have often been called to perform "specialised" roles and have responded superbly.

Bellamy may be a little over-insistent on this theme – characterising the four Gurkha regiments involved in the "Emergency" in Malaya and "Confrontation" in Borneo as "the British Foreign Legion", for instance. As a corrective to the once commonly held view that Gurkhas were none too bright and lacked initiative when deprived of their British officers, he certainly has a point. And he is scrupulous enough to quote against himself the "common-sense view" of an unimpeachable authority "that all operations of war are 'special', in one way or another, and that, apart from those carried out by very small groups, all operations by large bodies of men should be regarded as 'conventional'". These words of wisdom come from perhaps the greatest British general of the second world war, Bill Slim.

That the British Gurkhas have survived into the 21st century is largely because of difficulties in recruiting adequate (both in numbers and in calibre) British nationals. Now, as ever in a recession, recruitment here is not so much of a problem and voices are once again being raised for the Gurkhas to go before any more British regiments are scrapped or amalgamated. Bellamy quotes the Tory MP and ex-army officer Patrick Mercer, interviewed in this newspaper on 29 August 2010, saying: "The first people to go will be the Brigade of Gurkhas, probably in their entirety. In the past, the Gurkhas' existence was guaranteed by the fact they are cheaper to run than British troops, and that there was a shortage of British troops. Recent changes mean they are now just as expensive, and recruitment is extremely healthy at the moment. I am afraid the writing is on the wall."

By emphasising the special forces element of the Gurkhas – their "frequent association with the Paras", for example – Bellamy makes a strong case for their retention, now that the wars the British army is called on to fight demand precisely these kind of skills. But the fate of the Gurkhas does not rest entirely in the hands of the British government. What Bellamy calls the "unstable political situation in Nepal" may play a part, too. They are living on the edge in more senses than one.

Tony Gould is the author of Imperial Warriors: Britain and the Gurkhas (1999)

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  Doc Watson on May 9th 2011, 9:36 am

books about both wars made me a lot of money as a book seller.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on May 16th 2011, 1:04 am

Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949, by Virginia Nicholson — review

Virginia Nicholson uses astonishing first-hand accounts to examine women's lives in wartime Britain – lives, for many, injected with a vivid new intensity

Lucy Lethbridge The Observer, Sunday 15 May 2011


Members of the Women's Land Army, 1943. Photograph: PA

One evening in 1949, Maggie Joy Blunt – journalist, wartime sheet-metal worker and Mass Observation diarist – reflected on the future. "My philosophy for years now has been to take things as they come, to live the life you have in hand as fully as you can, and let the future take care of itself." It was a statement of optimism and independence that a youngish, unmarried woman would perhaps not have made so blithely before the second world war.


Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 by Virginia Nicholson

As Virginia Nicholson's splendid book demonstrates, the women who lived through the war, on the home front and overseas, learned how to live with an intensity of purpose, and using skills of survival, which few of them would have thought possible in early 1939. The moment that women were conscripted in 1941, their value for the war effort was recognised and – for many – the limitations of their former lives were thrown suddenly into relief. As one woman quoted by Nicholson writes: "For a housewife who's been a cabbage for 15 years, you feel you've got out of a cage."

Using diaries, autobiographies, memoirs and interviews, Nicholson charts the work, the lives, the relationships and the emotions of typists, factory workers, housewives, debutantes and artists working as nurses, in the services, in intelligence, in factories, on the land and as codebreakers. And because the effects of the war didn't stop with the end of hostilities, she finishes the book in 1949, on the brink of a new decade, with the women changed but emboldened: in some cases, happy to return to being traditional housewives, but in others, wondering what new roles might be there for them in the 1950s.

Reading Nicholson's account of their experiences, one can only marvel at the inner resources of a generation that disapproved of introspection. Mary Cornish, a teacher who accompanied a group of child evacuees to Canada on the SS City of Benares, spent eight days in a lifeboat on the freezing Atlantic after the ship was torpedoed. The girls in her care were among the 77 children who drowned; but, starving and convinced they would die, she distracted six young boys by singing "Run Rabbit Run" and telling tales of Bulldog Drummond. After their rescue, Cornish never spoke of the ordeal – but those boys stayed in touch with her up until her death.

Nicholson covers the familiar but always fascinating tales of home-front austerity, queues for rationed food and the arduous business of making-do and mending. It is a celebration of ingenuity: Oxo cubes used to stain legs because of shortages of stockings; pipe-cleaners used as hair curlers; knitted socks unravelled and remade as baby clothes. But it is the horrors of war that are portrayed most vividly – the dreadful labours, for example, of women who clambered over the rubble of bombed-out cities with buckets to pick up human remains.

"When I went to work in the mornings, you'd see piles of brick rubble, perhaps with an arm sticking out or a leg. I got so that blood, guts and what have you didn't have much effect," wrote one 17 year old. Volunteer nurse Frances Faviell, an artist in Chelsea before the war, was suspended face-down in a bomb crater to administer chloroform to a trapped man; his wounds were so severe that she could not find his nostrils. The horrible stench of wounded bodies is a memory that recurs again and again. This was the reality behind the Blitz spirit we evoke nostalgically today – and that spirit is constantly, remarkably, in evidence here.

"Tea became the common healer in all our disasters," wrote a member of the Women's Voluntary Service. Sex was a common healer, too, and fleeting love affairs took place in a frenzy of excitement as lovers were unsure if they would still be alive tomorrow. Nicholson tells us that in 1940, there were 534,000 weddings: nearly 40,000 more than in the previous year, and 125,000 more than in 1938.

Nicholson's brisk prose style moves the narrative on, but it is the writing of the women themselves that astonishes. The Barrow housewife Nella Last, the most famous of the Mass Observation diarists, writes almost unbearably of some young soldiers: "All I can see is those boys with their look of beyond."

Joy Taverner, a nurse who was with the allies when they arrived at Belsen, found the experience so terrible that she could only articulate it years later in poetry. The number of memoirs Nicholson has unearthed suggests that writing these accounts was for many women a form of what we would call therapy.

Millions Like Us is a tremendous achievement. It is a triumph or research and organisation – but also of sympathy.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  Yakima Canutt on May 16th 2011, 2:59 am



This one tells you pretty much all you need to know.


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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  Yakima Canutt on May 17th 2011, 5:30 pm

^in the upper left background, that sure is one shoddily drawn swastiker.


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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on May 26th 2011, 9:15 pm

Red Cross and Vatican helped thousands of Nazis to escape

Research shows how travel documents ended up in hands of the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie in the postwar chaos

Dalya Alberge guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 25 May 2011 15.31 BST


SS officers at Auschwitz in 1944. From left: Richard Baer, who became the commandant of Auschwitz in May 1944, Josef Mengele, commandant of Birkenau Josef Kramer, hidden, and the former commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss, foreground; the man on the right is unidentified. Photograph: AP

The Red Cross and the Vatican both helped thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators to escape after the second world war, according to a book that pulls together evidence from unpublished documents.

