courtesy R.E. Millan
November 11th 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that brought the Great War to an end. The question of what triggered the First World War, ‘the War to End All Wars’, is still a matter of debate among historians. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, on 28th June 1914 by Serbian terrorists is generally ascribed as being the last straw which provoked hostilities. Under the London Treaty of 1839, Britain was honour bound to protect neutral, recently independent Belgium. So when Germany, in direct violation of the treaty, invaded Belgium in August, 1914, Britain declared war on 4th August. The German Chancellor of the time, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, told the British Ambassador he could not believe the two countries would go to war ‘over a scrap of paper’. It is worth noting in her biography of Princess Victoria, An Uncommon Woman, Hannah Pakula includes a photograph of the future Wilhelm ll ‘Kaiser Bill’ in Highland dress, on which he has scrawled ‘I bide my time.’
There are many fiction books on the Great War for Middle Graders. One is Ernest K. Gann’s In The Company of Eagles. It features the French pilot Paul Chamay and his quest to find and shoot down Kupper, the German pilot who had ruthlessly killed Raymonde, his lifelong friend, after crippling his plane. In the end, Chamay encounters Kupper in a long drawn out dogfight between just the two of them. Kupper outwits Chamay, ending close on his tail – and does not fire. His guns have jammed. Now Kupper is at Chamay’s mercy. Poised to kill, Chamay recalls someone saying to take revenge leads to madness. Instead, he pulls alongside Kupper, looks him in the eye, salutes and flies off. It’s somewhat difficult to read, but an interesting book telling the story from the French and German viewpoint.
Murder on the Ridge, by Ted Stenhouse, is the story of Will and his
Charlie Wilcox’sWar is based on a Newfoundland lad’s experiences in the war. Newfoundland only joined Canada in 1949; as a British protectorate she sent an enormous number of her men to fight in the war, and in consequence suffered horrendous losses. The emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was a caribou, and a great bronze caribou is the heart of the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel in France. A grandchild has my copy of the book, but if memory serves me right Charlie survived the war, returns to complete his studies as a medical doctor at McGill University in Montréal, and marries his hometown sweetheart. Thousands of his compatriots lie in unknown graves, with this Memorial as a lasting tribute to their courage and determination.
Not Flanders Field, but McCrae's 'we are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow. Loved and were loved, and now we lie...' is appropriate.
Although Beaumont-Hamel is primarily a Canadian Memorial, there is also a Memorial and Cemetery for Scottish Regiments. The ground has been left untouched and visitors can walk through a trench. In this late summer of 2018 the grass is green and the ground dry, a sharp contrast to so much of the Great War when memories were mainly of cold, rain, and mud. Especially mud.
It is a sobering experience, one hundred years later. All those crosses and headstones, all those lives lost. I'm sure no-one can visit these battlefields without reflecting on the many hundreds who have no grave to mark where they lie. We should never forget the sacrifice.
My final choice of books is War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo. Told by Joey, a beautiful red bay, with a remarkable white cross on his forehead, this story is based on truth. Befriended by Albert, the farmer’s son, Joey was sold to the Army to pay off debts. Albert joined up to be with Joey but inevitably the two were separated. Joey was used to haul field ambulances; this book does not spare the reader from the senseless slaughter, the courage of the men and horses, the stupidity of their orders but it does so in a masterful way. It is fast paced, and easy to read. Joey ends up in German hands, and then in one of those little miracles he makes his way alone into no-man’s-land where he is found – simultaneously - by a German and a Welshman. The men chat for a few minutes about the futility of war, and agree to toss for Joey. The Welshman won, took Joey back to his regiment – and there also was Albert. The story proceeds with more ups and downs for Joey to a satisfying conclusion.
'Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget - lest we forget!' Kipling.