Monday Book: The horror of war as seen from the home front

The Great War, by various authors, illustrated by Jim Kay, Walker, £12.99

Only Remembered, edited by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Ian Beck, Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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The Independent Culture

The government may wish British youth to hear most about national acts of heroism from the First World War, but publishers seem to have different ideas. Both these books concentrate on the misery suffered on the front and also by the women and children left behind. Marcus Sedgwick is one of the authors contributing stories to The Great War, each one inspired by what is now a museum object.

For him, “War is simply a near-random sequence of horrors, and so to make a story out of war is to lie.” Even so, he provides a good enough short tale here, in his case prompted by seeing the nose cap of a Zeppelin bomb that fell on south London in September 1916, killing a donkey.

Other writers start out from articles as varied as a wartime butter dish or a toy French soldier. Settings include Ireland, France and Germany as well as the UK, and each story is illustrated in swirling, black and white water colours by Jim Kay at his sepulchral best.

Only Remembered, an anthology assembled by Michael Morpurgo, contains as much verse as prose, with some of the most famous war poems still coming over with undiminished force. But however much now passes for common knowledge about this ghastly war, many of the high-profile contributors writing about their own selections of poetry or prose still come up with something unfamiliar.

The novelist Bali Rai writes eloquently about his astonishment on learning that one third of the troops that fought for Britain were from India. Frank Gardner describes how in 1914 Ralph Vaughan Williams was arrested in Margate as a German spy when he was seen scribbling notes for a composition.

Ben Elton, whose grandfather fought for the German army and won the Iron Cross, writes compellingly about Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Elton also appears, along with Richard Curtis, as the co-author of the glorious final scene from Blackadder Goes Forth. And Nick Sharratt reveals that Jelly Babies, introduced by confectioners in 1918 to mark the end of the war, were originally known as Peace Babies. 

Ian Beck provides understated but effective line illustrations throughout, and there is also a clump of colour reproductions from Paul Nash to Michael Foreman. Fifty per cent of the royalties for this excellent collection will be split between the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association (SSAFA). It forms a fine memorial to a dreadful time.

Order for £10.99/£12.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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