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Marjorie's War: Four Families in the Great War 1914-1918
Marjorie's War: Four Families in the Great War 1914-1918
by Charles Messenger
Edition: Paperback
Price: 22.95

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marjorie's War, 10 Sep 2012
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It is unusual for history to provide us with both sides of a correspondence but that is what we have in Marjorie's War. From an archive of 800 letters Charles Fair and his father have interwoven the stories of four middle class Edwardian families between 1914 and 1919. None of these families had any military background but, between them, they sent nine men to the Western Front. In due time all of them were commissioned and consequently their letters were not censored. Their families retained them and, somehow, many of the letters posted to the front from fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, fiancées and eventually wives.

The lady of the title is Marjorie Secretan who had become friendly with Toby Dodgson in 1913. The authors trace their increasingly passionate relationship through their correspondence as he is commissioned into the 8th Green Howards and she becomes a VAD nurse. For those who think that Edwardian England was all stiff upper lips - think again. Even nice girls were at it - I refer, of course, to Marjorie's confession that she now thinks nothing of lighting cigarettes in public which demonstrates how the war brought standards of social intercourse to new depths of depravity. And nice girls would certainly not write about, let alone indulge in, the other sort, would they...

The authors provide background to the families as they enter the story and summarise it again at the end but readers will probably prefer to follow the characters chronologically to see who will make it through to the end.

As officers our correspondents get leave much more frequently than the soldiers - generally every four or five months and are fortified by innumerable hampers from Fortnum & Masons (the shop must have made a fortune out of the war). They have come from jobs in the city or were schoolmasters at public schools; the families are prosperous, living in country rectories and all appear to own cars. Some young ladies are bold enough to drive on their own - no test is yet necessary. We have vivid descriptions of their feelings about meeting loved ones again and then the downers as they take the boat train back. It seems to have been possible to write and post a letter from just about anywhere.

The people living through the Great War were quite aware that great changes were taking place in society and after it was over a great many writers put pen to paper on the subject. But all of them - Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth, Richard Aldington in Death of a Hero, Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That - were writing with hindsight. The same is true of Ford Madox Ford's acclaimed tetralogy Parade's End currently being shown on BBC. In this correspondence we read about the reactions of people to the war as it happened. I was a little surprised at just how frank the correspondents were in their descriptions of conditions in the trenches. They downplay any involvement in a big battle - these were very rare events but very bloody when they did happen - their preoccupations are largely with getting leave, their families and the wellbeing of wounded relatives. A little surprisingly for hostilities only officers, they are also quite concerned about promotion. They write vividly about the mud, the cold, the hutted camps out of the line, the monotony of administration, the staff and their superiors but only rarely about the Boche, peace talks or the outcome of the war - of which there never seems to be any doubt of victory.

The authors have added linking text about the historical background to the correspondence with maps and dozens of footnotes about the individuals mentioned in it. The whole provides a very coherent picture of the experience of the families and the sorts of people with whom they come into contact as the British Army teaches itself how to fight a modern continental war with people who start with no military experience.

On the other hand, some readers may prefer to concentrate on the passionate love story between Marjorie and the men in her war which runs like a thread through the book.

Readers may be a little surprised that there is not much discussion about the purposes of the war. The Boche have invaded Belgium and France and they need to be thrown out. Clearly, the correspondents have no idea how long it is going to take to defeat the Germans and their hopes come up when they have a success - even after the incredibly bloody battle at High Wood in July 1916 Charles Fair writes a few days later "we hope to go back for a few days' rest but the Hun must be kept on the run..."

This is a remarkable book. I cannot think of another like it for the picture it paints of individuals caught up in titanic events and their lives, passionate loves and, inevitably, wounds and deaths.


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