The Red Cross has previously acknowledged that its efforts to help refugees were used by Nazis because administrators were overwhelmed, but the research suggests the numbers were much higher than thought.

Gerald Steinacher, a research fellow at Harvard University, was given access to thousands of internal documents in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The documents include Red Cross travel documents issued mistakenly to Nazis in the postwar chaos.

They throw light on how and why mass murderers such as Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie and thousands of others evaded capture by the allies.

By comparing lists of wanted war criminals to travel documents, Steinacher says Britain and Canada alone inadvertently took in around 8,000 former Waffen-SS members in 1947, many on the basis of valid documents issued mistakenly.

The documents – which are discussed in Steinacher's book Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's henchmen fled justice – offer a significant insight into Vatican thinking, particularly, because its own archives beyond 1939 are still closed. The Vatican has consistently refused to comment.

Steinacher believes the Vatican's help was based on a hoped-for revival of European Christianity and dread of the Soviet Union. But through the Vatican Refugee Commission, war criminals were knowingly provided with false identities.

The Red Cross, overwhelmed by millions of refugees, relied substantially on Vatican references and the often cursory Allied military checks in issuing travel papers, known as 10.100s.

It believed it was primarily helping innocent refugees although correspondence between Red Cross delegations in Genoa, Rome and Geneva shows it was aware Nazis were getting through.

"Although the ICRC has publicly apologised, its action went well beyond helping a few people," said Steinacher.

Steinacher says the documents indicate that the Red Cross, mostly in Rome or Genoa, issued at least 120,000 of the 10.100s, and that 90% of ex-Nazis fled via Italy, mostly to Spain, and North and South America – notably Argentina.

Former SS members often mixed with genuine refugees and presented themselves as stateless ethnic Germans to gain transit papers. Jews trying to get to Palestine via Italy were sometimes smuggled over the border with escaping Nazis.

Steinacher says that individual Red Cross delegations issued war criminals with 10.100s "out of sympathy for individuals … political attitude, or simply because they were overburdened". Stolen documents were also used to whisk Nazis to safety. He said: "They were really in a dilemma. It was difficult. It wanted to get rid of the job. Nobody wanted to do it."

The Red Cross refused to comment directly on Steinacher's findings but the organisation says on its website: "The ICRC has previously deplored the fact that Eichmann and other Nazi criminals misused its travel documents to cover their tracks."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on June 21st 2011, 8:29 am

And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding – review

Artists, writers and performers who prospered in Nazi-occupied Paris cannot be written off as collaborators, according to this fascinating new history

Janine di Giovanni The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011

In Alan Riding's fascinating book about Paris under Nazi rule, elaborate characters leap off almost every page. There are dancers and showgirls, music-loving Nazi commandants, musicians, spies, artists, diplomats and traitors. Riding, a former cultural correspondent for the New York Times, is a Brit who is also an expert on opera, Mexico and Shakespeare. And the Show Went On is a serious piece of scholarship, but one that reads almost like a novel.


And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-occupied Paris by Alan Riding

Riding seeks out not only the famous – Sartre and de Beauvoir, Picasso, Piaf, the violently antisemitic Céline – but also the obscure. His stories are vivid, such as Goering's unashamed looting of the art collections of Jewish dealers, striding arrogantly around the Jeu de Paume selecting whatever took his fancy. Goering did not realise that while he was choosing paintings for his own pleasure, a heroic woman named Rose Valland was taking detailed notes of everything removed.

The book shows that there was no black and white when it came to resisting and collaborating. Riding is not unsympathetic to collabos. Instead, he traces how they came to be by painting an elaborate picture of the terror of the German invasion, the collapse of French morale following the first world war, the immense humiliation and fear of a defeated population. There are sections, too, on the rise of fascist writers like Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (who called for a pure-blooded France, free of Jews, liberals and gypsies) and the background of Charles Maurras, founder of the rightwing Action Française, which became especially virulent when the Jewish liberal Léon Blum became prime minister in 1936.

And what of the artists themselves, the ones who simply wanted to get on with their work, and not be bothered with politics? After the war Sartre said that writers and artists had a duty to tell their countrymen "not to be ruled by Germans". But there were still plenty who boarded trains to Munich and Berlin with bright smiles for solidarity tours of Germany. We all say we would never have done it. No one wanted to be a Maurice Chevalier or Sacha Guitry singing their hearts out or writing plays for Germans, but Riding points out that even these scorned men were not exactly collabos. They also helped Jewish friends while hanging out with the high-ranking Germans in charge of the cultural world. After all, Riding writes, the Germans had champagne and food and wonderful parties while many Parisians were living on onions and freezing from lack of coal.

Some artists, such as Édith Piaf, also went to Germany or consorted with Germans as a means to an end – to get French prisoners of wars freed in exchange for their presence on German soil. Others did so out of fear, or plain survival: most were sure that there would be a German victory and they wanted to ensure that they would be able to carry on their life's work.

And the Show Went On is a much larger history than its title suggests. It is about cultural life in Paris, but it is also a book about society and politics in the years leading up to the war. Riding takes on an immense topic and succeeds in demonstrating that even through war and sorrow and misery, art was created, books were written and, in the worse moments of destruction, there was also creation.

Janine di Giovanni's Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War & Love is published by Bloomsbury in July

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on June 21st 2011, 8:41 am

The Love of an Unknown Solider by Anonymous – review

Peter Joyce's narration brings a touching collection of first world war love letters to life

Rachel Redford The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011



The Love of an Unknown Soldier (Windsor Series) by Anonymous

Peter Joyce is brilliant at uncovering long neglected gems and making them sparkle. It doesn't matter that mystery surrounds the authorship of this collection of letters written in the trenches by a British first world war officer to the American nurse to whom, during the brief time they had spent together, he had never declared his love. It's a poignant love story, and also a clear-sighted analysis of the reality of war and the terrible devastation caused when decent men are required to kill other human beings.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on June 25th 2011, 1:29 am

Nazis on the Run by Gerald Steinacher – review

This level-headed book details who helped the Nazis flee Germany, and why

Richard J Evans guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 June 2011 10.05 BST


Aftermath ... Marshall Space Flight Center director, Wernher von Braun, at his desk in Hunstville, Alabama, in the 1960s. Photograph: © Nasa/Corbis

In Frederick Forsyth's bestselling thriller The Odessa File, a tightly knit, top-secret organisation of SS veterans arranges escape routes for former Nazis, places them in powerful positions across the globe, and develops rocket facilities in Egypt to destroy Israel with a massive onslaught of biological weapons. Typically, the story was far from being a complete invention. Forsyth took as his starting-point the revelation by the Austrian Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal that a secret conference of senior SS officers and leading Nazi industrialists such as Emil Kirdorf, Fritz Thyssen and Gustav Krupp had taken place in a Strasbourg hotel on 10 August 1944 to ensure the continuation of Nazism after its coming defeat by setting up and funding what Wiesenthal called "the greatest fugitive organisation in world history".


Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice by Gerald Steinacher

Known as Odessa, it was invoked frequently by Wiesenthal over the following years to alert the world to the scandal of Nazi murderers living with impunity in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America. Some, such as Adolf Eichmann, were eventually caught and put on trial. Most, like the camp doctor and author of gruesome medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, were not.

In reality, as this book demonstrates, Odessa never existed. Of the key participants in the supposed meeting in Strasbourg, Kirdorf had died in 1938, Krupp, partially paralysed by a stroke, had handed over all his business interests to his son, and Thyssen, having broken with the Nazis, was incarcerated in a concentration camp. The truth about Nazis on the run, as Gerald Steinacher shows, was a lot more prosaic than the myth created by Wiesenthal.

Western Europe in 1945-46 was in a state of almost complete chaos. There were tens of millions of German and other refugees, former slave labourers of the Nazis, German and Austrian prisoners of war, and people fleeing the advance of communism in eastern Europe – most of them without papers, milling around in total confusion. In this situation, it was not difficult for ex‑SS men to change their identities and obtain false passports. To get away from Germany, the best route lay across the Alps, over the border to Italy, and there was no shortage of experienced smugglers of other kinds of contraband to arrange their passage.

Even better for the SS men, the way lay through the long-disputed territory of the South Tyrol, German-speaking but since the first world war under Italian rule. Many of its inhabitants had supported the Germans and helped them during the brief episode of Nazi control towards the end of the war. They were all too willing to assist men they regarded as fellow Germans. Here too, it was possible to make contact with former comrades and Nazi officials who would smooth the way.

Once in Italy, the escapees found many different agencies where help could be provided, and the Red Cross was willing to issue travel documents without too many questions asked. Dedicated to an extremely broad principle of humanitarian aid, the Red Cross provided help to Jews seeking to emigrate illegally to Palestine, at the same time as giving ex-Nazis the identity papers they so badly needed. The problems confronting the Red Cross were too overwhelming for careful discrimination to be made. But it is hard to disagree with the author's conclusion that it was more careless than it should have been.

There were criminal and corrupt Italians who were prepared to forge papers for the SS men – and if the price could not be paid, there were always those who would act out of ideological conviction. Most important, there was a group of Vatican priests around the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal, the deeply antisemitic author in the mid-1930s of a tract called The Foundations of National Socialism, which he had presented to Hitler. A number of fugitives succeeded in obtaining "denazification through conversion", as German Protestant or Nazi-style "deists" had themselves baptised to get the church's help.

Pope Pius XII, a friend of Hudal's, turned a blind eye to his activities and interceded repeatedly for ex-Nazis. When a US state department report pointed the finger at Hudal in 1984, the Vatican reacted with fury, but after Steinacher's book there should be no doubt of Rome's complicity, despite the regrettable fact that the Vatican archives are still closed for this period. No wonder the current pope has put the canonisation of his wartime predecessor on hold.

However, a more important part was played by the Americans, who saw in former SS technicians, spies and experts sources of information and possible assistance in the emerging cold war. The rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who had employed forced labourers under deadly and degrading conditions in his underground V-2 factory, was put in charge of the American rocket programme; the Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen, who claimed his network of spies in eastern Europe was still in place, was rescued by the Americans and subsequently put in charge of the West German intelligence service.

Within the Vatican and the US government, significant groups and individuals helped ex-Nazis to escape justice because they saw in them men whose hatred of communism was as great as their own. After the Nuremberg war crimes trial, governments decided that strengthening German self-respect in the face of the Soviet threat was more important than meting out justice. Most surviving victims of the Nazis were too busy putting their lives back together for moral reflection on the recent past. Germans, Austrians and Italians simply wanted to forget. Nazi escapees took advantage of this growing silence and amnesia to make their escape.

And in Juan Peron's Argentina, desperate for technical knowhow and not unsympathetic to Nazism, they found a government so keen to have them that it sent recruiting agents to Italy to persuade them to come. Like all the other institutions that helped former SS men such as Eichmann get away, the Peron government was well aware of the crimes they had committed. More than half a century later, their moral indifference, as Steinacher notes, is stunning.

In this murky world of hidden identities, deception and secrets, it is good to have a book as level-headed as this one, based on thorough research. All the more pity, then, that it is written in such poor English and so shoddily edited that it does the reputation of Oxford University Press's New York office no good at all.

Richard J Evans's The Third Reich at War is published by Penguin.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on June 27th 2011, 7:50 am

Churchill's Bunker by Richard Holmes – review

by Ian Pindar

Friday 24 June 2011 23.55 BST


Churchill's Bunker: The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of Britain's Victory by Richard Holmes

In 1938 it dawned on war planners that a single air raid could wipe out much of the British high command, so work began on what became the cabinet war rooms. Chamberlain's cabinet met there in late 1939, but Churchill made it his own, announcing in 1940: "This is the room from which I'll direct the war." As well as a cabinet room, there was a map room ("the 'scoreboard' of the war", complete with a world map "speckled with pinned symbols"), and Churchill's office and bedroom (although he rarely slept there), plus an old broom cupboard with a direct telephone link to the White House. In this lively and authoritative history Holmes, who recently died, reminds us how hard Churchill worked his staff. When one of them asked if he might get some sleep, Churchill replied: "Well, if you don't care who wins the war, go ahead." The Churchill war rooms are open to visitors, although nowadays the most important bunker in London is the vast tunnel network under Whitehall, which is named Pindar.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on October 7th 2011, 8:48 am

Soldiers by Richard Holmes – review

Richard Holmes's last book is full of integrity and common sense

Hew Strachan
guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 September 2011 22.55 BST


Scots guards on parade. Photograph: Dusan Vranic/AP

The British army makes up 0.087% of the population and only one in 70 of us has a close relative serving in it, and yet its history – and that of war in general – commands an audience that far exceeds this tiny professional base. One reason is that Britain is blessed with authors who can speak to both general and specialist audiences. Like pantomime artists, they can wow the children while amusing the adults.


Soldiers: Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors
by Richard Holmes

Of these, Richard Holmes, who died in April while still at the height of his powers, was possibly the most physically familiar to both groups. His bespectacled, moustachioed and always dapper figure strode across muddy battlefields on to their TV screens. Indeed he sometimes rode, and the peccadilloes of his horse, Thatch, became almost as well known to his followers as did those of Thatch's owner. He was an improbable hit for the 21st century. The tributes to him on the irreverent and sometimes scurrilous Army Rumour Service website (ARRSE), a source that Holmes cites several times in Soldiers, stress that, as well as being a natural storyteller, possessed of a deep knowledge of his subject, he was a "gent", possessed of old-fashioned virtues, such as decency, generosity and integrity.

