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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
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on 3 November 2011
The Quick and the Dead looks at the desperate plight of soldiers in France and simultaneously, the struggle of the families at home, which to my knowledge hasn't been written about before. The book describes what it meant to be a soldier separated from his family, wondering whether they would ever see them again. At the same time their wives struggling under the enormous burden of trying to hold a family together, while always fearing that knock on the door and the telegram that their husband had died.

What makes this book are the interviews with the last children of those who fell in action. Emden has interviewed perhaps two dozen children and their stories are heartbreaking. There is an interview with Clara Whitfield, who is aged 104, speaking of the work she had to undertake after the death of her father, the old hands she had as a ten year old scrubbing floors to supplement the family income. Her last words, 'Life! I could tell you something but I won't bore you with my tears', brought a lump to my throat.

The book delves into areas I knew nothing about. There are the fraudsters preying on the desperation of families, promising to find missing men in return for money, and the families themselves, distraught that their loved ones would remian overseas and who took it upon themselves to go and dig up their relatives in the hope of smuggling them home.

For me it is the living testimony that is so gripping, the tragedy of war brought home and the lives of the children who had to suddenly grow up. The loss never goes away. 'Thank you for the five years of happiness,' wrote one 98 year old on a wreath to her father, 'I have missed you all my life'.

I loved this book and would definitely recomend it.
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on 15 June 2012
I cannot recommend this book highly enough,it should be read in every secondary school.The massive impact the great war had on families back home is brought to life from the letters and memories within.
It is very hard emotionally to read,but for me, it really opened up the reality of the loss, the fear , the dread and hopelessness of the soldiers and their families and the situation they were thrown into in such a war.It is a heartbreaking but essential read.These men and their families ,who sacrificed so much, must never be forgotten.
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on 17 April 2012
I romped through this book, gripped by it. Drawn from interviews, letters and diaries, it gives an insight into the impact of the Great War on soldiers and families, their grief and stoicism as well as the sheer enormity of the conflict undertaking from the basics - the peacetime order for boots was 245,000 pairs; in the autumn of 1914 the army looked for 6.5 million - to the return of the dead's belongings. Fascinating and swallowingly moving.
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on 31 December 2015
After a dry spell of not reading any Great War related books, this was on my 'to read' list and I finally got around to reading it. Took a Kindle version with me to read on a battlefield trip to the Somme, but didn't get around to reading it until I returned and it was probably not the best time to read it as I was feeling very emotional about it all. Will buy a paper copy at some point as a 'keeper' for my bookshelves

An excellent book about an aspect of the war that has interested me for a while. The effect the war had on those left behind and I can see why the 'pebble in the pond' effect of this terrible period in time has rippled down through the years and had an impact on subsequent generations including family members of mine

Thought I wouldn't be able to get past the part about Lily Baron, the ninety-eight year old lady visiting her father's grave at Bourlon Wood. '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' That really affected me, as did other accounts and I had to stop reading for a time.

There is a lot of previously unpublished source material from letters and diaries etc.
There is a chapter on The Missing and how so many were lost and remain so today and the heart-rending and fruitless search for family members for the loved ones who never came home.

It's easy to forget while researching individual service personnel that for every name, rank and number there were family members back home who suffered terribly because of their loss and not only emotionally but financially too. This bit sums it up for me, written by Private Stephen Graham '...For dying was not the hardest thing; the hardest thing was plunging one's home into sorrow.'

*We came across the grave of Roland Leighton by chance on a recent trip and the amount of crosses next to it drew our attention to it and then I remembered who he was
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on 7 November 2011
The immediate horrors of war are clear for all to see. During the Great War, this was more evident than ever before as millions of men paid the ultimate price for fighting for their country and a cause they believed in.

What isn't so immediately obvious are the tragic consequences for those left behind whose lives would never be the same again. This aspect of the War is often overlooked but the implications on the families and communities affected would change the country forever.

In this fascinating book, Richard Van Emden tells the stories of those who were left to cope with the loss of their closest family members; husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were all casualties of the war to end all wars and their loss would be felt by relatives for the rest of their lives.

This is a heart wrenching book and will often leave you extremely touched by the memories of the family members interviewed. This is immediately felt in the book's introduction where Lily Baron remembers her father who she lost at the age of five. Upon visiting his resting place, Lily leaves a wreath and a card saying 'Thank you for five years of real happiness - I've missed you all my life.' It's at this point you swallow hard and the real, incredibly personal, impact of the war becomes even clearer.

There are many similar stories contained and each make for fascinating reading. In an unexpected, but in hindsight obvious contrast, the book also tells the stories of the men whose families were happier without them.

