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on 2 November 2010
There have been one or two books in recent years written about animals in war, but across all wars and not specific to the 1914-1918 conflict. Even then, they have tended to look purely at those animals in service to man, and in no great depth.
What I found so fascinating about Tommy's Ark is that it looks at all creatures great and small on the Western front, from those animals and insects that were indigenous to the land, right through to those kept in private collections and zoos and whose `homes' were overtaken by the war. Many of them ended up as pets and mascots, others were humanely shot or sadly left to starve.
The thing that gripped me was how the book relates the animals to the human condition and experience, so one man watches the struggles of a spider as the percussion of the exploding shells knocks it repetitively from the dugout roof, while another watches a worm climbing up his trouser leg during a severe bombardment and tells the worm how his own body is not quite ready to be consumed. Simply amazing human observations during intense periods of stress.
Trench life was mainly static and so men were inactive for long periods of time. They were entranced by the wildlife about them; the birds that adapted to trench life and lived in dugouts alongside the men; the frogs that became trapped in communication trenches that were trodden into a slippery slime, although one officer went out of his way to lift them from the duckboard floor. Men, longing for home, watched birds that flew west and speculated how they might soon be sitting on garden gates in England, others watched butterflies as they flitted along the trenches, entranced by their beauty.
The seamier side is well covered too: the bleeding to death of a panic stricken horse in transit to France is shocking, as are the descriptions of maggots trailing from the bodies of dead Germans. Horses and mules have their stories told as do the dogs and pigeons, as you would expect, but then so do the voles, robins, wasps and bees. That is why I feel that the book breaks totally new ground. The chapters are divided chronologically into each year of the war, with the author looking at how the landscape changed with each passing year, and how the creatures adapted to the changes. There is also an excellent collection of photographs, almost all of which are new to me. A really excellent read and one to be dipped into many times. Really recommended.
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on 11 November 2010
This latest offering from Richard Van Emden is a collection of highly readable accounts relating to the natural world and its relationship to the soldiers of the Great War.
Containing thoroughly entertaining stories, from the really heart warming tales of man's love of animals, to others that made me squirm in horror, I found this book very difficult to put down.
When we read about animals in the Great War, we normally assume that it will relate to either Horses, Mules, Dogs or the occasional Carrier Pigeon, however this book is so much more than this, there are also numerous tales of other species, such as Fish, Cats, Rodents, Maggots, Lice, and even Worms! in all some 61 species are covered.
As the author suggests in his introduction, this book is not just about nature on the Western Front studied in isolation, it is about the human condition in war, explored through the soldiers relationship with the natural world around them.
This work also contains some really superb images, most of which I believe have never been previously published.
All in all, I think this yet another winner from Mr Van Emden, and I thank him for covering a rarely touched subject.
Highly recommended.
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on 5 November 2010
I've always enjoyed everything written by Richard van Emden and Tommy's Ark is no exception. Although a relatively untouched subject from the 14-18 war, it would have been easy just to focus on the obvious horses, pigeons, canaries, mice and mules, but the sheer breadth of wildlife covered in Tommy's Arks is just astounding. Painstaking reseach as ever is a given, but it is really the human-touch of weaving the often deeply-moving stories into the wider experience which is the book's absolute joy and strength.
Tommy's Ark will appeal to a wide range of readers: anyone interested in the Great War but also has a general appeal. An ideal Xmas present for anyone, I would say. The recipient won't be disappointed!
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A lot has been written about the men fighting in the First World War as there have been accounts of General's, eyewitness accounts of the soldiers and of course the historian's cold clinical point of view of the events, but one subject that is rarely mentioned is the little things that made a soldiers life bearable, the animals. Here in this title by eminent historian Richard Van Emden are the heart-warming tales of mascots, of animal tales of them facing the front line and how they all helped the soldiers of both sides such as the cats who would brave no man's land to go from one side to the other for food. It's a unique look at the war from a different viewpoint and it's one that can help to bring the men to life that were on the front, whether it's the English Officer who walked his lion round the trenches or the goats who were mascots to the tank divisions, there's something here for everyone.

This title is wonderfully written and whilst at times harsh it is a slice of frontline life that perhaps very few have ever considered. All in a great addition to any WW1 readers shelves and definitely something unique.
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on 30 October 2011
This book tells the story of animals which lived alongside the soldiers on the Western Front during the first world war. The animals range from cats, dogs, goats, horses to fleas...! The stories illustrate the bond and the depth of feelings which existed between the men at the front and their animals. Horses such as Nancy the cavalry horse, Teddie the Manchester terrier and Landlady the cat - these stories are most touching and heartwarming.

I bought this book at the same time as 'Warrior a real war horse' and in my review there said read it and weep. I say this also for this book but sadly in the true meaning. From the injured animals abandoned by the roadside, the pets left in France due to the cost of quarrantine and for the terrible fate suffered by the majority of horses left in France at the end of the war for whom there was 'no joyous and well-derserved home-coming'. Regarding the fate of the horses I like to think in a more enlightened age (now) that many more would be brought home. This is not a happy book - I felt very sad reading it but am glad it was written as it demonstrated the love the men had for their animals in what must have been hell on earth a lot of the time and also so people do not forget the suffering endured alike by the men and animals who were there.
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on 14 December 2013
My upbringing reading and teaching depicted WW1 as brutal, dirty, mean and deadly. And indeed it was all these things without doubt.

But this very well written book shows that it was not always so as the troops showed kindness to animals and observed them in the wild as well as noting plants and birds that had escaped what was otherwise nearly universal destruction. Mr van Emden has written a very moving account of the gentler side of war, the lulls between going "over the top" which were many and allowed for the interaction with animals and nature.

I would go as far as to say that this gripping, easy reading book is a really valuable historical document and should be read by anyone who has any interest in the Great War. It is fascinating, thrilling and a great antidote to the "blood and guts" style of describing trench life. As miserable as the trenches must have been, and you can still see preserved ones alongside the awesomely large graveyards (white crosses for the allies, black crosses for the Germans), this book really explains how a few simple natural things gave the soldiers the will to keep going. Thank you so much for this brilliant book.
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on 7 December 2013
I am a relatively slow reader (3 or 4 pages late at night) but this book had me looking forward to each page.

A splendid read, not one page was dull, how lucky we were to have such brave humans and animals on our side!
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on 3 January 2014
This book looks at the relationships between Soldiers and Animals during the War, it manages to capture the sheer importance of the diversion and comfort that even small observations of nature made to nervous and battle weary troops separated from home and loved ones, the displaced affection for small creatures cats & dogs particularly but not solely limited to the usual array of pets found in normal circumstances. It speaks volumes about humans that they can be so concerned about the welfare of even small animals and birds, whilst in the middle of such wholesale slaughter of their fellow human beings. It is touching and often sad at times, it reveals both the best and sometimes the worst of human nature.
It is another in the series of excellent books by Richard van Emden that truly capture the personal nature of the first world war for the "Tommy's" well worth the read as we approach e 100th Anniversary of the start of the War to end all wars!
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on 17 November 2012
I've read lots of books on WW1 and I'm also an animal lover and abhorrent of animal cruelty. The animals were forced into the position so it wasn't cruel but a necessity under the terrible circumstances. A fascinating read, a tear-jerker at times. A very good, interesting read ...............
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on 8 December 2013
This is the first book about this side of WWI I've ever read. Very interesting to me because it give insight into the human feelings of those serving inthe trenches.
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