Soldiers, his last book, has been seen through the press by his family and friends. There are a few minor errors and misprints, which Holmes himself, with his extraordinary recall of accurate detail, would have corrected; there are some repetitions, which good editing would have sorted; and there are moments when chapters change direction without the fluency that was his hallmark. But Soldiers remains vintage Holmes. Indeed the very title makes that clear. He had used it before, for a book on men in battle that he and his erstwhile colleague, John Keegan, wrote in 1985. As for the subtitle, Redcoat, the story of the British soldier "in the age of horse and musket", was published in 2001, and Dusty Warriors, his account of the service in the Iraq war of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, of which he was colonel, in 2006.

The traces of all three are evident in the new Soldiers, but the scope of the latter is more ambitious. A social history of the British army, beginning with the civil war and ending in 2010, it uses many of the techniques deployed to such excellent effect not only in Redcoat but also in Tommy and Sahib, his accounts respectively of the soldier on the western front during the first world war and in India. The arcane details of military language and lore, the business of tradition, rank and dress (what in a memorable phrase Holmes calls "costume jewellery"), all make the book a sort of military Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Studded with personalities, some familiar – such as Wully Robertson, who rose from private to field marshal, or John Shipp, who was twice commissioned from the ranks in the Napoleonic wars – and many much less so and often the product of Holmes's own research, the book uses their individual stories to illustrate big themes.

The anecdotes derive their context from Holmes's grasp of the continuities, even if often pinned down with statistics that highlight change. Those that began this review are an example; so too are the extraordinary oscillations in the army's strength, particularly before 1861. The pattern of rapid expansion in time of major war, and equally severe contraction at its end, left its legacy of half-pay officers at one end of the social scale and impoverished beggars at the other. The army was cut by two-thirds between the seven years war and the French revolutionary wars, and was more than halved between the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean war. Colonial warfare made for greater equilibrium in the last half of the 19th century, but major war had its effects in 1914 and 1939, when the number of those commissioned multiplied roughly tenfold.

During his career, Holmes wrote about other armies, particularly that of France, but the humour and the occasional admission of emotion in Soldiers make it abundantly clear that it was the British army that commanded his true affection. His chapter that distinguishes between bullying in the army, which he does not condone, and "beasting", which "has both wrecked lives and saved them", captures his reluctance to criticise, let alone condemn. On the evidence here, much of the army's esprit de corps has been fuelled by alcohol, but there is no acknowledgment that today's army has a bigger drink problem than does the society from which it recruits. The love is that of a knowing parent: ready to admonish the child but ultimately not ready to concede any wrong to the outside world. Indeed, that quality may be why Holmes's stock is so high in professional circles: he could make the British army look at itself, know itself better, stop itself from too much complacency, but still love itself more.

Holmes ended his own military career as a brigadier, the senior officer of the Territorial army, with a stint in the MoD. He was therefore wonderfully qualified to make intrusions into current defence debates, but he chose not to. As those who taught with him at Sandhurst or those who were taught by him at the Staff College know, this was not because he did not have views that were both trenchant and well informed. Today, the army faces another set of cuts, which, even if not as severe as those of 1763 or 1815, come at a time when it is certainly more stretched than it was in the era of colonial warfare. It is therefore worth plumbing Soldiers for his opinions on the present and future as well as the past.

Three stand out. The first is the consequence of downsizing. Turning off the recruiting tap creates long-term structural imbalances in what is after all a hierarchical service. The army's age structure becomes distorted, and it struggles to regain its place in the employment market. Slow peacetime promotion can also too easily kill the commitment of those who have experienced war. In 1944, Michael Carver was commanding a brigade at the age of 30; although he ultimately became chief of the defence staff, he did not command a brigade again until 1960. The army kept Carver, but how many potential generals did it lose as it contracted after 1918 and 1945?

Secondly, and relatedly, the army has not maximised its talent, promoting those commissioned from the ranks too late in their careers to get a sensible return on their experience: here Holmes's example is Captain Doug Beattie MC, who was commissioned after 22 years' service but retired soon after. Thirdly, and predictably given Holmes's own Territorial career, the army in war has been much slower than many other armies to recognise the potential, including that of command, of reservists and those enlisted for the "duration".

These points are put in measured tones. Holmes's real vitriol is confined to a footnote and reserved for the Treasury: "Insufferably cocky, breathtakingly ignorant and unstoppable as a charging rhino." Soldiers will read Soldiers; will anyone else in Whitehall?

Hew Strachan's The First World War is published by Viking.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on October 13th 2011, 4:04 pm

All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings – review

Citizens and soldiers from all sides describe the horror of the second world war

Philip Hensher
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 13 October 2011 09.00 BST


A vast furnace: Stalingrad, October 1942. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto

For the generation that endured it, the second world war always looked likely to be the most significant event of their lives. Even those who experienced its privations and drama remotely, far from the theatre of conflict, found the peculiar flavour of those years irresistible when it came to memorial and contemplation. Those who experienced the white heat of the conflict may have found themselves unable to speak about it afterwards. My grandfather, who landed in Sicily and must have seen the liberation of Italy at close quarters, apparently never mentioned anything about it to his family once it was all over. Those who could write or speak about it were in no doubt that what they had seen and come through was not just the most important event of their lives, but probably the most important event in human history.


All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945
by Max Hastings

It's the significance of the individual witness that powers Max Hastings's new history of the second world war. He has written several books on the conflict, and his sometimes revisionist judgments on its conduct are well known. What is new and interesting here is the reliance on people who simply set out their own observations. The historical approach that fleshes out the larger narrative with worm's-eye viewpoints has grown in popularity recently. David Kynaston's excellent series about postwar Britain humanises a large social shift with individual voices of, sometimes, surreal inconsequence. The scale of suffering in the war is so colossal that deaths become, numbingly, mere statistics. About one German in 12 died, and one in four soldiers from the Japanese and Russian armies. If you want to know what death on that scale feels like, consider that around one American in 100,000 died on 9/11. Hastings's plan is to revitalise the sense of suffering and bravery by exploiting first-person accounts from every theatre of the vast war.

Some of the witnesses come from a more extensive selection than others, or at any rate are more extensively explored. The Pacific campaign is given many more witnesses from the Allied side than from the Japanese. Perhaps the nameless Japanese soldier who wrote, at Kohima, of the "bodies of our comrades … rainsodden and giving off a stench of decomposition" was a relatively rare reporter. But it is odd not to include some of the many testimonies of the survivors of Hiroshima to balance the detailed and striking witnesses of the London blitz.

