Illustrated First & Second World War anniversary editions: Potent weapons in the war against the e-book


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The Independent Culture

It is perhaps appropriate that the important military anniversaries that fall this year should be marked by the publication of volumes that themselves represent potent weapons in the battle between the ebook and traditional publishing. Some are almost as substantial as the Cenotaph; all are spirited affirmations of the delights of print.

In particular, we have the re-issue in lavish form of two classics on the Normandy landings, on their 70th anniversary: Stephen Ambrose's D-Day (Simon & Schuster, £25) and The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan (André Deutsch, £50). In price, ambition and above all in their tactile qualities these are about as far away from reading text off a tablet as it is possible to get. The Longest Day presents Ryan's unequalled text in magazine-style format, additionally armed with envelopes of enthralling facsimile documents – the official translations of, say, Rommel's diaries of the time (as Hitler's commander on the Atlantic seaboard) or the handwritten note by Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower, dated 5 June 1944, taking full responsibility in the event the invasion failed. There is also a CD with interviews Ryan conducted in the 1950s, when memories were still fresh enough to make eye-witness accounts of conversations with Churchill or the terror of the beach landings fluent and immediate. Ryan, who died in 1974, was a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and was there on D-Day; hence the sense of authenticity. It made his work a 30 million seller in 30 languages.

Ambrose is also honoured with a new illustrated edition of his gripping narrative of Operation Overlord – and punctuated by his hallmark forthright insights, as seen in his verdict on Hitler's entirely unprovoked decision to declare war on America after Pearl Harbor: "It was the looniest of all his crazy decisions." Ambrose also chose anecdotes well, as in this testimony from a Private Carl Weast on his commander, Captain George Whittington: "He was a hell of a man… He led people. I recall the time a week or so after D-Day when we shot a cow and cut off some beef and were cooking it over a fire on sticks. Whittington came up and threw a German boot next to the fire and said, 'I'll bet some son of a bitch misses that.' We looked at the boot. The German's leg was still inside of it. I'll bet by God he did miss it."

Such remarks prove that the Second World War could be as gruesome as the First. In Tommy's War (Bloomsbury £25), Richard van Emden, who has become almost a posthumous advocate for the poor bloody infantry (he wrote The Last Fighting Tommy: the Life of Harry Patch), draws on the vast quantity of written and photographic material available on the Great War – some of it prosaic, some almost pornographic. It was, after all, the first conflict to be photographed to any great extent by the participants, and Kodak avidly marketed battlefield-ready cameras – the iPhones of their day. As ever, Emden makes the most of these original statements and images.

The First World War Remembered (André Deutsch £50), compiled by Gary Sheffield, is my favourite of this crop, for no better reason than I would have relished it when I was at school. It has a Look and Learn feel, plus you get a DVD of interviews with ex-Tommies, with a period silent movie in, and a wealth of large facsimile posters and maps. If I thought I could get away with it, I would pin these up with Blu Tack on the bedroom wall; you can't do that with an e-reader.