Why you should read about World War One.

My own dear lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it these next few days as I’m likely to be pretty busy as far as I can see.

Give the dear little Chugs my love and a kiss from Dad and with all my love to you old dear, and your dear old face to love.

Ever your Robert.

Something awesome happened yesterday. I took the day off. Which was nice, but wasn’t the awesome part.

The awesome part was that I left a fairly ordinary looking shop on Monday afternoon, and came back to this this morning:

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And this:

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Which is all well and good, but has left me with a little bit of a problem. Pictures went out. Compliments have come back in. Compliments sent to me. The one who spent the day sitting out on the grass in the sun.

And so I have spent the day trying to come up with creative ways of explaining that I was not here, and had nothing to do with our awesome display, without implying that the most inspiring thing that I can do for our team is go away. Although I do hope that our head office has registered on some level quite how much can be achieved if they give me the day off.

But I am not here to talk about how cool our display is. I’m here to talk about why it’s here. In Exclusive Books. In Clearwater.

It’s here because Exclusive Books is remembering the start of World War One a hundred years ago.

This might seem like an odd thing for a bookshop to be remembering. It isn’t. I tend to get a little annoyed when someone says something very, very smart, very, very well, because the rest of us then copy them too often and too easily, and what started out as profound or insightful becomes hackneyed and clichéd. A perfect example of this is George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. Ho-hum.

Except. The ISIS rebels have recently declared the founding of an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. And declared themselves rulers of the whole Islamic world. Israel has just invaded Gaza. Sparking violent riots across Europe. Separatists in the Ukraine are shooting Malaysian aeroplanes full of Dutch civilians out of the sky while being supported by the Russians. We seem to have forgotten what happens when we start messing around with maps. “Doomed” sounds archaic and slightly Tolkienesque, but it is not a nice word.

This is what Europe looked like a hundred years ago. It's changed a little...

This is what Europe looked like a hundred years ago. It’s changed a little…

I am not here to lecture you on history or global politics, though. I don’t know enough about them, for a start. I’m supposed to be telling you why you should be reading about the Great War.

Read about it because of Robert. You owe it to him.

School history was a funny old thing. We asked too much of our teachers. Someone handed them a gang of unwashed, dysfunctional Phillistines and had a conversation with them that went a little like this:

“Here. This lot are yours. You can have them for an hour and a half a week. Except during holidays. Tell them all the things that happened.”

“Excuse me?”

“All the things. You’re a history teacher. Tell them all the things that happened. And don’t just tell them what happened. Give them some insight, too”

“But… That’s quite a lot of things. How long have I got?”

“A year. Then we hand them over to someone else.”

“But…”

“Good luck.”

It’s not enough. There’s not enough time and the textbooks aren’t deep enough. And so something interesting happens. History gets clouded over, like a steamed up bathroom mirror. And we stop seeing it as something that happened to people. It’s all faint outlines and patches of colour and vague, blurred images; Western Fronts and Southern Theatres and treaties and alliances. The only people that crack the nod are cartoonish leaders with silly hats and unfeasible facial hair.

It was enough to spark a passion in some of us, though. Enough to spur a few of us to pursue a deeper understanding of where we came from and how we got here. But the rest of us? Most of us came to see history as something impersonal and distant. And dull.

Our teachers tried, despite the challenges they faced, to put a human face on the war. It went a little something like this;

There were seventy million combatants in World War One. Ten million of them died. So did seven million civilians. And those numbers pale to insignificance if you throw in Spanish flu.

Meaningless. Human suffering on that scale means nothing to us. That’s not me being callous. It’s science.

It’s called Dunbar’s number, hypothesised by a British anthropologist, and it works like this:

We are primates. Small primates with small brains live in small groups, not because resources are limited, but because primates are highly social creatures with highly complex relationships, and they simply cannot cope with too many of those relationships. The bigger the primates get, the bigger their brains get, and the bigger their groups get. The primates with the biggest brains can cope with groups of about 150. And those primates are us.

It’s true. For the vast majority of our time on earth, we wandered around the plains of Africa in groups. Of about 150. In relative terms, we moved into towns yesterday, and cities just a few minutes ago. When we lived in tiny hamlets, we still knew everybody. In cities we know nobody.

There are too many people for us to get our heads around. We can’t care about them. We’re not smart enough to. Think about how many strangers died in Jo’burg today, of old age or illness, by violence or by accident. And think about how little effect that has had on you. You didn’t ever stop, drop what you were doing in horror, and think “Oh, my god! Those strangers! They’re all dying!”

That doesn’t make you cold or uncaring, it makes you human. And it makes those awesome World War One numbers boring. They are too big. We cannot feel them.

I am one of the many who emerged from school uninspired by history. But then something interesting happened. A few decades ago I met a girl; one of those people I mentioned who come out of school with a love for history. When I realised she was smarter than me, I married her, and in the years since then I have learned a few things. And some of them are about history.