Otherwise, Hastings has quarried the written accounts of active and passive participants in the war widely and, for the most part, rewardingly. They are of most interest when they observe seemingly trivial details. A Pravda correspondent in Voronezh was struck that the women who now policed the city were more effective in directing traffic, but "used their whistles too much". Inevitably, some of these accounts are harrowing in their specific detail, or simply grotesque. The incredible tale of the two survivors of the coal-carrier Anglo-Saxon, who drifted in an open boat for 2,275 miles before striking the Bahamas, is unusual only because they survived. The prize for grotesque horror is taken by the Italian soldier who turned up at a field hospital having had his balls shot off. Out of his pockets he produced "the blackish testicles mixed with biscuit crumbs, asking whether they could be sewn back on".

The passage of time and the enormous shift of culture between now and then give many of these stories a remote quality. Some of the Russian accounts are sharply seen and described, such as the officer who wrote that, by day, Stalingrad "is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives – one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights – the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately for the other bank." Others, including many German correspondents, stick rigidly to the public ideology in their private comments, whether through fear or conviction. English-speaking witnesses can seem as remote, such as the Time correspondent Robert Sherrod gamely contending of an enemy soldier trying to kill himself on the battlefield that, "like all Japs, he took a lot of killing".

But sometimes a voice emerges that just sounds immensely human. There is the boyish Australian hiding on the occupied island of Guadalcanal who, seeing 19,000 American troops come ashore, wrote in his diary: "Wizard!!! – Caloo, Callay, Oh! What a day!" Or the understandably moany or terrified soldiers who, demonstrating Wellington's dictum (quoted by Hastings) that "not every man who wears a military uniform is a hero", hurry to share their misery. "I wonder if it would do any good Mum if you wrote to the Admiralty and asked them if there was no chance of getting a shore job at Rosyth." (It did no good: the reluctant forerunner of Private Pike who wrote this went down with his ship in 1941.)

Hastings is, rightly, assured in his moral judgments, making it plain what we should think of Churchill's culpability for the Bengal famine. He remarked, as millions were dying, that "there is no reason why all parts of the British empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the Mother Country has done"; one of Zainul Abedin's masterly china-ink sketches of the suffering beggars, some of the most famous works of Indian art, is reproduced here as a silent witness for the prosecution. There is, too, the grotesque spectacle of Éamon de Valera putting on a morning coat to pay a formal visit of condolence to the German embassy in Dublin on the death of Hitler. There may be a couple of slips here – it was not the German Philharmonic Orchestra but the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that gave a final concert on 12 April 1945 with the Russians at the gate, and most people agree that the programme ended with Bruckner's fourth symphony, not, as Hastings says, the eighth. Still, he avoids the fanciful story that the Hitler Youth stood at the exits at the close of the concert with baskets of cyanide pills.

On the whole, this is a confident telling of an extremely complex story. In the balance between the large narrative and the individual experience, it is good to have accounts of overlooked episodes which may be remembered only in the cultures they affected – the siege of Leningrad is familiar ground, the Bengal famine less so. If war affects and changes continents, it happens in the first instance to one person, and then another, and another. This book goes some way to registering the second of those heartbreaking truths.

Philip Hensher's King of the Badgers is published by Fourth Estate.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on October 24th 2011, 4:54 am

Where to post this? Literature? Cinema? Theatre? Paintings & Photography? It all started with a book, so I suppose this section is most appropriate.

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War Horse, the exhibition - a parable of our senseless, violent times

Michael Morpurgo's classic is the basis of a National Army Museum exhibition tracing the history of the real war horses

Maev Kennedy
guardian.co.uk, Friday 21 October 2011 17.48 BST


Handspring's astounding puppets from the play War Horse will be on show at the National Army Museum exhibition. Photograph: National Army Museum/CLY

Of more than 120 books Michael Morpurgo has written, War Horse is not his favourite – though he concedes his epitaph will read: "Michael Morpurgo wrote Steven Spielberg's War Horse."

His story of the horse commandeered from a Devon farm and shipped to the great war, followed by the boy who loved him, has become a phenomenon, dwarfing the rest of his works: a bestselling children's book now bought by adults, a box office smash hit play for the National Theatre in London and on Broadway, the Spielberg movie due for release within few months, and now an exhibition at the National Army Museum in London.

"I'm very fond of the book, and it is my wife's favourite – she really loves horses, and she likes the fact that its origins lie in Devon, in the place where we live. But I probably like Private Peaceful best [also now being filmed] and I love the ones which really set children's imagination soaring like Kensuke's Kingdom. But there will be people who think I never wrote anything in my life except War Horse."

The book was hardly an overnight success: it was published in 1982, did not sell particularly well. Morpurgo spent years trying to turn it into a script before concluding that a story which begins in rolling Devon fields and moves on to tank battles in the Somme, was unfilmable and still less stageable.

"I am delighted but quite surprised at how it has now taken off, and why that should be now is an interesting question. I'm afraid it's the times we are living in. People are seeing the bodies of young soldiers coming home again.

"The cold war in which we grew up was not that kind of war, Vietnam was a foreign war and there was nothing like this public celebration and grieving over bodies in Northern Ireland, which was very different, in all the deeply unpleasant tangle of a civil war.

"Now we are seeing again, terribly, the bodies of young men coming home from a war for which they have no responsibility, and in which they can barely have seen the consequences when they joined up. When people cry for the war horses, for their suffering and death, they are really weeping for the men, for all of us, for all those who die in huge senseless wars.

"The horse gives us almost the excuse to cry. The scream of the horse trapped on the wire is the scream of that Munch painting, the cry of the ultimate innocents trapped and suffering in a situation not of their making."

The exhibition, traces the history of the real war horses through centuries of army life, interweaving it with the book, Handspring's astounding puppets from the play, and images from the Spielberg film.

The curator Pip Dodd says he knows what Morpurgo means about the excuse to cry. "I've found it quite puzzling. In the nature of my work here I have to deal with quite tough subjects - and yet I have found myself moved by researching this in a way that is almost embarrassing.

"It's a cliche, but I think it's the fact that they could not choose, they could have no idea of what they were facing, and nothing could train them for it."

The numbers, as Morpurgo found when he began to research the subject – after a chance remark by a veteran of a cavalry regiment at the pub in Iddesleigh are astounding. In the first world war, there were more than 6 million horses and mules, and judging by the British statistics, almost half died of disease or were killed in conflict. The army used 1.2m horses and mules, and 484,000 died – only a handful, mainly officers' privately-owned mounts, ever came home.

In what seems to both Dodd and Murporgo the bitterest betrayal, the best of the survivors were sold overseas as riding horses, the next as work horses and the rest to butchers for human consumption raising over £1m, the equivalent of at least £21m today.

