Back in the summer of 1978, two fellow Canadian teens who lived on the same street that I did in Brussels, came rushing over. Did I, they enquired, want to go and work in France for the rest of the summer and work as a tour guide at a World War I battlefield? I'd have to live in a youth hostel in Arras, cycle 11 kilometers each way to and from the site at Vimy Ridge every day and spend eight hours taking visitors on guided tours through the part of a restored section of the tunnels where soldiers preparing to assault the ridge overlooking the coalfields of northern France lived for years before the battle finally came at Easter 1917. At the time, I was working three half-days a week, babysitting a two-year-old boy who was partway through potty-training: he had learned that he needed to sit down on the potty, but had yet to understand the concept of pulling down his pants before letting fly. I was sick of the endless cleanup, and the lack of adult converation; a 22 kilometer bicycle roundtrip seemed like child's play by comparison. Of course, I said yes.
|Sitting next to the trenches at Vimy Ridge, June 1980|
And so began what would be my summer job for my teenage years until my family left Europe in 1980. It wasn't all wonderful. I rear-ended a car while riding my bicycle on the autoroute. (Don't ask...) My sweatshirt fell onto the space heater in the bureau des guides and nearly started a fire. The bike ride was grueling, taking me past freshly-manured fields every morning. On the other hand... I lived in the youth hostel and met travelers from all over the world. And I learned about the war from the locals, including people who had lived through it, or who had heard stories from those who had. About how, when the autoroute was built nearby, countless skeletons were unearthed, and enough live ammunition to fight another war. I met veterans of the Vimy battle, one of whom cried when he couldn't find where he had scratched his name on a wall of the tunnels. I went spelunking down some of the closed-off sections of the tunnels -- strictly against the rules -- and aggravated my already horribly bad claustrophobia. And I developed an endless curiosity about this war, the physical legacy of which I could see all around me. Giant craters pockmarked the landscape and filled up with water when it rained -- leftover from the efforts of sappers to blow up the trenches and tunnel networks. In the woods -- one pine tree planted for ever Canadian soldier killed at Vimy -- unexploded shells worked their way to the surface almost daily, so sheep were used to keep the grass trimmed. Every so often, some hapless sheep would blow himself or herself to kingdom come -- and every so often, some foolish picnicker would come running to the guides to tell us about a strange metal object that at first had looked like a great flat surface to use as a table, and then...
So, I still read a lot about World War I. Not everything, especially this year, when so many new books about the Great War are hitting shelves to mark the centenary of its outbreak. Still, enough that over the years, I've found some favorites, both in fiction and nonfiction. Here are a few of 'em -- and be aware, they're not going to be the conventional histories. Those, I figure, you can find under your steam.
Really, if you're interested in World War I, you shouldn't be without this book. Not exactly obscure -- Modern Library named it one of the best 100 NonFiction works of the 20th Century -- it's still not mainstream. But it's riveting. Think of it as cultural history. What was the war like for those in the trenches? How did it transform their sense of who they were and how they fit into society, and how was that reflected in their writings, from their letters and diaries to their poems? How did the language itself change as the war progressed?
Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
This flows logically from Fussell's book -- it's about the birth of modernism, and the way that the destructive urge altered and fundamentally reshaped the forces of creativity. If you're curious about Dorothea Dix, George Grosz, and the art, music and literature of the interwar years, and how the bloodbath of 1914-1918 led to new artistic trends, this is the book to read. (And as I write this, it's only $2.99 on Kindle...)
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally
This novel was one of my favorite books of 2013. It's the story of the two Durance sisters, both nurses, Australians, who serve first at Gallipoli and then at the Western Front. There are tensions underpinning their own relationship but the war forces them to form new bonds and brings them a sense of at least being useful, along with a sense of despair. "Young men were smashed for obscure purposes and repaired and smashed again," Naomi Durance muses. It's not about conflict itself, but life on the fringes of war, dealing with its detritus. "There's no rest for anyone until it's all over," one character points out, testily. "Unless it's the sort of final rest they dish out in Flanders and on the Somme." And there's no easy sentimentality here, either. And don't miss Keneally's other book about the Great War, the equally powerful, but very different, Gossip From the Forest. It's the chronicle of the 'negotiations' leading up to the Armistice in the Forest of Compiegne, which took effect on November 11, 1918. It's a heartbreaking and powerful novel.
