I’ve only just worked out something that everyone else knew ages ago – this year is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One.
My first reaction to this news was that I should read something substantial about one of the biggest conflicts in human history; perhaps Max Hastings huge new book on the subject, or some of that famous poetry that everyone is supposed to read in British schools. What about the extensive reports that all British newspapers are featuring about WW1?
But I wanted something lighter, something I could travel with, and none of the above fitted the bill.
Last week I was in Edinburgh and I popped into the National Library where they have a superb exhibition of posters and British propaganda from WW1. They also have a nice shop where I found the ideal book that I could take with me when I travelled back to Romania, where I’m currently based: World War I: Scottish Tales of Adventure by Allan Burnett
This slim volume, published by Birlinn, the people behind Alexander McCall Smith, is ideal for reading on the planes, trains and beaches of Eastern Europe. It is a series of short eyewitness accounts of WW1 by ordinary soldiers, sailors, pilots and nurses – and each personal account is backed up by a couple of pages of hard facts, putting it into context.
What makes this book so accessible is that it was written for kids and there is a complete absence of sentimentality, or “wasn’t it terrible” statements that are common in WW1 books aimed at adults. It gives real insight into what was going on, as well as different perspectives. In this book you can feel how it was to be a Scottish nurse in Romania (the Eastern Front), at sea during the Battle of Jutland, in the air as well as the trenches. I had no idea that the Germans bombed British cities during WW1 — using Zeppelins.
This book reminds me of George Orwell who wrote, in 1940, that the best books “about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about.” Orwell said a wave a books about WW1 were published in the early 1920s „from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think.” By 1940 these books were all out of print and all that remained were the personal accounts like All Quiet on the Western Front and Goodbye to All That – books that are still popular to this day.
The other book I’d like to recommend to anyone looking for something great to read while travelling is A War of Shadows by William “Billy” Moss. This is the sequel to one of the best war books I have ever read – Ill Met by Moonlight – a diary-like account of how two gentlemen-spies (Moss and Patrick Leigh Fermor) captured a German General in Crete.
The War of Shadows has been out of print for over 40 years and is really worth getting. It picks up the narrative from Ill Met by Moonlight and describes the behind-the-lines activities of the Britsh spy-cum-gentleman Billy Moss in Macedonia and Siam (Thailand).
It’s a remarkable war book in that it portrays a sensitive man who somehow manages to avoid violence even though he was in the thick of some of the most dangerous areas on the planet. He wasn’t avoiding the action in a cowardly way, as Flashman might, but he found that weapons were less effective than diplomacy and tact.
The War of Shadows is written in a direct journalistic style without any jargon. It’s funny, fascinating and “unputdownable”. It gives an insight into coping with death and (almost single handedly) dealing with an enemy (the Japanese) who suddenly become friendly, almost servile, as their war effort collapsed.
By Rupert Wolfe Murray