In Egypt a commitment was given that unfit horses would be put down rather than sold for work, but it was broken. In 1930 Dorothy Brooke, wife of a British Army major, who went on to found the Brooke animal hospitals, found skeletal horse survivors working in the streets of Cairo, some still visibly branded with the army's broad arrow.

Dodd's heroes are the nameless mules. "Most just had numbers, not names, as they were looked down on as inferior animals - but they were incredibly strong, hard working and clever. Of all the millions, we know the name of just two."

His favourite is Jimson, a mule who survived campaigns in India and the Boer war, and whose three service medals are on display. "They're all very proper, they have the right clasps for the campaigns he was in, but medals could not officially be awarded to animals, so somebody either gave him their own medals, or had a replica set made."

He was so beloved by the 2nd Batallion Middlesex that they got special permission to bring him back from South Africa in 1903, and he lived on as regimental mascot until 1912.

The exhibition ends with an attempt by Morpurgo to make up for a lie exposed after almost 20 years. In his original preface, he claimed he was inspired by a portrait of a real horse called Joey.

When the book and play took off, tourists began to turn up in Iddesleigh – four Canadians on Tuesday morning alone – demanding to see the painting. "I write fiction," Morpurgo said helplessly, "I make things up, it's what I do."

He has commissioned an "Edwardian horse painting from Ali Bannister, the artist working on Spielberg's film, so once the exhibition ends there will be a portrait of Joey in the village hall.

War Horse, fact and fiction, National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London, free, until August 2012

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on October 25th 2011, 3:23 pm

Ian Fleming's Commandos by Nicholas Rankin – review

Ian Fleming never got over the excitement of the second world war

William Boyd
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 19 October 2011 09.05 BST


Special forces … commandos in AU30 on a training exercise

In the last year of Ian Fleming's life – 1964 – he often watched Sussex play cricket at Hove in the company of Alan Ross, editor of London Magazine. In Ross's wonderful memoir, Coastwise Lights, he has this to say about the creator of James Bond: "Ian's idea of giving up smoking on doctor's orders was to cut down from sixty a day to thirty … and on instruction he reduced his intake of Vodka Martini from three lethal doses to one. He was very shaky, his normally brick-red complexion the dry mauve of a paper flower." Fleming was 56 and indifferent about living longer. He once revealingly described his own character thus: "I've always had one foot not wanting to leave the cradle and the other in a hurry to get to the grave." This strange mixture of the infantile and the world-weary seems very typical of the man. A few months earlier he had been visited by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a friend of Fleming's glamorously waspish wife Ann and didn't like Fleming much. The feeling was mutual. Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford: "[Ian] looks and speaks as though he may drop dead any minute. His medical advisors confirm the apprehension."


Ian Fleming's Commandos: The Story of 30 Assault Unit in WWII
by Nicholas Rankin

Where did this implicit death wish come from? In some ways it's a very English slow suicide – one that Waugh, incidentally, was also participating in – obesity, cigars, alcohol and assorted drugs hastening him to an early grave two years after Fleming. Yet, on paper, Fleming had everything to live for. Born into a rich and well-connected Scottish banking family, he went to Eton, briefly to Sandhurst and then became a remittance man, notionally working in the City – "the world's worst stockbroker", in his own estimation – enjoying pretty girlfriends, fast cars and foreign holidays. After the war, during a spell at the Sunday Times, he began to write the James Bond novels, one a year from 1953 to his death. To new global fame could be added even more riches. Why was he so unhappy?

It's hard to explain this taedium vitae when it seems that most of life's injustices, hassles and difficulties – large and small – have been erased by wealth. My own feeling is that Fleming couldn't get over the second world war. As for many of his generation the war was both a gigantic upheaval and an astonishing adventure in his life, an unparalleled episode in which he had found himself and felt his work had been both meaningful and useful. In other words, during the war, paradoxically, he had been happy. When it was over the meaninglessness of his feather-bedded existence slowly re-established itself.

Fleming's good fortune was to be recruited in 1939 into the Naval Intelligence Division as personal assistant to NID's head, Admiral John Godfrey. He had a rank in the RNVR – commander – wore a uniform and went to work in the Admiralty. Everything about his life had changed. As a result of this key role and position he not only was connected to the very centre of the secret world of spies and spying but he could also actively participate in it – travelling to France and Spain, the US and Canada – suggesting ideas and schemes as they came to him, some of which were taken up and provided notable covert successes.

The most remarkable and lasting of these was his suggestion that a special commando be set up – a small group of intelligence-gathering raiders – who would attack and plunder targeted German establishments – radar stations, Kriegsmarine offices, naval installations and the like – and "pinch" anything that that might be useful – code books, movement orders, bits of Enigma machines and so forth. The force that was established as a result of Fleming's brainwave was called the 30 Assault Unit, a commando that saw its first operation during the disastrous 1942 raid on Dieppe. Fleming was on board a destroyer not far from the beaches during the raid and it was not an auspicious start, as even he had to admit, but 30AU was to prove itself invaluable in north Africa, Sicily, Italy, Rhodes, Yugoslavia, the invasion of France – and, most effectively, in Germany during the final days of the Third Reich when, among the wholesale larceny of German technology that was taking place as the war ended, its most audacious "pinch" of all was achieved, namely, the entire archive of the German Navy – the Tambach Archives, a vast document haul that weighed more than 400 tons.

Nicholas Rankin's fascinating book is an account of the 30AU's progress through the war. From time to time it reads like a Boy's Own story, so flamboyant are the characters and so vivid Rankin's accounts of the deadly scrapes and firefights the commandos found themselves involved in. The research is prodigious and lucid – now I finally understand how an Enigma machine works – and one gains a real sense of how these maverick units functioned, very much akin to the Long Range Desert Group and the fledgling SAS.

As well as being intrepid fighters it seemed as much a requisite of joining 30AU that the soldiers possessed strong, not to say eccentric, personalities. Rankin describes these extraordinary men – Bon Royle, Lofty Whyman, Patrick Dalzel-Job, "Sancho" Glanville and Peter Huntington-Whitely among others – and details their audacious exploits from 1942 onwards; he demonstrates how many of 30AU's pinches facilitated the code-breakers of Bletchley Park. Captured Enigma machines, cipher books and coded messages were sent back for analysis and, as the code-breakers grew ever more efficient at their work, it is clear that Fleming's commandos actively aided the general war effort and possibly shortened the conflict.

The commandos were unaware of the actual contribution and long-term effects of their looting – as, probably, was Fleming. He remains something of a background figure in the account, occasionally visiting the men on the front line (and complaining about the quality of the brandy he was served) and not much loved, it has to be said. This again is probably a result of a particular trait of the privileged English classes. Fleming found it hard to mix with others outside his own society and to express emotion, like many of his peers, and cultivated instead the very English phenomenon that Rankin calls "the façade of nonchalance".

