Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge

Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge was published in 2014 and it’s subtitled The Story of Testament of Youth. The author is quite an authority on Vera Brittain as he has written a biography of her and in the past has worked as an assistant to her daughter Shirley Williams.

I read Testament of Youth years ago, probably around about the time that the BBC dramatised the book in 1979, but I didn’t watch the more recent film because I didn’t see how it could possibly do the book justice in such a short time. The BBC serial is very good but I suppose it might seem a bit dated now, acting styles do change over the years.

I think that some people might be a bit disappointed by this book as it is an honest portrait of Vera’s life which if you have only read Testament of Youth might come as a bit of a shock. She did have a habit of re-writing history to put herself in a better light, or to make herself seem hard done by within her family.

The fact is that her brother Edward hadn’t intended to join up straight from school but Vera who was by this time 20 years old seems to have been so influenced by the jingoism of the newspapers and some politicians that she persuaded him to enlist – her argument seems to have been that people of their class should be patriotic. Their parents were completely against their only son joining up and Vera was such a snob that she told her father that that was his attitude because he hadn’t gone to a public (posh private) school and therefore wasn’t as patriotic. I think she was one step away from being one of those dreadful females who handed out white feathers to men. Edward seems to have quickly regretted his decision to join up when the reality of the trenches hit him. It’s easy to see why Vera re-wrote history as she should have been consumed with guilt.

Much was made by Vera of her difficulty in getting a university education, claiming that her parents were against the idea when in fact she was encouraged to go to Oxford and was financed by them. Perhaps she only wanted to make her story seem more interesting but it had the effect of putting her parents unfairly in a bad light again.

At Oxford she had her apparently usual reputation for being earnest and conceited and also had no sense of humour, something that was a drawback when the book was being turned into a TV series, but she did make some friends there before she decided to become a VAD nurse and do her bit in the war. Her experiences eventually led to her writing her famous book, aided by some diaries that she had written in the first years of the war.

It might sound like I’m being a moaning Minnie – I’m not, it’s just that Vera was quite a flawed human being, she was a feminist but a terrific snob, the sort of woman for whom women’s rights were only for upper class women, certainly not for her own servants.

This book also gives some information on the making of the film and BBC series and also of Virago reprinting the book which led to them. There are also quite a few interesting photographs.

The author does seem to have got to the bottom of the strange circumstances of Edward Brittain’s death at the front. This was an interesting read with Vera in reality travelling from jingoistic euphoria at the outbreak of the war to pacifism a few years later.

In recent years we’ve become used to hearing about what women did in wartime and I have tended to have taken for granted that women’s contributions had always been appreciated, so I was really surprised to read in this book that in the BBC documentary The Great War (made to commemorate the 50th anniversary) which has a total running time of over 17 hours only minutes were devoted to recounting women’s experiences. I’ve watched that whole series at least three times, and that had never dawned on me! This book is a good read.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

A Great Reckoning cover

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny is the latest in her Three Pines series and if you decide to start reading the series then make sure you start at the beginning and read them in order for maximum enjoyment. I’ve come to realise that although I ‘ve enjoyed them all my pleasure in them depends on how much the inhabitants of the village of Three Pines feature in the storyline, the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.

There’s a mystery involving an old map that has been discovered in the bistro. It’s very strange because the Quebecois village is unusual in that for some reason it appears on no modern maps and has no mobile phone signal, so it must feel a bit like it has fallen off the edge of the word in some ways. But it’s the place that former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie have come to love, so much so that they have bought a house there.

Previous investigations have left Gamache damaged both physically and mentally, but he isn’t quite ready to retire from public service yet and after pondering over several job offers he has chosen to be the new commander of the Surete Academy. In recent years that training college has become corrupt and the young recruits are being taught that brutality is normal and that they are above the law.

Gamache is determined to clean the place up but he makes some surprising decisions as to which teachers to get rid of and who to hang on to. Has Gamache bitten off more than he can chew? This is a cracking read.

The story involves village men – boys really who went off to fight during the First World War and who got caught up in the horror that was the Somme. This year – 2016 is of course the centenary of those battles and I’m sure that Louise Penny wrote this book in remembrance of the many Canadians who died there.

We were in Ypres earlier this year and photographed the massive but very moving memorial to the Canadians there, see the photo below.

Canadian War Memorial, Saint-Julien

With Wings Like Eagles by Michael Korda

With Wings Like Eagles was first published in 2009 and it’s a history of the Battle of Britain. I’m not a stranger to reading history but I haven’t read much about World War 2. It was Sandy McLendon a commentor on ‘Pining’ who recommended this book, and I’m glad she did as it’s very interesting and is so readable, and very far from being a dry and dusty history. Luckily I was able to borrow it from my library.

