Category Archives: Great War

Book Review – Some Desperate Glory

Some Desperate Glory

Max Egremont

Picador (2015)

Paperback 335 pp  £9.99

ISBN-10: 0374280320

ISBN-13: 9780374280321

This book is trying to do too much at once. It’s a history of the Great War, a book of biographies, a poetry book and, cynically, a book to take advantage of the centenary.

As eagle-eyed readers will have deduced from the £1 sticker in the picture, booksellers obviously found it difficult to shift.

My first observation, before even opening it, is simply that I can’t think why any writer would re-use such a well known title. I know it’s a good quote, but when I hear it I always think of Edwin Campion Vaughan’s memoirs. It’s confusing, to say the least.

It was heavy going to start, though it did get easier towards the end, and proved to be worth the effort. Trying to fit history, biography and poetry into a flowing narrative is tough, and it isn’t helped when you have to fit the origins of the war in too. It flows better towards the end: by then the history is simpler and many of the poets are dead  or recovering from wounds.

There are eleven of them in the beginning – in the army, joining the army or thinking about joining the army. By the Armistice there are five left. It’s a tragedy, but it does help the flow of the book.

Finally, why just eleven poets? The eleven selected subjects are all listed on the War Poet Memorial in Westminster Abbey. What’s wrong with the other five? No Aldington, no Binyon, no Gibson, no Jones and no Read.

Then of course, there is the question of the war poets who weren’t amongst the 16 on the memorial. I won’t try to address the question, as it would double the length of the review and the internet is already bulging with material of dubious worth.

Anyway, to cut to the chase. I enjoyed it in the end, though I did struggle at first. It felt like I was being lectured at times, and the way the narrative was interwoven made it difficult to get into a reading rhythm. It was worth reading for the information and context, but wasn’t really a pleasurable read.

I’m currently halfway through reading And All Roads Lead to France. It concentrates on Thomas and poetry preceding the war, so it isn’t a direct replacement for Egremont’s book. But it is a pleasure to read, and proves that it is possible to cover a broad area and still keep it readable.

I’d recommend Some Desperate Glory as an overview of some of the poetry of the Great War with the proviso that it is limited in scope and you will have to work at it.

 

 

What’s in a Name?

I have often thought that it would be fun to change my name by deed poll.  The change I would make would be to alter my middle name to Danger, then I could honestly say “Danger is my middle name,”.

It’s not the strongest joke in the world but it would amuse me, even though the most dangerous thing about me is my full fat diet.

The first site I looked at rather put me off, as they revealed that they have at least one application a week to add Danger as a middle name. I was hoping to be a trail blazer rather than join a movement.

Then I read this article and started to think of the downside of a novelty name.

The original draft used the expression “final nail in the coffin”. I cut it in the final version, but it reminded me of an unusual name I once saw.

Pine-Coffin is the name. There are three Pine-Coffins listed by the Commonwealth Graves Commission, which is where I first saw the name. One was killed in the Second World, a second is commemorated on the Archangel Memorial to those killed in the North Russia campaign who have no known grave. The third died at home in 1919 aged 52 – his son had an interesting career in WW2.

The Great War List

The Great War List

Captain W E Johns

Percy Toplis

Charles Lightoller

Ernest Hemingway (Nominated by https://salmonbrookfarms.wordpress.com/ )

John Francis Cecil Knight (Nominated by https://derrickjknight.com/ )

C.E.Montague (Nominated by https://beatingthebounds.wordpress.com/ )

Walter Tull (Nominated by https://johnknifton.com/ )

Leslie Buswell (Nominated by https://pacificparatrooper.wordpress.com/ )

After thinking of Harry Patch and General Arthur Currie I’ve decided to leave them for a bit and see how things develop while as they are both quite well known, in fact Harry Patch had a book written about him.

Any more nominations?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hedd Wyn – poet

The picture is the Hedd Wyn statue at Trawsfynydd. He’s probably best described as a poet who served in the war, rather than a war poet. He was killed on the same day as the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who probably can be described as a war poet. I can see a lot more books ahead, as I need to correct a deficiency in my reading in this area. They are both buried in the same cemetery.

Neither of them appear on the War Poets’ Memorial in Westminster Abbey, so they are going on the list.

I’ve also thought of Edith Cavell and Captain Fryatt, but I’m not sure. Edith Cavell is very well known (she even has a car park in Peterborough named after her) and Captain Fryatt also seems pretty well commemorated for an “unknown” hero.

I may list Marie Depage, who I only knew because she was on a commemorative medal with Cavell.