However, Rankin is most astute at making connections between the post-war Bond novels and Fleming's experience in Naval Intelligence. If the war made Fleming feel fulfilled as a man it also provided him with a vast store of memories that consciously or unconsciously fed into the plots, characters and situations of the novels themselves. "M" in the novels is a portrait of Fleming's old NID boss Admiral Godfrey. The "Lektor" machine in From Russia with Love is clearly modelled on the Enigma encryptors. An old 30AU member, Tony Hugill, became a minor character under his own name in The Man with the Golden Gun, and so on. Most telling of all is the late story Octopussy that Rankin very cleverly shows can be interpreted as a deliberate self-portrait of the author as embittered, self-loathing drunk, "living off the capital of his war". For Fleming, one feels, nothing ever matched the intensity and excitement of his life between 1939-45 and all his worldly success after it could not drive away his demons. His wife, Ann, described him in his last days as living in a state of "total misery". Let's leave the last words to Ross, however, another multifaceted and complex man and also a naval officer in the war: "Not many of [Fleming's] wife's friends cared for him, a feeling that was reciprocated, but to me he was a good and entertaining friend and I missed him greatly."

William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise will be published in March 2012.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on October 25th 2011, 3:37 pm

Catch-22 author Joseph Heller: 'How did I feel about the war? I enjoyed it?'

Letter by writer of famous anti-war novel reveals that, unlike the book's protagonist, he found his military service full of 'glamour'

Stephen Bates
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 25 October 2011 19.17 BST


Catch-22 author Joseph Heller saw his book made into a film in 1970, starring Alan Arkin, pictured, as Captain Yossarian. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

Fans of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 may be surprised to learn that the American author actually enjoyed his military service during the second world war – at least according to a letter about to be auctioned in the US.

The 1961 novel, a powerful satire of military bureaucracy and official doublethink, features on lists of the best works of 20th-century fiction and made its author a millionaire, but the three-page-long typed letter, written in 1974, contrasts his experience with that of Catch-22's central character, John Yossarian.

"How did I feel about the war when I was in it?" Heller wrote in the letter to an academic preparing a collection of essays about the book. "Much differently than Yossarian felt and much differently than I felt when I wrote the novel … In truth I enjoyed it and so did just about everyone else I served with, in training and even in combat.

"I was young, it was adventurous, there was much hoopla and glamour; in addition, and this too is hard to get across to college students today, for me and for most others, going into the army resulted immediately in a vast improvement in my standard of living."

Heller says he made $65 or $75 a month while in the US military – more than the $60 he received as a filing clerk – "and all food, lodging, clothing and medical expenses paid. There was the prospect of travel and a general feeling of a more exciting and eventful period ahead … more freedom than I enjoyed in the long years afterwards."

The author enlisted in the US army air corps in 1942 at 19 and subsequently served, like Yossarian, on the Italian front, flying on 60 combat missions as a B25 bombardier.

He spent much of the 1950s writing Catch-22, having gained a contract with the publisher Simon & Schuster on the basis of the first chapter. In a letter to James Nagel, then an English professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Heller explained: "I knew [the book] would be published. I knew I worked slowly. I took my time and tried to make it the best book I could possibly write on that subject at that time."

Two of his letters to Nagel are being auctioned by the Nate D Sanders online auction house over the next fortnight – and are expected to fetch between $2,000 (£1,253) and $3,000. The 1974 letter cites Heller's inspirations: Céline, Nabokov, Faulkner and – "always present in my awareness" – TS Eliot's The Waste Land.

In another letter, Heller states: "Yossarian isn't Jewish and was not intended to be; on the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else."

A further letter to Nagel, handwritten 10 years later in January 1984, indicates, perhaps, a certain level of exasperation: "About Catch-22 I doubt very much that I can give you any more in the way of knowledge ... you undoubtedly know more about [it] than I do."

Catch-22 was made into a film, released in 1970, starring Alan Arkin as Captain Yossarian.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on November 6th 2011, 11:26 am

No sign of a ceasefire in the endless war of words

Nearly 70 years after it ended, the second world war is still throwing up books inspired by the conflict

Robert McCrum
The Observer, Sunday 6 November 2011


Commander Ian Fleming in the Admiralty’s Room 39. Photograph: Sidney Beadell/News International

This week's Remembrance Day is almost superfluous. British writers and readers just can't stop fighting the second world war. It ended nearly 70 years ago, but it's as though the guns have just fallen silent.


Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II
by Taylor Downing

There are several strands to the British book trade's preoccupation with this war. First, there's the appalling fascination of the Nazis, who remain a literary and artistic obsession. This was satirised by the late Alan Coren in Golfing for Cats, a slim volume of comic pieces adorned with a lurid swastika. After golf and cats, said Coren, the Third Reich was one subject that never failed to exhilarate the British book buyer.

There's also a treasure trove of incredible stories, narrative bullion, locked up in the years 1939-45. As the Great War fades from living memory and becomes part of history, its successor takes its place. The conflicts of 1914-18 were largely European. A genuinely global struggle, the second world war satisfies an international appetite for war stories, some of them now coming to light for the first time.

Finally, where the "war to end all wars" was a traditional great power slugfest, the contemplation of the second world war allows the British reader to occupy the moral high ground. Churchill's instinct to fight Hitler to the death was belligerent, but morally right. Britain's sacrifice was indeed our "finest hour". Internationally, we have traded on it ever since.

In the aftermath of 1945, there have been at least three phases of literary response and each one of them has been pure box office. At first, the celebration of the stiff upper lip insisted that the war should be remembered for its Boy's Own adventures in books such as Ill Met By Moonlight, The Man Who Never Was and Appointment with Venus. These postwar bestsellers were interspersed with grittier exploits such as The Dam Busters and The Wooden Horse.

When the appetite for these entertainments ran out, there were two decades of memoirs and biographies recycling the myth of the conflict. Now, for the first time, the true story of the camps began to be told, though the full horror of the Holocaust was not popularised in book form until the late 60s.

The end of the cold war inspired a new surge of second world war historiography, the discovery by English and American readers of the Eastern Front, based on Soviet archives hitherto inaccessible to scholars. Stalingrad by Antony Beevor is the emblematic bestseller from this third phase. Nonetheless, the latest generation of second world war historians is finding that, despite these myriad volumes, in many languages, there is still more to say or another thrilling episode to investigate. This season has seen the publication of The End by Ian Kershaw (the death throes of the Third Reich), All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings (the horrors of total war, described by ordinary people), D-Day by Antony Beevor (once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more) and, perhaps most harrowing of all, Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege 1941-44 by Anna Reid.