History isn’t just about wars and invasions, maps and treaties. It’s not just about kings and queens and generals and presidents. It’s about what people put on their faces to make themselves look beautiful, and what people ate, and what tools blacksmiths used, and how and why they got married, and where they slept, and what they drank to escape the drudgery of their lives. It’s about shoes, and drinking water, and parasites, and salt. It’s about Robert.

One of the many things that makes the First World War stand out is that it is one of the first big conflicts in history in which we can see the people. Not the generals and the politicians; people like us. Ordinary soldiers and medics, and wives and sons, and daughters and sweethearts.

We have pictures; faded, haunting photographs of hollow eyed men cowering in muddy holes in the ground; chilling shots of men pouring out “over the top” into no-man’s land, most likely to get mown down within feet having achieved nothing; shots of decomposing bodies half buried in mud, abandoned in the blighted wasteland between the trenches.

 

They are not nice pictures.

They are not nice pictures.

We have letters; letters from soldiers; gentle words dashed off on scraps of paper to loved ones from the least gentle places the world had ever seen. Letters from home, insights into what it’s like to send your sons and brothers and husbands off to what must have seemed like the end of the world.

We have first-hand accounts; not just from officers and historians, but from ordinary soldiers and civilians back home.

You need to read about World War One because you need to see those people. And not just because we need to honour them for the sacrifices they made, but because we need to remember, always, what it is really like when we put away our diplomacy and beat our ploughshares into guns.

Robert was one Lieutenant Colonel E.W. Hermon. Robert was a nickname. The excerpt that I started with was the ending of a letter he wrote home to his wife Ethel in 1917. He had married her in 1904. They had five children; the “Chugs” he talks about in his letter.

He wrote to her as often as he could, almost every day. What makes his letters special to historians is that, because he was an officer, they were not censored, and so contain an extraordinary amount of detail.

What makes them extraordinary to me is that they are so ordinary. They are fond and comfortable and chatty, which is a pretty remarkable for a man living ankle deep in mud in a foetid hole in the ground surrounded by fear and death. They are letters that could be from you or from me.

Ethel wrote back immediately. Her letter never reached Robert. He was cut down two days after he sent that letter home. Ethel’s letter came back unopened, and the Chugs never saw their father again.

When they opened his breast pocket, they found some pictures of Ethel and the Chugs, and a dried out four leaf clover that Ethel had given him for luck. They had a bullet hole in them. The bullet had gone through his heart.

You need to read about Robert so that you know what it really means when the Russians start rattling their sabres in the Ukraine, and NATO slaps together a massive, hastily organised war-game just over the border in Poland.

And you can. If you are one of those people who walked away from history when you left school, come and give it another try. History isn’t your school textbooks. Sure, we have books about the politics and the campaigns and the generals and the maps. Lots of them. If you are one of those people who is passionate about history, this is your time.

But if you aren’t, we have books about the Roberts, too. We have the seventeen year old boy who ran off to a grand adventure and found himself in purgatory instead, who wrote a final letter home to his mother begging her forgiveness for some mysterious offence, who never received his absolution because his body was broken by a hail of shrapnel a few days later.

We need to remember him when the world starts rioting in the streets of Paris because the Middle East has burst into flames again.

We need to remember the broken men who came home from the seventh circle of hell and failed to fit into jobs at the post office, and woke up sweating and screaming at night because they could never quite escape the spectre of death that had stalked them through the trenches.

We need to remember them when our own politicians start playing at being soldiers and blustering on about revolutions.

We need to remember the gentle fathers and loving husbands tied up and shot by their own comrades for not having the stomach to drag themselves up and out into a storm of screaming metal to hurl themselves at a bunch of strangers.

 

Would you?

Would you?

We need to remember these things because they remind us all of something it is far too easy to forget. When the parades were over, and the flags were rolled up, and the bands stopped playing, there were no winners.

Robert didn’t win. He died. Over and over and over again. Seventeen million times. Sick and sweating in a hospital bed, or with gas in his lungs, or with his body broken by jagged shell fragments, or with a bullet in his heart that had cut through a battered picture of his wife and children and a brittle, dried-out four leaf clover whose luck had run out.

Ethel didn’t win. The Chugs didn’t win. All those fathers and sons and brothers and husbands and lovers. Gone.

Not even the politicians and the generals won. If the history bug bites, you can look into what they were all getting up to twenty odd years later.

We need to remember World War One so that we can remember what Wilfred Owen was trying to tell us:

 

Dulce et decorum est

 

 Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,           

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;        

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The Latin part means ““It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Wilfred Owen should know it was a lie. He was cut down in 1918. One week before the end of the war. He didn’t win either.

Nobody did.

Nobody did.

16 thoughts on “Why you should read about World War One.

  1. My Dad fought in WWII; coming home after it ended, he arrived back in Canada on his 21st birthday. He, too, never said much about his experiences and now he’s gone. I will never forget what all those ‘ordinary’ men, boys really, most of them, had to endure.