I didn’t know a lot about the details of the Battle of Britain or the men involved in the decision making so it was all new to me. As is my wont I was reading out what I found to be interesting snippets of it to Jack, such as the fact that one cabinet member, Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, pointed out that a German company which was mooted as a possible bomb target was private property meaning it shouldn’t be bombed! but Jack has read a lot about the subject and so I gave up on that as annoyingly he was finishing off what I was reading out to him before I could! I think that even he would find some new details in this history though.

One thing which we have all always known is that history is written by the winners and of course Winston Churchill wrote his well known Second World War series which is mainly why he received a Nobel prize for Literature in 1953. According to With Wings Like Eagles Churchill did a fair bit of rewriting of history to put himself in a better light during this period of the war, when he was less than supportive of Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, whose plans and decisions led to us winning the Battle of Britain and consequently the war.

This book points out that it wasn’t only the air crews who were heroes there were also merchant seamen on tankers (my father being one of them) and the young women of the WAAF who continued to call in radar positions whilst bombs rained down all around them.

The RAF was riddled with jealousy and spite amongst those near the top, so much so that when the official history of the Battle of Britain was published, of which 6 million copies were sold, Dowding didn’t even get a mention. That led Churchill to complain that: the jealousies and cliquism which have led to the committing of this offence are a discredit to the Air Ministry.

Blackie’s Children’s Annual

I have a lot of collections of ‘stuff’, often completely useless and worthless but just pretty, such as shells and stones and there are the books and china of course, old brooches and boxes, old postcards… the list goes on and on. But I’m absolutely not going to start a collection of Blackie’s Annuals although I believe they are collected by a lot of people.

Blackie's Children's Annual

I just came across this one at the weekend whilst looking for something completely different – a set of pine shelves which I want for the kitchen but am having no luck finding. In fact today I just bought wood to have a go at making them myself, with Jack’s help. I wish I had been able to take woodworking classes when I was at school, I would have loved that.

Anyway, I’m rambling, back to Blackie’s Children’s Annual, I couldn’t resist buying this one but unfortunately it doesn’t have any clue inside it as to when it was published. It must have been sometime during World War 1 because of the endpapers, beautiful wee soldiers, in kilts too albeit rather short ones.

Front Endpapers

Back Endpapers

Also the very first story in the book is about a father going to war, he’s in the Special Reserves and the family’s ‘fraulein’ is having to return to Germany. So I’m plumping for Christmas 1914 for the publication date although Jack thinks they wouldn’t have had time to get it published in time for Christmas 1914. I think it was probably all ready long before Christmas and they just added the first story about the war and the endpapers to catch the spirit of the times. After all – the war was going to be finished soon wasn’t it?!

Actually I’ve just realised that the front cover was almost certainly designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh as he did a lot of work for Blackie’s books as well as designing Hill House in Helensburgh for him.

If you’re interested there are more images of Blackie’s books here.

Lest We Forget

You might know that I have a small collection of First World War postcards, here are photo postcards of three Scottish soldiers. The cards were all published in Glasgow, I often wonder what happened to them.

Photographers must have done a roaring trade. Most people probably didn’t get their photo taken much but obviously men in the forces wanted to have a photo of themselves in uniform, or maybe their wives and mothers wanted the photos taken, just in case they didn’t come home. They’re always sad, especially if they are smiling I think.

Soldier 1

Soldier 2

Soldier 3

Fighting on the Home Front by Kate Adie

Fighting on the Home Front by Kate Adie is subtitled The Legacy of Women in World War One. I found it to be a really interesting read and although I’ve read numerous books about the war I learned a lot from this one. For instance, I had no idea that towards the end of the war there were thousands of women more or less right on the front lines. They had been recruited to free men up for fighting and they were doing all the cooking, cleaning, driving tasks and such – which men had been doing until then.

Did you know that there was an English woman in the Serbian Army? Her name was Flora Sandes and she was a sergeant major, she had started off as a St John Ambulance volunteer but begged to be allowed to fight when she saw that she was needed.

Women’s lives were changed radically but it was always known that the work they were doing was ‘only for the duration’ and they would have to go back to their domestic duties after the war. Although women got the vote due mainly to their war efforts, in some ways things went backwards so far that we still haven’t recovered the ground. It’s only now that women’s football is beginning to be taken seriously but during the war there were lots of female teams playing, due to the lack of men.