And Thomas Dinesen VC. He was one of three Danes to be awarded the Victoria Cross, but the only one who tried to join the British, French and American armies before being accepted by the Canadians. He’s also the only one with a famous sister.

Who Would You Include?

I was just answering a comment on a previous post – the review of Famous 1914-18 when a question crept up on me. The question is – who would you include?

The authors included A A Milne, George Mallory, Arnold Ridley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Reith, Dennis Wheatley, John Reginald Halliday Christie, C S Lewis, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alexander Fleming, R C Sherriff, B L Montgomery, Ned Parfett,Tom Denning, J R R Tolkien, Winston Churchill, Henry Moore, J B Priestley, Harold Macmillan and Peter Llewelyn Davies.

It seems that the over 35s do best when asked if they recognise the names. Teenagers do worst, but it would, to be fair, be a well-informed teenager who recognised more than Tolkien. I recognised all except Ned Parfett and Peter Llewelyn Davies (which was embarrassing as I’d only just read about him in The Final Whistle as the nephew of Guy du Maurier).  But I am over 35, and I do spend too much time reading about the Great War.

The rules of selection are simple – they need to have been involved in the Great War and they need to be reasonably interesting. It would probably help if they survived.

I’ll start with three to consider.

Captain W E Johns – wrote about Biggles though he wasn’t a fighter pilot or a Captain. He landed at Gallipoli in 1915 and saw a variety of active service before being shot down and wounded whilst on a bombing mission in 1918. After the war he was the recruiting officer who signed Lawrence of Arabia up for the RAF.

Percy Toplis – better known as the Monocled Mutineer, though that is probably inaccurate. He was born near Alfreton so is reasonably local, and was once arrested by the ancestor of one of our neighbours for attempting to defraud a jeweller in Hucknall.

Charles Lightoller joining the Merchant Navy as a thirteen-year-old apprentice Lightoller endured shipwreck, fire at sea and malaria. His career started to look up when he went to sea again, ending up on the RMS Titanic. He was played by Kenneth More in A Night to Remember.  For those of you wondering who played him in other films, don’t bother – they aren’t worth it.

 

Rather than run on, I’ll let you click the link to read about his exploits in the war, and at Dunkirk in 1940.

 

 

Book Review: Famous 1914-18

Famous – 1914 – 18

by Richard van Emden and Victor Piuk

Pen & Sword Military (2009)

Paperback 352 pp  £10.99

ISBN-10: 1848841973

ISBN-13: 978-1848841970

Sorry it’s another Great War book, I’ll try something lighter for the next review, I promise.

It’s a slightly misleading title, as the people in the book weren’t really famous between 1914 and 1918. With two exception they were famous after the war, and this is what they did in the years of the war. The exceptions are Ned Parfett (the newspaper boy from the Titanic picture – who was famous in 1912) and Peter Llewelyn Davies, known as the boy who inspired the character of Peter Pan. Davies, after the death of his parents was brought up by four guardians, including J M Barrie and Guy du Maurier (see previous review).

I have to admit I was also thrown by the name Tom Denning, before it clicked that this meant Lord Denning, one time Master of the Rolls. I’m not really sure how famous he is these days, though he was hardly out of the news at one time. That’s the problem with this sort of book, where do you draw the line?

The subjects need to have been reasonably famous after the war, but quite a few people with post-war fame have been left out. That’s because they need to have left information about their wartime exploits – there’s not been a great deal of digging out original material here. So, post-war fame and memoirs seem to be the requirements.

That means Jack Warner has been left out, as has Victor McLaglen and Victor Silvester. I suppose they just aren’t famous enough, despite interesting wartime careers. To be honest, I didn’t realise how much Silvester had packed in until I just checked the reference. I knew he’d participated in a firing squad, which was why I looked him up: the rest was all new to me.

To be fair, I don’t want necessarily want a lot of original research, I’m happy with an entertaining book, and that’s what I got.

It also helped me out with a question hanging over A A Milne, who was criticised for his unsoldierly manner in a book of war poetry I was reading recently.  It left me feeling he’d been a bit of a slacker, but it’s clear from Famous 1914 – 18 that he did his share, and did it well.

It’s not a fault of the book, but if like me you were interested in reading more about John Laurie (who served in the Honourable Artillery Company during the war) you will, like me, be disappointed. He isn’t in, despite the write-up in the Amazon blurb. I wrote to tell them, using the button for reporting inaccurate content but so far it’s still there.

So, as long as you don’t want information on John Laurie, it’s a good read, and, because of the length of the chapters, easy to dip in and out. For the Dad’s Army fans out there, Arnold Ridley and his service in two World Wars is covered.