    I worked for a man who was then in his 90s; he was stationed in the Caribbean during WWI; he was lucky, as it was pretty uneventful there. However, his brother died at Vimy Ridge. Hearing about that led me to read “Vimy” by Pierre Berton. More than moving; it brought it all home to me in a way I will always remember.

    I grew up reading about the Holocaust, the Civil War in the US, the two World Wars and other conflicts. For me, it’s never been about who won or lost; it’s about those like Robert, suffering unbelievable horrors and still protecting those at home from the reality. “Andersonville” was the first book (about a Civil War POW camp) that shaped my thinking about war and the things people are willing to do to each other.

    Vietnam was the war of my generation and I knew people who had been drafted and fought there, also some who escaped to Canada for the duration. Also unforgettable. I still think of Vietnam when I hear a chopper flying above the city. And, of course, Robin Williams’ “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Made me laugh and cry. Seeing truckloads of boys on their way to die . . . and as a mother of two sons, I still find it hard to watch.

    I watched the coverage of D-Day on our CBC tv station and then I bought the DVD. I will leave it for my own grandkids, all of whom are too young to understand any history still. I hope it means something for them, too.

    Thank you for this post. It means a lot to me. ~ Linne

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    • As I reached my twenties, we were fighting a secret war in Angola. I went to Varsity with a few guys who had been through horrific things. They were forbidden to talk about them, but late at night after a bottle of wine or two, these gut wrenching stories would come pouring out. And they were just boys…

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  2. I wrote a couple of books on the First World War trench experience. The research was harrowing; the experience of writing them more so. To my eternal frustration, Penguin took the last one out of print a few months back – doubtless a function of warehouse accounting practise, but meaning in reality that they pulped a chance to shift some copies with the centenary. Sigh. A war we need not just to remember, but to UNDERSTAND. That, I think, has not yet happened in full dimension. We understand the sorrow and loss; and the sacrifice; and the way it changed the world. But there is more yet to know. None of it, of course, reduces the tragedy of the Roberts of the war – the everyman soldiers whose lives were lost, often, for no gain.

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    • I don’t presume to be a historian by any measure, but to me the gap we need to fill is the one between piecing together what happened, which seems fairly straightforward, and understanding what they players thought they were doing at the time, which seems close to impossible. I’m pretty sure no one sat around a table and said “lets take the world to purgatory and wipe out a generation”.

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  3. Pappy, my grandfather, fought in the trenches in WWI so it was very much alive to me. He lived with us when I was a child and I remember seeing the massive cross shaped scar on his back and asking him what it was. This was where his lung, along with the bullet and shrapnel that had hit him, were removed. No anaesthetic. He was lucky to survive and his hair went white from it. Of course, it did mean he came home and didn’t die in those trenches so I suppose a lung was as all price to pay.

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    • I have an uncle who is much older than my father was, who went off to fight in World War Two. He is a natural storyteller, with a golden voice, an irreverent sense of humour and an unusual memory for detail. But I have never heard him say a word about the war. So much of this stuff goes untold and so much lost that we have to do everything we can to hold on to the rest.

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  4. Excellent post! Unlike you, I was one of those geeks at school who was fascinated by history, and always tried to read more about the bits that interested me. Looking back, those bits were usually about the people.

    About 15 years ago I came across my grandfather’s World War One diaries – written in what was then German South West Africa, and later in German East Africa. At first I was disappointed in the content because it was all day-to-day complaints about the sand, the skin sores, having to desalinate the salt water in GSWA, and later in GEA the jungle, the mud, the fruitless marching in boots that had lost most of their soles, and the endless fever that dogged them every step. They were always a day behind the Germans and never actually seemed to achieve anything. I realised the value of these books as gems about the ordinary life of a very ordinary soldier, so I copied them all onto computer before the writing faded, and printed out copies for the rest of the family.

    I also found letters from one of my grandmother’s relatives back to his family. He was “luckier” than my grandfather because he got into a regiment that went to France instead of GEA. His letters are funny and light hearted and he sounds like a lovely person – until he died in Delville Wood…

    Yes, we must never allow that war to be forgotten.

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    • My wife would kill to get her hands on something like that. It’s the day-to-day stuff that brings history alive…

      You are really lucky to have found something like that.
      I suspect that few soldiers kept diaries like that, and for those that did, a hundred years is a really long time when it comes to loose bundles of fragile, aging paper.

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  5. Having had an amazing History teacher, who brought both World Wars into sharp focus for us, I learned to have an enduring love of the history of ‘real’ people. Those small people, whom we might never have known about, if not for these awful wars, and the many books that were written about them.

    And every time I see yet another conflict brewing in the world, I want to cry, as our memories seem to have become too short to hold the horrors of war inside them for long.

    But it is to bookshops like yours, and to public libraries, too, that I’m thankful for as, when it matters, these things are brought to light once more!

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