This book has interesting photos as well as lots of new (to me anyway) information. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the social history of the time. Kate Adie often adds in bits about what was happening within her own family in Sunderland at particular times during the war. Somehow those bits didn’t sit well within the book, especially as the Adie family was always described as her adoptive family, as if she was defending herself from any possible accusations of them not being her ‘real’ family. One mention of adoption would have been enough – not that I think it was necessary at all.

I believe that this book featured as a BBC Book at Bedtime.

You can find BBC podcasts about the role of women in World war 1 here.

Bullets and Billets by Bruce Bairnsfather

bullets and billets

I’ve been collecting the Fragments From France magazines for years and I think I have just about all of them now, they contain the cartoons which Bruce Bairnsfather drew during World War I. I happened to be in the Oxfam bookshop in Perth on Saturday (it was the busiest shop in town) and I spotted an old copy of Bairnsfather’s book Bullets and Billets. As you can imagine, I snapped it up fast and it went straight to the top of my reading pile. It was first published in December 1916 and I have no idea how many were in the original print run, but my copy is a reprint which was also published in December 1916. I think it must have been a very popular book.

Bruce Bairnsfather was born in India, into a military family but he didn’t get into military college and had a career in advertising before World War I. Like most men at that time it was inevitable that he became involved in the war.

As Bairnsfather was a machine gun officer at the Front and he was writing the book in quiet moments, it’s all completely authentic and full of that black humour which was so vital in keeping men going through the horrors that they were experiencing. I’m about a third of the way through it, it’s actually a very quick read and I’d say that if you are at all interested in the Great War era then you’ll find it really interesting – and amusing of course. Luckily I’ve just checked Project Gutenberg and it is available for download, have a look here. If you prefer a real book then it has been reprinted lots of times over the years and is easy to get a hold of.

If you want to see some of Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons, look here.

If you want to know more about Bruce Bairnsfather have a look here.

Armistice Day

This is the First World War Memorial at Kirkcaldy in Fife.

And to the right is the Second World War Memorial.

In Remembrance.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

I dug a lot of books out of the attic during my recent clean up and decluttering binge, and one of them was Testament of Youth which is Vera Brittain’s autobiography from 1900 – 1925, definitely one for keeping and re-reading. This book was first published in 1933 and the BBC dramatised it years ago.

I think I saw the tv programmes first but soon after that I bought the book and the sequel Testament of Experience.

Vera Brittain was one of the very few women to get into an Oxford College in 1914 but after one year she gave up her studies to become a VAD nurse and ended up nursing in London, Malta and at the Front in France. It’s a heart-breaking read as all of the young men close to her are lost, including her fiance and her beloved brother Edward. But if you are interested in World War 1 then this is a “must read”.

Vera became a pacifist and was active in the League of Nations. She did get married and her daughter is Shirley Williams, who was once a lib-dem M.P. and is now in the House of Lords.

I think I’ll buy the dvds because I haven’t seen the series since it was first shown.
I like this anniversary cover although it isn’t the one which I have, mine has Cheryl Campbell on the front, she played the part of Vera in the series.

The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

Still on the subject of the First World War: My husband’s grandfather bought this slim volume of Siegfried Sassoon poems in 1919 and it’s one of the many books which we inherited from him. I found myself leafing through it when I was on one of my frequent hunts for a particular book. How many months of my life have been used up in searches for books?

Anyway, for some reason the poem below caught my attention.

Arms and the Man

Young Croesus went to pay his call
On Colonel Sawbones, Caxton Hall:
And, though his wound was healed and mended,
He hoped he’d get his leave extended.

The waiting-room was dark and bare.
He eyed a neat-framed notice there
Above the fireplace hung to show
Disabled heroes where to go
For arms and legs; with scale of price,
And words of dignified advice
How officers could get them free.

Elbow or shoulder, hip or knee,
Two arms, two legs, though all were lost,
They’d be restored him free of cost.
Then a Girl Guide looked to say,
‘Will Captain Croesus come this way?’

It seems to be saying that officers could get free artificial limbs, which implies that the other ranks had to pay for them. If this is so, I’m outraged. I know, it’s 90 years too late to do anything about it, but how could they justify such inequality, particularly when most of the ordinary soldiers would have been really poor and people like munitions workers were being paid far more than the men at the Front. All that suffering and then they were treated like muck.

The National Health Service came into being in 1948, so I’m now wondering what happened to anyone who lost a limb in World War 2.

There has been quite a lot of talk in the newspapers recently about injured military personnel having a bad time of it in hospitals, and just not getting the kind of treatment which they deserve. They shouldn’t have closed down military hospitals for one thing, but at least they don’t have to pay for anything nowadays.

Back to Siegfried and if you are interested in him you should read his books Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.