Amongst others it covers C S Lewis, J R R Tolkein, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce (next to each other in the book as they were in the post-war Holmes films) and Christie of Rillington Place fame.  I won’t give you a list of all the names, as it will spoil the surprise…

Book Review: The Final Whistle

The Final Whistle – The Great War in Fifteen Players

by Stephen Cooper

History Press 2012, this edition Spellmount 2013

Paperback 347pp    Paperback £9.99     Oxfam £1.99

ISBN-13: 978 0 7524 9900 0

I’ve always been interested in rugby and the Great War and I did some research on rugby internationals who were killed in the two World Wars, but it came to nothing because (a) I’m lazy and (b) Nigel Mccrery wrote Into Touch.

This book takes a slightly different approach, looking at the lives of fifteen members of Rosslyn Park rugby club who were killed in the Great War. They represent about 20% of the club’s fatalities during the war (72 killed from 350 members or ex-members who served in the war).

I’ve always liked this sort of book, with stories that turn statistics into people, and I’ve always liked rugby, as I’m not fashioned by nature for games of grace and skill. On the quiet I’m also an admirer of Edgar Mobbs, a well known player of the time. However, this isn’t about Mobbs, as he didn’t play for Rosslyn Park.

It is about Charles Bayley, great-nephew of General Gordon, who was one of the first two Royal Flying Corps officers to be killed in action in the Great War, on 22nd August 1914 or Guy du Maurier, regular soldier and playwright (yes, he was one of that du Maurier family), who killed in action in 1915 at the age of 49. It’s about other people too, including international players, an Olympic silver medallist and a VC winner.

Don’t expect a cross section of British casualties though; it’s about officers or people who could have been officers. Rugby was a game for people from good schools, and they were required to name their school when applying for membership. That, as the author admits, was a great help in doing the research James Urquhart is an exception to this, listing Grimsby Municipal College as his school (though he did end up at Cambridge University). In truth he wasn’t even a Rosslyn Park player, he just seems to have given them as his team when he played for the Barbarians (captained by Edgar Mobbs) versus Shoreham Camp. He only gets a couple of lines.

Despite this, it’s an excellent view of the Great War and rugby of the period, including the Western Front, Gallipolli, aircraft, ships, tanks and balloons, and obviously written by a man with a good command of the subject and a great enthusiasm.

 

 

The most famous medal in the world

There are probably several contenders for this title. For the purposes of this post I will suggest that the most famous medal in the world is Siegfried Sassoon’s Military Cross. There’s a lot written about Sassoon’s decorations – some people claiming he won a bar to his MC, and others that he was recommended for a DSO and even a VC. Be that as it may, he was given an MC, and, according to the legend, he threw it in the Mersey when he decided to make his protest against the continuation of the war.

I haven’t seen the film Regeneration but I’m told that Sassoon tears the medal from his tunic and throws it in the water.

It’s a good story, though it isn’t true. That’s the trouble with legends, and as they say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The novel Regeneration is quite clear that it’s only the tunic ribbon that gets thrown away and in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer Sassoon says:

I ripped the M. C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility.

So, what did happen to the medal?

It finally came to light in 2007 when a member of the family went through a trunk in the attic and found the MC in its case, along with an ID disc, a revolver and “some poetry medals”. It was put up for auction “on behalf of the family” with an estimate of £25,000 (about 100 times more than an MC without the Sassoon connection at the time).

However, it seems that not all the family agreed and it was withdrawn from the sale, later turning up with his Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

In case you find it off-putting to discuss fame and bravery in terms of cash, don’t. As an ex-antiques dealer I can tell you nobody else does. In fact, many of the recipients sell their own medals. As the links show, Sassoon wasn’t much bothered about his medals, and apparently told the family to sell them.

He never bothered to claim his campaign medals, which were eventually claimed by his son. They were duly put up for auction with his CBE and made £4,375 despite the fact he was dead before the campaign medals were issued so they had no personal link to him. Again, this would be about 100 times more than you’d normally expect.

If you think that’s a lot, how about his hockey medal? It was sold with the final contents of Heytesbury House (after the building itself had been sold) and then sold again in 2012 for £880.

I could go on. In fact I’ve probably gone on too long anyway.

There are plenty of catalogues of around relating to sales of Sassoon’s property (he seems to have had a lot of stuff) if you search for them, including his Point to Point Cups and hunting coats – Wooley and Wallis 27th October 2010 if you’re interested. (I just had a look through their last militaria sale and see they recently sold Lord Kitchener’s tea cosy for £600).

Just one final note – when Cambridge University bought his papers, seven boxes of them, they paid £1.25 million. That really is a lot of money for the sort of stuff Julia makes me throw away.