The World War I anniversary: In prose and in verse, we will remember them
Caroline Sanderson looks at titles marking next year’s centenary of the First World War
Sunday 06 October 2013
Publishers love an anniversary. And few come bigger than the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 2014. Close to a thousand books will come out over the next 12 months, from sweeping global histories and vivid eye-witness accounts to absorbing new fiction and a raft of poetry anthologies. Here are just a few of the titles which most fittingly commemorate a conflict which continues to preoccupy us, a century on.
If you think military history tends to the turgid, try Saul David’s 100 Days to Victory (Hodder, £20) which gives vivid accounts of 100 “momentous” events which took place between 1914-18. It’s a most effective device with which to convey both the global scale of the conflict and the fact that it was much more than a list of bloody battles. For a dose of derring-do, there’s The Road to Endor: A True Story of Cunning Wartime Escape by EH Jones (Hesperus, £8.99, November) in which a pair of PoWs employ Ouija boards, illusion, and a lot of audacity to escape from a Turkish prison camp. First published in the 1950s, this new edition has a foreword by Neil Gaiman.
Many of 2014’s commemorative events will centre on the cemeteries and memorials set up to remember the war dead. In his outstanding Empires of the Dead (Collins, £16.99, November), David Crane shows how extraordinary a physical, logistical and administrative feat it was to bury or commemorate more than half a million dead in individual graves. And he reveals that this Herculean task was accomplished largely due to the efforts of one man: Fabian Ware, whose painstaking work to record the identities of the dead and the position of their graves led to the establishment of the Graves Registration Commission.
Another hitherto neglected aspect of the conflict and its casualties is highlighted by Emily Mayhew in Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918 (Bodley Head, £20) a moving homage to the courage and determination of the medical personnel who cared for the hundreds of thousands of wounded British soldiers. Assembled from dozens of archival sources it is told with novelistic flair.
Advances in photography meant that the First World War was also the first to be widely documented in images. So although the idea of a coffee-table book on the conflict sounds distastefully oxymoronic, The Great War: A Photographic Narrative (Jonathan Cape, £40, October) succeeds in being both a monumental and beautifully curated pictorial history of the war, containing over 500 images from the Imperial War Museum’s digitised archives, beginning with the first British gun to come into action on the Western Front; and ending with a picture of a sound trace which shows the moment the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Meanwhile, the renowned graphic novelist Joe Sacco, acclaimed for his portrayal of the conflict in Palestine, captures the horrors of the Western Front in The Great War, a 24ft-long accordion-folded wordless panorama depicting the events of 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme (Jonathan Cape, £20, October).
From Erich Maria Remarque to Pat Barker, the “War to End all Wars” remains replete with themes for novelists to explore. The classic First World War novel William: An Englishman was the first book published by Persephone Books, now renowned for its rediscoveries of unjustly neglected fiction. In 2014, Persephone will republish Jonathan Smith’s acclaimed 1976 novel Wilfred and Eileen (Persephone, £12, April), the story of its protagonists’ secret marriage, and Eileen’s bravery in rescuing Wilfred from a front-line hospital after he is wounded. For a new fictional take, there’s At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller (Virago, £16.99), an absorbing and elegantly written novel which traces the stories of four very different young men, from their dreams for the future in 1913, to the breaking of day in 1916 when all four find themselves on the battlefield of the Somme.
No selection of First World War publishing would feel complete without poetry. Both First World War Poets, edited by Max Egremont (Picador, £25, April), and Poems From the First World War (Imperial War Museum, £6.99, March), selected by Paul O’Prey, consist entirely of work by poets who served on the front line. And the prose anthology No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War, edited by Pete Ayrton (Serpent’s Tail, £25, January), is a thoughtfully diverse collection of First World War writings featuring 47 writers from 20 countries. Those writers include DH Lawrence, Willa Cather, Rose Macaulay, and the less well-known but “masterly” Raymond Escholier and Mary Borden.
With a delegation from every state secondary school in the country set to visit the Western Front next year, children’s publishers have given much thought to marking the centenary for a generation which only briefly overlapped with the war’s last survivors. For ages 9-11 years, John Boyne, the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has written Stay Where You Are And Then Leave, the beautifully paced and affecting tale of Alfie Summerfield’s search for his missing father. And Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier, August-September 1914 (Phoenix Yard, £10.99, February) is an astonishing survivor. The discarded diary of a real French soldier, it was rescued from a rubbish heap by the French author/illustrator Barroux who has adapted it into a striking graphic novel for readers of 10 years and over, translated in its English edition by the award-winning Sarah Ardizzone. Hopes are high that it might lead to identification of the mystery soldier.
One hundred years on, such eyewitness accounts are still coming to light. Among those being published for adults are Harry’s War by Private Harry Drinkwater (Ebury, £18.99, October) based on his private diaries, which describe in visceral detail the horrific conditions on the Western Front; and Fred’s War by Andrew Davidson (Short Books, £20, October) which includes remarkable photographs taken illegally in the trenches by an army doctor. His grandson has pieced together his story from pictures that have been in the family for three generations.
Among well-known names are Jeremy Paxman, with Great Britain’s Great War (Viking, £25, October) a wide-ranging look at the wartime experiences of Britons from all walks of life; Kate Adie, who contributes an engaging account of how women’s lives were changed by the conflict: Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One (Hodder, £20, September). And Max Hastings whose Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (Collins, £30) – admirable in its scope and vividly told – is already riding high in the hardback best-seller lists.
Now that there are no more survivors of 1914-18 to talk aloud, a central and simple purpose of 2014’s events must be to keep alive the stories of those who participated. Many of the authors mentioned here have dedicated their books to the memories of their own relatives caught up the Great War: in itself a moving testament to millions of “ordinary” sacrifices.
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