Books of the year 2013: War


Private Alex Stringer, of the Royal Logistic Corps, was 20 when he was blown up in Afghanistan: "The reason I lost my left leg so high up is because the burning paint cooked my left leg all the way down to the bone. But if I hadn't set myself on fire, I would have bled out and died – as a result of it, all the arteries became cauterised".

His smiling face appears in Bryan Adams's portraiture collection, Wounded, (Steidl, £48), and there are plenty more moving photographs and true stories in the equally weighty volume of images from the Imperial War Museum's latest collection, The Great War, (Jonathan Cape, £40). Sampling this later photographic narrative, published ahead of next year's First World War centenary, left this reader feeling like Tommy Atkins after one of the Great War's artillery barrages: shell-shocked.

Not that the heavier literary munitions aren't without novelty. Deserter by Charles Glass, (Harper, £25) asks us to see Second World War deserters as heroes – because some were indeed the same people. Lara Feigel's The Love-charm of Bombs (Bloomsbury, £25), shows the Blitz through the eyes, and other organs, of Graham Greene and various intellectuals liberated by the blackout.

100 Days to Victory by Saul David (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), is one of the few to mention the exploits of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, whose 155 Germans and 1,100 Askaris held out in German East Africa (now modern Tanzania) all the way to 1918. More on them would have been welcome.

Following the previous examples of Antony Beevor are absorbing accounts of some more familiar episodes – absorbing because of, not despite, the harrowing detail.

Brian Moynihan's Leningrad Siege and Symphony (Quercus, £25), meanwhile, shows why so many admired the heroism of the Soviet Union, while Warsaw 1944 (Collins, £25) by Alexandra Richie, reminds us why so many despised it – in this case the censure revolved around Stalin's refusal to aid the Poles, an act of pure spite, if not evil.

The winner of the Orwell Prize, AT Williams, produced a chronicle of evil in today's British army. A Very British Killing (Vintage, £9.99) recounts the death of Baha Mousa, a blameless Iraqi widower who found himself behind the wrong Baghdad hotel reception desk at the wrong time. He died of multiple injuries after being beaten to death by the British.

Added to this are revelations about castration of Mau Mau prisoners and the "terror cell" in the Army in Northern Ireland; it seems as if evil has long co-existed alongside the civilised, even in our forces.

Which brings us to "The War to Save Civilisation". Max Hastings's magisterial Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (Collins, £30) lays out the anti-German case with the force of a well-aimed Stokes mortar: their atrocities in Belgium were as real as their chlorine gas and their greed for imperial power, he suggests.

Hastings's effort seems to run a battle of attrition for sales with Field Marshal Jeremy Paxman's sardonic Great Britain's Great War (Penguin £25). Both help to redress the balance of words and glory between the two world wars. Thus, while we all know about the RAF in 1940, the remnants of the Worcestershire Regiment's miraculous resistance to the Germans at Ypres in 1914 probably saved Paris from occupation, and a German victory. Lest we forget…

A tail-end Charlie of the year was Great War Tommy (Haynes, £21.99) which draws on the irony-free official manuals of the time. Here, some advice on lice: "Underclothes may be scalded. Turn coats, trousers, etc, inside out, and expose these places to as much heat as can be borne before a fire. Petrol or paraffin will also kill lice. If no other means are available, turn the clothing inside out, beat it vigorously, remove and kill the vermin by hand – this will, at any rate, mitigate the evil."

At any rate too, the best of the year's crop of war narratives encourage us to reflect on how much our troops tried – if imperfectly – to mitigate all manner of evil.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all