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.

Book buying

I’m supposed to be using the library instead of buying books nowadays as we will probably be down-sizing at some point in the nearish future, due to the fact that we don’t want to be rattling around in a big family house when the family has flown the nest.

Unfortunately, we recently discovered a great second-hand bookshop which is only about a two mile walk away from our house. It’s just impossible to resist, and as my husband said – there are worse vices to have.

So, in the last week I have bought:

Vanity Fair by Willliam Thackeray – I’m blaming Jane GS for this one.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – We only had a paperback.
Swan Song by John Galsworthy – I had to complete my set.
The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock – Only had a few before.
Basil by Wilkie Collins – I’m blaming The Classics Circuit.
Miss or Mrs? by Wilkie Collins – DITTO.
Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer – DITTO.
The Battles of the Somme by Martin Marix Evans – I’m blaming
Gabrillo Princip for that one.

One of my grandfathers was at the Somme and we’ve been to visit one of the preserved battlefields where the Canadians had been in the front line.

Well worth a visit if you get the chance.

The removal men complained enough when we moved here, about the number of heavy boxes of books which we had. We’ve had more than 20 book buying years here since then. I suppose we should get rid of a lot of them – in fact I have given a lot to charity over the years. Often I’ve regretted getting rid of a particular book and wonder why on earth I parted with it.

I suppose there are worse problems to have, but I can hear that book shop shouting to me. Well, I forgot to buy their copy of Anna Karenina.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This book was first published in 1991 and I’ve been meaning to read it since then. I’m glad that I got around to it at last as I really enjoyed it although it is quite harrowing in parts.

It is set mainly in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland in 1917. It seems that just about every book I have picked up recently has a local flavour to it, sometimes to my surprise.

Army psychiatrist William Rivers has the job of treating shell-shocked soldiers and making them fit enough to be sent back to the front. We hear the stories of several of the patients as they are treated but the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are the most prominent characters.

By 1917 Sassoon had had enough of the war and the stupidity of the politicians and generals. He wrote A Soldier’s Declaration which was going to be read out in the House of Commons which would have meant that it would have ended up in the newspapers which was just what the authorities didn’t want.

Sassoon is packed off to the hospital so that the authorities can say that he has suffered a severe mental breakdown. As the train is about to leave the station the guard blows the whistle which reminds Sassoon of the whistle which was blown in the trenches signalling the beginning of an advance towards the enemy. It had never struck me how horrific such a common-place sound must have been for soldiers at that time.

The pacifists are pressurising him to join forces with them but Sassoon still feels a great loyalty to his men still at the front.

If you are at all interested in World War 1 then you will enjoy reading this book even if you have already read Sassoon’s own book Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

Regeneration has been made into a film which was nominated for a BAFTA award. For some reason they didn’t use the real Craiglockhart in the film, but chose to use Overtoun House which is set in the hills near Dumbarton.

Overtoun

As you can see it is in the Scottish baronial style, which I don’t find at all scary to look at but that might be because I’ve known this house since I was a wee girl, when any family walks up the hills usually took us in that direction.

The real Craiglockhart is now part of Napier University in Edinburgh and I think it must have looked a lot more forbidding and daunting to any poor nerve-racked soldiers.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

If the Armistice Day commemorations and the documentaries about The Great War have given you an appetite for more, then you might be interested in this book.

It is a fictionalised autobiography of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s experiences in the trenches during 1916 and 1917. The main character George Sherston is Sassoon himself and the action starts at the Army School and goes on to describe the characters and actions along the way.

Sassoon became disillussioned with the war and he ended up being sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, mainly because the poet Robert Graves (David Cromlach in the book) had managed to convince the authorities that Sassoon had shell shock.

It’s a great read if you are into the First World War. However, I was always aware that if Sassoon hadn’t been born into a very wealthy family with influential connections, he would have been put up against a post and shot.

For more information go to the online Sassoon manuscripts which I reached via this Guardian article.