Back to the Front by Stephen O'Shea
O'Shea set out to literally walk the length of the entire Western Front, from Flanders to the Swiss border, and chronicled what he saw and thought along the way. It's a slim book, but still thought-provoking and well worth a look.
Regeneration (the Trilogy) by Pat Barker
Yes, this trilogy -- especially the first book -- deserves every single speck of hype and buzz associated with it. (My least favorite is probably the middle book, but, whatever -- it's still a remarkable achievement.) Barker has captured the horrors of the final years of the war and the literal insanity of persisting in the same strategies, throwing men into no man's land in vain, and contrasted it with the treatment of men rendered insane by these military strategies by William Rivers of Craiglockhart. What is the real insanity? It's a question Barker poses repeatedly, in myriad ways, in what may be the consummate antiwar novels.
To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild
The senseless of the carnage is a theme of Hochschild's magisterial book as well. He focuses on those who resisted, from the conscientious objectors to the suffragettes, and their conflict with the die-hard loyalists, as well as those, like Kipling, who found their loyalties grievously tested as the years dragged on. Moving, because it sheds light on those whose names and stories should never be forgotten.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
I am a massive fan of Boyden's prose, and it was this novel that converted me. Two Cree Indians are recruited as sharpshooters -- snipers -- for the Canadian army. The novel is told through the eyes of one of them being taken home to his own community, horribly wounded, addicted to morphine and written off by the army as likely to die. A healer from his own community who has known both boys since their childhood is taking him back -- the journey of the title -- but it's also a journey toward an attempted healing. What did Xavier and Elijah do -- and what did it cost them? It's a brutal, gritty tale, but unbelievably compelling.
The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer
"What passing bells for these who die as cattle"? Wilfred Owen wrote in his "Anthem for Doomed Youth. Doomed himself, Owen is commemorated in war memorials -- and in the pages of this book, which examines the ways in which we remember. It's personal journalism, and it transcends raw facts and figures without ever tumbling over into banalities or sentimental claptrap. It's brilliant, pure and simple. Read it, don't read my rhapsodies about it.
Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
Perhaps an outlier in such august company, but I wanted to steer away from the obvious suspects -- Remarque, Brittain, Enid Bagnold, etc. In this novel, the war is the backdrop, but an integral part of the story, because it's about suspicion that surrounds foreigners/outsiders in times of war. The foreigners, in this case, are DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, cousin of a German war ace, Baron von Richthofen, and the setting is the remote tip of Cornwall, Zennor, near St. Ives, where the Lawrences sought refuge from war fever. Not up to the high standards of Dunmore's two later novels, The Siege and Betrayal, but something different.
Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan
Why, oh why, after such carnage, did Europe go back and do it all over again only two decades later? The answer lies in the Versailles treaty, and no one is better than Margaret Macmillan to lay out the whys and wherefores of the bastardized compromises and victor's justice that continue to shape the world we inhabit today. (Just look at the Middle East...)
A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
Another outlier, but again, worth trying. Made into a so-so film, it was a great popular novel, in which the intrepid Mathilde Donnay sets out to find out just what happened to her fiancé, Manech, one day in the trenches when five men were shot for cowardice. Was he one? Could he have survived? It's no easy task, Mathilde is no easy heroine to like or admire. But she bulldozes her way to a truth of sorts.
If you live in the United States, you can't buy a poppy to wear on November 11. But maybe you can pause for a moment of silence at 11 a.m. and remember the 16 million who died and the 20 million wounded during the 1914-1918 war -- and the millions more who died in the wars it spawned and continues to spawn.
|The most of the Tower of London, filled with ceramic poppies, one for every one of the nearly 900,000 British fatalities in World War I.|