WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


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WW1 Book Review: Shell Shocked Britain

104520In the 1980s I interviewed more than 350 Great War veterans. Then it was seventy years since events on the Somme, at Arras or Ypres and the veterans were old men but fit and most lived in their own homes. Some I got to know very well and gradually I began to recognise the signs of men who had seen things most could never even imagine. One I used to visit regularly  opened the door to me with the phrase ‘I fought the Battle of the Somme in my bed again last night’. Another had regular flashbacks while we spoke, would pause and seeing the face of a young man before him, mirroring his own young face seven decades before, would ask me ‘what mob did you fight with chum?’ As so the question of how war service affects people at the time and in later life has always interested me. There have been titles before but this new work by Suzie Grogan takes a fresh and most welcome approach to the subject.

The book takes us on a fascinating journey from the background to shell shock through to how the ideals of what a man should be often contributed to how men broke down under battle fatigue, afraid they would ‘let the side down’. For me of greater interest were the chapters looking at the influence of shell shock on British society beyond the Great War. It exposes just how many broke down in the same that veterans of modern wars have done in recent decades but now the recognition of PTSD has made this more acceptable and less hidden. The work also looks at spiritualism and the rise and popularity of this both during and especially after the war: so the book clearly identifies that ‘shell shock’ was not just about men who served at the front but the psychological effects of loss and trauma manifested itself among civilians though practices like this.

Suzie Grogan’s book is a truly fascinating and most welcome addition to our knowledge of the subject of war neurasthenia and indeed WW1; it is well written, superbly argued and easy to understand. Thoroughly recommended and a most welcome publication casting light on yet another little known or understood aspect of the Great War.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.

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New WW1 Books From Pen & Sword

A round-up of some current WW1 books from military publishers Pen & Sword.

Breaking The Fortress Line 1914 by Clayton Donnell (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-84884-813-9, 225pp, Illustrated, £19.99)

For many British readers the Great War started at Mons on 23rd August 1914, but in fact the fighting started many weeks before as the German Schlieffen Plan took the conflict into Eastern France and Belgium. Both Belgium and France had invested heavily in fortifications before 1914 and these were considered state of the art and almost impregnable. German tactics and weaponry would prove otherwise and this new book looks at the battles for the forts in some details from the attack on the defences around Liege in the opening moves right up to the attack on Antwerp, which involved British troops from the Royal Naval Division in October 1914. A well written  and detailed account, illustrated with some superb photographs and good maps. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Public Schools And The Great War by Anthony Seldon & David Walsh (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78159-308-0,317pp, Illustrated, £25.00)

Recent newspaper articles and documentaries have focussed on what a catastrophe the Great War was for the middle and upper classes and this book looks in detail at how British public schools were affected by the events of the war and also the terrible scale of losses among old boys. It also looks at the service and death of schoolmasters, often forgotten among the long lists of old boys who died, and examines the question of the ‘Lost Generation’. A good contribution to our knowledge of this important aspect of Great War history. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Teenage Tommy by Richard Van Emden (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78303-278-7, 178pp, Illustrated, £19.99)

Richard Van Emden is one of our best oral historians having interviewed hundreds of Great War veterans and incorporated their memoirs into many of his excellent publications. This is a reprint of a book from 1996 but a most welcome one as it chronicles the story of Ben Clouting who was a young soldier in the 4th Dragoon Guards and fought in the campaign of 1914. This is a very engaging account of an important period of the Great War and one of the few ordinary soldiers voices from the ranks of a cavalry regiment. Highly recommended and essential reading for any student of WW1. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

Artillery In The Great War by Paul Strong & Sanders Marble (Pen & Sword 2013, ISBN 978-1-78303-012-5, 246pp, paperback £12.99)

Artillery was the kind and queen of the battlefield throughout the Great War. Most soldiers killed and wounded during the war were not shot down by machine-guns or killed with bayonets, but fell to shell fire which swept across the WW1 battlefields in ever increasing amounts by 1918. This excellent study of the use of artillery in the First World War takes a chronological approach and examines not just British artillery doctrine and weaponry, but of all the major combatant nations. It is fully referenced throughout and while not being an ‘easy’ read is recommended reading for anyone with a serious interest in the conduct of the Great War. The book can be ordered from the Pen & Sword website.

 


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WW1 Books: Mud & Bodies

mudandbodiesMud & Bodies: The War Diaries and Letters of Captain N.A.C. Weir 1914-1920 Edited by Saul David (Front Line Books 2013, isbn 978-1-84832-688-0, 158pp, illustrated, £19.99)

Neil Weir was an officer in the 10th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders who was commissioned in 1914 and served on the Western Front from mid-1915. He died in 1967 but his material was left to a grandson who brought this book together with the help of military historian Saul David.

