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A wonderful emotive book
on 3 November 2011
Operational Great War historians may flinch away from books that focus on the trauma and suffering caused by the war. But their analytical work is undermined without an understanding and acceptance of the shock wave that ripples out from the dead soldier at the front to encompass his whole family back at home. An impact that in its longevity far outlasts the momentary agony and oblivion experienced by the dead themselves. This intriguingly titled book embraces the study of that prolonged anguish head-on.
Richard van Emden looks at the war through a cast of characters which encompass the doomed soldiers and their hapless families. We follow them throughout the war: enlistment and separation, the precious periods of leave, the struggle to survive in reduced circumstances without a man in the house, the catastrophic news of death and the efforts to come terms with that loss. Many of the stories are moving as evinced by this sad account of how Lucy Neale was parted from her father as he returned to the front from leave.
"It was a ten-minute walk, I suppose, but we didn't hurry, we just I walked slowly up the hill and I really can't remember what we talked about. I held on to his hand so tight, and when we got to the top, he said, "I won't take you any further, you must go back now, and I'll stand here and watch you until you're out of sight," and he put his arms round me and held me so close to him; I remember feeling how rough that khaki uniform was. "You must go now, wave to me at the bottom, won't you?" I went, I left him standing there and I went down the hill and I kept looking back and waving and he was still there, just standing there. I got to the bottom and then I'd got to turn off to go to where we lived, so I stopped and waved to him and he gestured as much as to say, "Go on, you must go home now," ever so gently gestured and then he waved and he was still waving when I went, and that was the last time I ever saw him."
Another character, Lily Baron, was ninety-eight when she finally got to visit her father's grave at Bourlon Wood in France. He had been killed during the Battle of Cambrai back in November 1917 when she was just five years old. She left a little note on his grave, "Thank-you for five years of real happiness - I've missed you all my life." Thousands of small-scale human tragedies like these are the reality behind the mayhem on the Western Front. Every attack, every heroic defence, every routine day in the trenches - they all killed fathers, husbands, sons and lovers. This is the inevitable brutality of war.
Richard van Emden has chosen his sources well, mingling his own research and interviews with the stories of better known characters such as Harry Lauder and Vera Brittain. They collectively tell the story. The agonies suffered and the desperate hopes that the 'missing' might still be alive. The activities of heartless confidence tricksters such as the nefarious Edward Page Gaston who promised to use 'contacts' in Germany to track down missing soldiers. The time-honoured crutches of religion and its disreputable cousin, spiritualism. The charlatan 'mediums' who claimed to be able to contact the dead. The harsh practicalities and grinding hard work of life bereft of a husband or father. Many wives faced the harrowing question of whether to stay true to their dead husband in poverty, or marry again in the hope of a more comfortable life. Their children had to choose whether to accept or reject a stepfather arriving to replace a beloved dead father. There are many accounts describing the overwhelming emotions of post-war visits to battlefields and wonderfully kept war graves. Overall the process of burial and commemoration is very well covered with a good deal of interesting material on the decision not to repatriate the corpses of the dead and the imaginative gesture of allowing the retrieval and burial in state of the 'Unknown Soldier' to stand as 'everyman' for all the missing.
Finally this book achieves all this without feeling the need to appoint scapegoats for the deaths at the front. There are no ringing condemnations of 'butchers and bunglers' to undo this carefully weighted and nuanced account. Throughout it is tacitly accepted that if Britain is at war with the continental power of Imperial Germany backed by huge military resources and with millions marching to war then the consequences will inevitably be horrendous. Richard van Emden in other words is a mature historian who has performed a valuable role in drawing our attention to the human consequences of war: a lesson that surely even the most ardent of armchair generals should never be allowed to forget.
Peter Hart, November 2011