Archive for April, 2018

Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…

Advertisements

My travels: L is for Luxembourg

April 28, 2018

I fell in love with Luxembourg years ago. I don’t mean the capital city, which is small, and has a couple of good bookshops and some astonishing eighteenth century fortifications, as well as a stunning site, to recommend it; I mean the countryside – the forests and hills of the Ardennes and its stunning walking. Now I seem to go back each spring for what has become a combination of a walking holiday and a retreat, a couple of weeks of peace and quiet in the hills.

I have to admit, of course, that my picture of the country is a romanticised one. It’s small – perhaps the size of Greater London, roughly; a lot smaller than Yorkshire, which I call home. Some friends remind me that it’s home to a huge tax-avoidance economy; this is true, and yet, as far as I know, Luxembourg hasn’t bombed Syria or invaded Iraq or Afghanistan recently… the country’s motto is ‘we want to stay the way we are’, conservative with a small ‘c’, and when I fantasise about living there and being able to do all the wonderful walks all year round, I remind myself of what living in such a small, catholic, conservative and conformist society might be like. There doesn’t seem to be very much for young people to do, and only the capital and a couple of other towns would seem to offer much in the way of cultural attractions. It would probably be both dull and stifling. But the public transport is stunning – a four-euro ticket takes you anywhere in the country, on bus or train, for a whole day!

But, the walking is stunning, and seemingly unknown to us English; in season the place fills up with the Dutch heading for the nearest hills to home. What I like is the fact that the hills are relatively gentle – although that doesn’t exclude some gruesomely steep ascents, particularly at the start of walks – and also largely wooded, which I find particularly attractive because it means that I often come across surprise views after turning a corner: suddenly an unexpected panorama opens up. And then there are the colours, so many varieties of greens and browns at the time of year when everything is just bursting into life after winter. There are the streams and rivers winding through the valleys, and occasional glimpses of wildlife – deer, wild cattle, wolves even – and the birds.

It’s so peaceful, too, at the time of year when I go. I can park the car, put my boots on and in five minutes be far away from the village or town, up in the hills where the only sounds are the birds and the crunch of my feet on the path. I’m away with my thoughts and the wonders of nature, at peace.

The country is a maze of way-marked paths, some maintained by the Ministry of the Economy (!) and so pretty clear, others maintained by localities and so rather more variably signposted – so my map-reading and compass skills have improved over the years. And for such a small place, there’s a good bit of variety, too – steep and more rugged further east, along the German border, with rather narrower tracks, and large areas along the western border with Belgium that are being gradually allowed and encouraged to revert to more primeval forest.

It’s as European a place as one can find, which I also find attractive, being small and on so many borders and crossing points; a third of its population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants; the inhabitants speak their own language and usually French and German too, if not English as well. I feel comfortable there; I can escape the hecticness of Britain, its woes and insanities, for a few days; I feel calmer and rested even after walking dozens of miles in a weeks or so. I hope I can manage many more spring holidays there…

My travels: Y is for Ypres

April 28, 2018

I’ve travelled around quite a few of the Somme battlefields over the past few years, familiarising myself with the places and landscapes I’ve read so much about, and which has formed the background to a lot of the novels, poetry and drama I taught over the years. The other major sector of the western front in the Great War, Flanders, I don’t know very much about at all, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days there on my return journey from walking in the Ardennes.

I’d read about Talbot House a number of times, and finally went there. There’s plenty of information about it online, but basically it was a large, upper middle-class Belgian house behind the lines in the small town of Poperinghe, that was taken over by a couple of Anglican chaplains and turned into a place of rest for troops who were enjoying a few days away from the front. There was entertainment, an endless supply of cups of tea, ways of contacting other comrades, a chapel, spiritual help and comfort, a garden… a small oasis of sanity a few miles outside hell.

I found the place strangely moving, especially the simple chapel right under the eaves of the house, and the large and beautiful garden, too; it gave me a different perspective on the war, made me reflect on things I hadn’t considered. And it offers B&B too, ideally situated for exploring the Flanders sector of the western front, which I haven’t done yet…

I also took myself into Ypres, to look around the splendid In Flanders Fields Museum, in the old (and completely rebuilt) Cloth Hall. I didn’t really learn anything new about the Great War, but the events seen from the Flanders perspective were most illuminating. I learnt a lot about German atrocities at the start of the war, and also how much use was made of flooding low-lying ground as a way of halting German progress. There was also an interesting walk around the old ramparts of the town, which led inevitably to the famous Menin Gate, on which the names of over 50,000 British troops whose bodies were never recovered, are engraved. It’s enormous, perhaps not as impressive as the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in terms of its setting, but sobering, nevertheless. And I found myself thinking yes, and if you wanted to commemorate the names of all the British men who were killed in that utterly pointless war, you’d need twenty of those gates…

As on the Somme, there are war cemeteries dotted all over the landscape. I decided that I would be returning for a few days to visit some of the smaller sites and museums that I’ve come across mention of in various memoirs I’ve read over the years.