As part of the 9th (Scottish) Division Weir fought in the Festubert sector before taking part in the Battle of Loos; his account of the bitter fighting at the Hohenzollern Redoubt in September 1915 is excellent. After a period in the Ypres Salient, he moved with his battalion to the Somme and was engaged in the fighting near Longueval and Delville Wood. He was badly burned and wounded by a flare in October 1916 which brought his war on the front line in France to an end. He spent the remainder of the conflict on home service but took part in Russian Civil War in 1919, a chapter which makes fascinating reading.

The diaries, with letters and other material added in, are well written and highly readable. Weir was a literate man and the entries are not repetitive or boring; far from it, they give a wonderful insight into the war of a junior officer on the Western Front in two big battles like Loos and the Somme. The expert hand of Saul David in putting the work into context is most welcome and the inclusion of photographs makes this an excellent addition to the new memoirs of the Great War being published for the WW1 Centenary.

The book can be purchased from the publishers website: Pen & Sword Front Line Books.


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WW1 Centenary: Beyond The Veterans

The Great War Centenary in 2014 will be the first major anniversary without the presence of veterans. On the occasion of the 90th anniversary the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ Harry Patch was still alive as was RNAS/RAF veteran Henry Allingham. Their voices were the last beacons in the dark; both men a fascination for the media and public alike for whom veterans of the Great War were as strange and compelling as if they had been from Mars.

The question of what we should make of the war now there were no veterans of course was asked many times when Harry and Henry both died in 2009, but the difference with the upcoming centenary is that a constant stream of media interest is likely to begin with 2014 and the last voices in the dark and the many before them are all too easy to forget. Those who knew and interviewed veterans, and there are really all too few, in many respects have a debt to repay for that friendship during 2014-18; they must ensure that these voices are not simply seen as the ramblings of old men but are put in the context they deserve.

Work by Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald firmly put Great War oral history on the agenda and that has been superbly continued with work from Imperial War Museum oral historian Peter Hart and author Richard Van Emden. Technology and the internet enables those of us with photographs, transcripts and recordings all relating to veterans we knew are duty bound to share them during the centenary – at least I would hope so. When I look at the photo above of the last surviving men of Lowther’s Lambs in 1979, I see the faces of old men I knew and who transport me back to their memories of Richebourg, the Somme and Flanders. But there has to be a way to ensure that others see that too and for recordings, online services like Soundcloud make the sharing of interviews with veterans easier than they ever were; below is one such with E G Williams, a Liverpool Pal remembering the Somme whom I knew back in the 1980s.

The veterans have faded away and while many are to be found in the pages of books, there is still much new material hidden which will hopefully come to light as the centenary period unfolds.


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German Accounts Of Verdun: A Forgotten Resource

German military historian and blogger, Rob Schaefer, maintains one of the most fascinating military history blogs on the Net: Gott Mit Uns. He recently uncovered a VHS tape of a 1980s German television programme about Verdun; a programme unknown here in the UK and largely forgotten in Germany. It contains several interviews with German WW1 veterans of the battle at the age I remember most of ‘my’ veterans here in the UK; animated and vivid in their descriptions of the war.

The German side of the war has long fascinated English-language students of the conflict. I remember meeting German WW1 author Herbert Sulzbach in the 1980s, and being amazed to hear a voice from the other side of No Man’s Land. Of course I later read the works of Ernst Jünger and was lucky to get copies of Der Angriff, an American publication from the 80s translating German accounts of the trenches. In recent years work by authors like Jack Sheldon has highlighted much of what we did not know about the German side of the war, but I well remember from my own visits to German archives in the late 1980s that there is still much to uncover.

And this is where Rob Schaefer’s excellent work excels:  the web is the perfect place to share this new material and excellent place for historical collaboration. Finding a resource like these 1980s television interviews gives us an insight into what, potentially, the WW1 Centenary might achieve:  a greater dissemination of Great War resources and an increased understanding.

The interview above, which Rob kindly made specially available for this site, features Wilhelm Ritter von Schramm. Rob states:- He was born 20th April 1898 in Hersbruck; died 27th December 1983. Joined the Army as an ensign in 1915. Knighted when awarded the Military Order of Max Joseph in 1917 (only awarded 251 times). Severely wounded by Shrapnel in October 1918. In WW2 he was serving in the OKW and from September 1944 was responsible for compiling the “Wehrmachtsbericht”.

More interviews are available on Gott Mit Uns.