Book Review : Lest We Forget

photoThis year, of course, marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and ,with this in mind, I decided to do some themed reading over the course of the year. I have already reviewed Goodbye To All That  here but here are two recently published novels both dealing with the subject and both by female writers. This is not a compare and contrast review but, I hope, an appreciation of two fine books that happen to deal with similar themes.

Coincidentally, both are set in 1920, two years after the end of the war, and both deal with the ‘aftershocks’ of the war on the surviving soldiers and the women they left behind.

WAKE by Anna Hope

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Here we meet 3 seemingly unconnected women all, unbeknownst to them, bound together by terrible events at the front.

Hetty earns her living as a ‘dance instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais, sitting in a cage with other girls until a man will come along and pay the price to release her for a dance. The author explains this particular phenomenon of the times in a note at the end of the book. At home there is Fred , her shell-shocked brother, back from the war but unable to escape the horrors of what he has experienced.

Ada is a housewife who cannot let go of the past and her dead son, Michael, killed in action at the front.

Evelyn is possibly the most interesting character in the book.Upper middle class and single, after losing her lover in the war, she is now regarded as useless by her family.After tasting a freedom of sorts during the war, a return to her former life of waiting to be married is now impossible. She is trapped in a meaningless job as a clerk in the Ministry of Pensions way below her capabilities but a real career is denied her. She is one of the 2 million……..spare women now with no marriage prospects and therefore no future.

The action is centred round the unveiling of The Cenotaph in London and the arrival of he body of the Unknown Soldier. Tensions mount with the arrival of Rowan, another soldier returned from France,and finally the terrible secret that binds the lives of the women together is revealed.

THE LIE  by Helen Dunmore

photoDunmore’s latest novel is set in Cornwall.Daniel Branwell has returned from the war to his childhood village. He is haunted by his memories of the front and of his friend Frederick, killed in France.

The novel explores the way that class lines became blurred in the thick of the battle. In the trenches, Daniel’s boyhood friendship with the son of the family for whom his mother worked as a maid is rekindled.

Dunmore also deals delicately with the issue of ‘shellshock‘. She uses a stream of consciousness style as Daniel increasingly slips between his current reality and what happened to him back at the front, unable to differentiate between the two.

‘The dead aren’t tied to one place………Things ought to stop once they’ve finished, but his won’t stop. They say the war’s over, but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe.’

He also meets Felicia again, Frederick’s sister, who he admired from afar as a boy. Felicia can sense  Daniel’s pain and wants to help him escape……but Daniel has told a lie to explain his presence in the village and the truth is catching up with him.

Any Suggestions??

I enjoyed both these novels enormously and was really unable to put them down. I am definitely going to read some more First World War fiction during this year. I am planning to read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man at some point but I would love any suggestions of other books to read………..particularly dealing with the experience of ‘Commonwealth’ soldiers whose contribution is often overlooked.

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves

photoI read this book almost by accident. My son had been asking about books about the First World War for a University assignment and I bought him this which wasn’t suitable for his purposes ,so I inherited it.

Born in 1895 Robert Graves was a British poet and novelist and this book, written in 1929 just before he left the UK pretty much for good, is a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers during WW1.

The book is in three sections . The first deals with his young childhood in Wimbledon and then at a series of boarding schools where he was desperately unhappy. The largest section deals with his experiences as a young officer who joined up within a few days of the declaration of war; in the final part he tells us about his difficult transition into peacetime life and marriage following his demobilisation.

What I found remarkable about the book as a whole is how contemporary his voice sounded.

When talking about his unhappy schooldays, he is frank about he sexual exploitation of boys by older pupils and masters that was rife within the system.

The war passages are extremely powerful.Graves saw active service in the trenches in France and was wounded twice. He returned to France following his second and most serious injury but in a training capacity behind the front line.

He is brutally honest abut the mood of the soldiers fighting : ‘Patriotism, in the trenches, was too remote a sentiment,and at once rejected as only fit for civilians, or prisoners. A new arrival who talked patriotism  would soon be told to cut it out.’

In fact he felt alienated on his return to England on leave and found it difficult to adjust to family life : We couldn’t understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.’

He shows us the reality of the war where men were shot for cowardice on the most flimsy of excuses despite government denials : ‘…but cowardice was punishable only with death and no medical excuses would be accepted……….Executions were frequent in France.I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived in Le Havre in May 1915 , and read the back files of army orders at the rest camp.They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion; yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons….denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of his Majesty’s forces.’

He is scathing about the Staff Officers safe behind the frontline whose poorly organised attacks and bungled bombardments read more like a plot line from Black Adder Goes Forth than a modern military campaign.

It was during the war that Graves began to write poetry and to be published. He developed a close friendship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon and kept up a correspondence with Wilfred Owen. It was to Sassoon that he was closest and they often went walking when home on leave or sick leave to discuss their work ‘We defined the war in our poems by making contrasted definitions of peace’

By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, Graves had been invalided out of active service and was training prospective officers in North Wales. The announcement of peace brought him no joy however as at the same time he also received the news of a death of a dear friend killed in action as well as that of Wilfred Owen.

He quotes from Sassoon’s poem :

Everybody suddenly burst out singing,

And I was filled with such delight

As prison birds must find in freedom…..

And adds grimly ‘ But ‘everybody’ did not include me’

Graves had got married towards the end of the War to Nancy, an artist and committed feminist who, much to Graves’ family’s disgust refused to change her surname. He describes a visit to the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy who, on being told the above exclaimed ‘Why you are old-fashioned my dear!!” explaining that he had known a couple in his village sixty years before who had done the same thing.

Graves, however, struggled to cope with the return of normality and the start of married. Suffering from what we now know to be shell -shock or battle fatigue he found ‘Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed……..My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping’

He found , like the other returning soldiers, that the promised ‘land fit for heroes’  had been forgotten. ‘The Herald spoiled our breakfast every morning.We read in it of unemployment all over the country due to the closing of munition factories; of ex-servicemen refused reinstatement in the jobs they left when the war broke out, of market-rigging,lockouts and abortive strikes’

In 1919 he finally took up the Oxford scholarship he had been offered in 1914 where he got to know T E Lawrence then engaged in writing The Severn Pillars of Wisdom.

He had resolved to live by his writing if he could but with a growing family and a failed attempt at shop keeping behind him, he found it increasingly difficult to make ends to meet. Eventually his mother came to his aid buying a cottage in Islip, a small village near Oxford , and letting it out to the couple at a low rent. He was still embittered by his wartime experiences….the local vicar asked him to speak at the church War Memorial service as the resident ‘war hero’ and suggested that perhaps he could read some war poems: ‘But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who had died, destroyed as it were by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future.’

The First World War will, of course, be a very topical subject in the coming year with all sorts of  centenary events planned. Graves’ stand at that Memorial Service seemed incredibly modern . This book came as a complete surprise to me and I definitely recommend it.