Rather more interesting, to me, are two books that open up the secret side of the second world war. Spies in the Sky by Taylor Downing tells the story of the reconnaissance pilots who photographed occupied Europe and interpreted these images in a country house at Medmenham in the Thames Valley. This work, says Downing, was arguably more important to the outcome of the war than the more famous Bletchley Park code-breakers. Spies in the Sky gives a new perspective to some of the most famous moments of the conflict, from the sinking of the Bismarck to the landings in Normandy.

If there was one man who knew the secrets of this secret war, it was probably Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming. The tale of Fleming's posse of authorised looters and thrill-seekers, 30 Assault Unit, is told in Ian Fleming's Commandos by Nicholas Rankin.

This absorbing yarn has the added literary virtue of identifying the inspiration for James Bond, licensed to kill. Casino Royale, 007's debut, was not published until 1953, but the seeds of the character, and some of his exploits, had been sown in the Admiralty's Room 39, Whitehall, during the darkest days of the war, under the watchful eye of that supreme national storyteller, Winston Churchill.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on November 11th 2011, 11:58 am

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, by Peter Englund – review

By following 20 ordinary people through the horrors of the first world war, Peter Englund has created a work of unconventional brilliance

Ian Thomson
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 November 2011 12.39 GMT


The destroyed cathedral of Péronne, Somme circa 1918. Photograph: Ullstein Bild

The long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1914 gave little hint of the storm to come. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June, however, and the ensuing mobilisation of German troops, Kaiser Wilhelm II engulfed defenceless Belgium, and the world was set to witness one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Through poison gas, starvation, shell fire and machine-gun, the first world war killed and wounded more than 35 million people, both military and civilian. The figure is so unimaginable, so monstrous, that it numbs. Few had reckoned on such a long, drawn-out saga of futility and wasted human lives.


The Beauty And The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
by Peter Englund

By the conflict's end in November 1918, from the eastern border of France all the way through Asia to the Sea of Japan, not a single pre-war government remained in power. The once great German, Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires had fallen. Amid the moral and material ruins of postwar Europe, many hoped to see a heroic prelude to healing and renewal. Friends and family hurried to embrace the troops returning home; yet within days the exhilaration of their homecoming had evaporated. Paradoxically, some demobbed servicemen began to fear death in a way they had not encountered at the front. "I ought to have felt great joy, but it was as if a cold hand took me by the throat," records a Belgian fighter pilot. Was this the collapse that follows on from a "great relief"? The pilot's insight into his psychological state was rare among surviving combatants. Few were aware of the disturbance that lay ahead so soon after the armistice had been declared on 11 November.

In The Beauty and the Sorrow, an extraordinary new history of the first world war, we follow the lives of 20 people caught up in the conflict. Among them are an American ambulance driver, an English nurse in the Russian army, a South American adventurer fighting for the Turks, a 12-year-old German girl and several other civilians. In the course of 227 short chapters (some of them no more than a page long), they take turns to tell us what they saw or felt on a given day. Interspersed with authorial commentary, their testimonies make up a haunting chronicle, and a convocation of ghosts.

This is by no means a conventional history. Peter Englund, a Swedish academic historian and former war reporter, has created a sort of collective diary in which the unknown (or now largely forgotten) lives intertwine minutely and often poignantly. Throughout, effective use is made of diary accounts, letters, memoirs and other first-hand material.

For Laura de Turczynowicz, the American-born wife of a Polish aristocrat, the war is less an event to be followed than a condition to be endured. She has found herself stranded on the wrong side of the frontline in German-occupied Poland. Having commandeered her husband's estate, German troops begin to use starving Russian PoWs as slave labour. Laura reports her deep shock at the sight of men transformed into "animals, or even things". However, once people have been deprived of their humanity, it is much easier to kill them. All future dictatorships were to understand this. (The Jews in Hitler's cattle trucks were so degraded by their journey to Auschwitz that they were no longer Menschen – human beings – but animals to the slaughter.)

The book is thick with other forebodings of the second world war. A dapper Ottoman official, on orders from his paymasters in Constantinople, stands calmly by as Kurds bestially slaughter Armenian Christians in present-day Turkey. "He represents a new species in the bestiary of the young century," says Englund – that of the well-dressed, articulate mass murderer who condemns thousands to death at the mere stroke of a pen. In Nazi Germany such bureaucrats would become known as Schreibtischtäter – "desk-murderers". Apprenticeship in Ottoman obedience in April 1915 required a stunted moral imagination; lack of imagination (not sadism) had made the official cruel.

According to the author, the 1914–18 conflict heralded a new age of atrocity and diminished individual responsibility for it. Politicians, ideologues and army generals, by delegating unpleasantness down a chain of command, were able to ignore the moral consequences of their work. In a village deep in the Austro-Hungarian empire, an English red cross nurse called Florence Farmborough witnesses a "new and terrifying sound". Austrian artillery have begun to open fire simultaneously, again and again, to create maximum terror and destruction. "This is something new – artillery fire as a science," Englund comments.

Throughout the war, sympathy for victims was increasingly diminished by physical distance. The Austrian artillerymen were only dimly aware of the civilians and soldiers they targeted. If they could have seen the human devastation, how might they have reacted? In one extraordinary episode, an Allied airman is devastated to see a German pilot spiral fatally to the ground after his plane has been hit. Finally the airman has come to see "the human being" instead of "some kind of gigantic insect".

Many of the young men who joined up so eagerly in 1914 were quickly disillusioned. The "plodding drudgery" of trench warfare in Flanders and on the Somme took its toll. Day after day, the dead remained unburied; horses were slaughtered for food; amputees crowded the field hospitals. The nouveaux riches of Europe, meanwhile, grew fat on the munitions industry. In France and pre-fascist Italy the so-called pescecani (sharks) flaunted their war wealth in fancy clothes and conspicuous restaurant dining. The idea of a war without end suited them well: only the men at the front were pacifists now. Most of them would do anything to go home (even purposely contract venereal disease).

Michel Corday, a French civil servant, watches in disgust as black-marketeers in Paris fleece the unsuspecting war-wounded. To him, the glorious "war to end all wars" is now nothing but a "bitter and disillusioning defeat".

Inevitably, The Beauty and the Sorrow is a chronicle of human loss, atrocity and famine. What happened at the Marne, in the Ottoman province of Armenia, on the Gallipoli peninsula, at Ypres, in the Piave and on the Asiago plateau was tragic, inhuman. ("I have seen and done things I want to forget", PJ Harvey sings on her dark, Somme-haunted album Let England Shake.) Yet the horror is recorded here in plain, everyday speech. Amid the symbolic poppies and wreath-laying, Peter Englund's book stands out as a work of magnificent, elegiac seriousness.


Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage.

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Re: Books about the First and Second World Wars

Post  eddie on November 11th 2011, 1:06 pm


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