The Quick and the Dead then moves on to the efforts by families to have their relatives brought home for burial and to be commemorated on memorials. Particularly touching are the experiences of those whose family members were shot at dawn who were not able to express their grief in the same way as other families. The loss also marked the first ever battlefield tours, as families visited the sites where their family members fell.

The author captures the contrast of emotions particularly well ranging from the immediate grief and devastation felt, through anger and outrage to the need to remember and commemorate those lost. This need to ensure that lives hadn't been lost for no reason, moved many family members to push to achieve and many of those interviewed express that this need has indeed been the reason for their own personal successes.

As with all Richard Van Emden books, the material is all new and won't have been read elsewhere. No other historian puts so much work into uncovering new stories, both through interviews with living relatives and by scouring archives up and down the country for new and original material.

The Quick and the Dead is an absolutely superb book, incredibly moving but also shocking at times. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Great War but is also so much more than that. It is an important piece of Britain's social history, often overlooked, that marks and explains how the war would change the country forever.

Extremely highly recommended!
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Unlike most histories of WW1, this book focuses very much more on the families left behind than the experiences of the soldiers at the Front. Inevitably the fighting at the Front plays a role in the narrative, but the focus is very much on the experience of the women left alone to cope at home - ranging from the financial support received from the government, the all-too-brief periods of leave, the heartrending official notifications, the uncertainty of the 'missing', the debates and controversies over the decision not to repatriate the dead, the varying means of grieving.

Like all of van Emden's books, it draws heavily on primary sources and survivor testimony, which, to my mind at least, makes the narrative that much more personal and moving. Reading the words of soldiers' letters home or the memoirs of grieving fathers or the recollections of men and women who scarcely knew the fathers who never came home, makes the soldiers featured here real people, rather than the amorphous grey mass of soldiery that feature in so many histories of WW1.

Unlike WW2, where the Home Front really was a Front in the war and there were no lines to shelter behind, civilians in WW1 were to a large extent cushioned from the horror of Belgium and France; which is not to say that these fathers and mothers and wives and children were not suffering too, in their own way. Van Emden infuses these accounts with real dignity and pathos, highlighting that neither soldiers nor their families could really comprehend the experiences the other went though in wartime, but the pain felt was no less real, and no less lifelong, for that.
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on 14 October 2013
This is a wonderful book. There are no detailed accounts of battles or military campaigns here. Advances and retreats are mentioned only where necessary to the narrative. What matters here is the impact of leaving their families and loved ones on the soldiers of WW1, and the catastrophic effects on those same loved ones following the death or disappearance of their menfolk. This is spelled out in letters, diaries, documents and first-hand memories and is all the more moving for that. The personal side of war can so often be overlooked, but the consequences of a battlefield death can cause long-term devastation for those left behind, and be felt several generations later, as I have discovered through my own family history. As well as fascinating information regarding the problems caused by the huge numbers of men volunteering at the start of WW1, the book also deals sensitively with issues such as death and burial in the field, and also the setting up of the Imperial War Graves Commission, as it was then known. It is a very poignant tribute to men who gave their lives, and to the families who lost their sons, husbands or lovers and it brought a lump to my throat. I'm not sure that this is a war that figures in history lessons today, but it should be, and this book would make an excellent text book for our spoilt youngsters for whom the life of drudgery of those bereaved children would be inconceivable.
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on 31 May 2014
I have read several books about the Great War but this brought tears to my eyes and I had to stop and give myself a rest from it. It was heart breaking. Yet it was compelling reading. The letters from soldier to family and back again was such an insight as to how death was just around the corner at all times and made a knot in my stomach. I felt each soldier and his fate belonged to me personally; had we been born 100 years ago those boys would have been ours My grandmother lost her husband October 1916 after only one year of marriage. His body was never found. I have the letters from the War Office telling her that he was missing and months later that he had to be presumed dead. Cold standard letters. My grandmother being addressed as Madam, so impersonal. Sadly,she never spoke about him. I felt my grandmother's grief on every page.
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on 31 July 2014
This is a fabulous but very saddening book. It is an easy read, being well written. It is different fromother WW1 factual books as it really goes behind the scenes somewhat to the experiences of families at home and also those at war on the Western Front. It does it with so much ease for the reader, which is testament to the author's research and his skill in transferring the information to book format. A wonderful piece of text to treasure. I believe that this book should be used in schools as an educating tool as it provides a picture that no other book, at least that I know of, produces. It would be especially useful if read prior to, or after, a WW1 War Graves visit.
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