Older Men Don’t Read Fiction…

April 8, 2018

I recently alluded to some research suggesting that older men didn’t read (very much) fiction and, as I fall into that demographic category, I have been thinking more about it, and about my habits. I’ve been prompted to revisit it because of the difficulty I’ve experienced in choosing a couple of books to take away with me on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes.

How is that difficult, you may wonder, as I’ve often mentioned having piles of books waiting for my eyeball time? And those piles include a fair number of novels that I’ve bought, with the obvious intention of reading them; recommendations by friends or ones that had good reviews, or books by writers I already know and want to explore further. But I can’t decide: shall I take a new novel, or a history book? Shall I take some old favourite novels which I’ve been promising myself to re-read for ages? I can see I shall reach the stage of randomly grabbing a pile and thrusting them into my bag early on the morning of my departure, a last-minute eeny-meeny-miny-mo…

So, I asked myself in the middle of the night, what on earth is going on? I went back to my reading journal: this year, out of 22 books read so far, two (!) have been novels, and one of those was a re-read. Last year, 27 out of 64 were novels, of which only five were new. In 2016, 10 novels out of 52 books, two new novels; in 2015, 20 out of 71. I have to go back to 2014 to see more than half of the books read being novels, and even then, there were an awful lot of re-reads. There’s the evidence.

Next, the excuses. I haven’t felt there are an awful lot of good new novels being published, or at least, ones that call to me to read them. I am in the middle of a history and travel reading phase which has been going on for several years. Pretty thin as explanations go, I have to acknowledge.

At the moment I feel happier re-reading novels I’ve read previously, even if a long time ago. Here I think there’s something of a comfort factor going on, re-acquainting myself with old favourites, old friends – and there are times I look wistfully at a book on my shelves and think to myself – am I ever going to find the time to re-read that one? A new novel feels like much more of a challenge: am I going to enjoy it? can I actually be bothered? will it make that much of a difference to me? And it’s easier for non-fiction to draw me in at the moment. If a novel is vicarious living, vicarious experience, perhaps I’m not in need of so much of that in my retirement, perhaps I’m getting on with my own living at the moment…

Yet somewhere in the back of my mind there is a nagging doubt or uncertainty; I cannot quite believe that I’m avoiding reading novels, that I’m actively expecting to be disappointed, and feeling that I don’t want to make the effort. So, if there are any other men out there who count themselves as ‘older’, I’d be interested to hear from you. And from anyone who has ever ‘gone off’ reading fiction, for whatever reason. I’d like to get to the bottom of this one.

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

511FXYXfj9L._AC_US218_

A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

Balance-sheet of the First World War – concluded

April 7, 2018

IMG_0819

For some reason I find this section the most jaw-dropping, the most shocking of all; I knew about the human toll of the war in so far as it’s possible to take it in, but the sheer waste of resources is truly mind-boggling…

With the money spent on the war…

You could have provided a furnished villa with garden and outbuildings to a value of 100,000 francs to EVERY family in the following countries: USA, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Germany and Russia, and afterwards you could have built, in all towns with more than 200,000 inhabitants in each of those countries: a hospital for 125 million francs; a library for the same value; a university for 250 million. That done, a reserve fund could have been set up which, at 5% interest, would have provided annuities allowing 125,000 teacher or professors, and 125,000 doctors or nurses to be employed at an average salary of 25,000 francs. And that’s not all! This building finished, and the capital set aside for investment, there would remain a sum equivalent to the total value of property in Belgium and France before the cataclysm!

(concluding the series of posts I introduced here; I hope some readers have found it informative…)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 21

April 7, 2018

IMG_0818

War at sea Total navy and merchant marine force losses during the war 86,000

England alone suffered more than half the losses: 2,468 officers and 30,895 sailors of the Royal Navy,

and 14,661 officers and men of the Merchant Navy.

Tonnage torpedoed or sunk during the war:

England 8.610,000 tonnes

USA 613,000 tonnes Norway 1,287,000 tonnes

France 972,000 tonnes

Italy 923,000 tonnes

Japan 182,000 tonnes

In total, 12,587,000 tonnes with a value of 50,000,000,000 francs, corresponding to 5,000 ships.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 20

April 4, 2018

IMG_0817

Progress in war… War has progressed. That is undeniable. Today it kills more quickly and better. If we compare the losses in the 1914-18 war with the losses in the eight great wars of the previous two centuries, a real improvement is noticeable:

Seven Years War 551,000 men killed

Revolutionary Wars 1,400,000

Napoleonic Wars 1,700,000

Crimean War 785,000

War of American Independence 700,000

Russo-Japanese War 624,000

Balkan Wars 108,000

Great War 10,000,000

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 19

April 4, 2018

IMG_0816

The first four months

During the first 4 months of the war (August to November 1914) we lost (killed) 454,000 men, that is to say one third of our total losses.

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 18

April 3, 2018

IMG_0815

The development of artillery:
number of guns in service in the armies at the start of Sept 1914/ Nov 1918 

campaign artillery approx 3,400 (93%) /6,200 (41%)
heavy artillery 230 (7%) /6,800 (45%)
trench artillery (Nov 1918) 2,200 (14%)
totals 3,630/ 15,200

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 
%d bloggers like this: