men they led (roughly 20 per cent of subalterns died, compared to around 14 per cent of the army as a whole), Lewis-Stempel decided to select the cream of those writings. The result is the most moving single book on the Great War that I have ever read – and I have read many.
The title starkly sums up the average time a subaltern might expect to spend in the trenches before he was wounded or killed. Extraordinarily, however, even knowing these odds, the overwhelming majority did their duties willingly, even eagerly. The author cannot disguise his wondering admiration at the self-sacrifice of these men, and his book pays the subalterns the respect they deserve by entering into their distant mindsets. This is achieved by linking long quotations from the best of the Great War writings – not only those of Graves, Blunden, Owen and Sassoon but also those of less familiar names: H E L Mellersh, Robert Talbot Kelly and Guy Chapman. Here too are the experiences of the soon-to-be-famous: Macmillan and his future rival and fellow PM Anthony Eden; the writers J R R Tolkien, J B Priestley and Alec Waugh; and John Reith, the austere Scot who founded the BBC. Most poignantly of all, here are the words of those who would never set down their official reminiscences or achieve greatness –
To order, pls reference CHBOW Visa, Mastercard, American Express, debit cards & cheques (payable to Marston Book Services) accepted email: Direct.email@example.com tel: 01235 465577 • fax: 01235 465556 post: Marston Book Services Ltd PO Box 269 Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN www.signalbooks.co.uk because they did not survive.
Colourful characters like the aristocratic poet and sportsman Julian Grenfell revelled in conditions which made more sensitive souls cringe. ‘I adore war,’ he wrote home. ‘It is like a big picnic, but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy.’ Grenfell kept a pack of hunting dogs at the front, and went on his own hunting expeditions, sniping ‘Huns’ from No Man’s Land and entering his kills in a game book as though the potted Germans were so many pheasants or hares. In the end a shell splinter in his brain killed Grenfell. His brother Billy died at the front too, and Lewis-Stempel makes the point that the war was the last hurrah of the British aristocracy, who were wiped out in numbers not seen since the fratricidal Wars of the Roses, just at the moment when Lloyd George’s death duties were exterminating them economically. One of the non-aristocratic subalterns who features in Six Weeks, Edwin Campion Vaughan, wrote a diary, Some Desperate Glory (Pen and Sword 232pp £12.99), which, hidden away in a cupboard, only surfaced in 1981 and is now being republished in a new edition. Vaughan, a Londoner from an Irish Catholic family, enlisted and trained at the same time and at the same camp, Hare Hall in Essex, as Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas – though there is no record of them meeting. Vaughan went through the hell of Passchendaele, and describes listening helplessly to the agonised cries of wounded men who, crawling into the illusory shelter of shellholes, find them filling with water in which they slowly drown. Winning an MC at the war’s end for gallantry in crossing the same canal on which Owen died, Vaughan ends the diary unable to complete the casualty report for the men who did not make it. Instead he ‘sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a blank and empty future’.
This prophecy proved accurate. Vaughan was one of millions of ex-servicemen who found it impossible to sink back into the humdrum rhythms of civilian life after the war. Like T E Lawrence, he re-enlisted, first in the Army, then in the RAF. Tragically, he died in 1931 in hospital after a negligent doctor accidentally administered to him, instead of Novocaine, a lethal dose of cocaine. He left behind a wife and four children. His diary, perhaps the rawest document to emerge from the trenches, has now found its place in the pantheon as one of the half dozen best books about the Great War.
Vaughan, Owen and Sassoon, despite their horror at what they had witnessed, all won the ‘officers’ medal’ – the Military Cross – for their bravery. Forgotten Voices of the Victoria Cross by Roderick Bailey (Ebury Press 382pp £16.99) recounts the deeds of those who were awarded the highest decoration of all for acts of valour. Though he covers VCs won in conflicts from the Crimea in the 1850s (when it was instituted) to the
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010
Korean War a century later, Bailey admires those magnificent men in their flying machines most of all. His account of the VCs (all posthumous) won by Britain’s top three air aces – Albert Ball, Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock – makes it clear that air combat was even more deadly for its participants than trench warfare was for the subalterns. We would like to imagine the typical VC holder as quiet and modest, but they could be loud-mouthed and brash too. One such was James Neville Marshall VC, MC (and bar), whose extraordinary exploits were even acknowledged by the Belgians with a Croix de Guerre. A stern disciplinarian, Marshall was known for obvious reasons as ‘Marshall of the ten wounds’ and regarded himself as the bravest man in the British Army. Few contradicted him. He was the commanding officer of Wilfred Owen, who thought him a bully. Both died in the final battle of the war, exactly a week before the Armistice. And both, sensitive poet and ex-horse dealer, lie in the same row of the same cemetery, shot through the head leading their men across the Sambre–Oise Canal under heavy machine-gun fire – an attack so foolhardy that even Marshall had asked for it to be called off.
As the subalterns of the Great War rapidly discovered – and as their generals learned rather more slowly – courage alone cannot defeat technology. The war was arguably the conflict in which technological advances (poison gas, the radio, the tank, the plane) finally became dominant – forcing their human creators into the back seat. In Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways (Atlantic Books 310pp £20) contemporary railway expert Christian Wolmar explains how the technology of the train transformed conflict from the American Civil War to the Cold War. A J P Taylor called the outbreak of war in 1914 ‘war by timetable’, and it is certainly true that Germany’s scheme for a knockout blow against France, the Schlieffen Plan, depended on railways rushing troops to the front via inflexible timetables ar ranged with Teutonic thoroughness. Once the trench lines had stabilised, the railways became not so much the sinews as the arteries of war – clanking draughts of fresh blood to the front, and sucking back, with agonising slowness, both the wounded and the lucky ones going home on leave.
As the last hours of peace trickled away in 1914, the Kaiser, snatching too late at a straw of peace, asked his commander-in-chief, Helmuth von Moltke, whether it was possible to stop the trains, halt the Schlieffen Plan in its tracks and send the soldiers against Russia instead. An exasperated Moltke explained that it was too late – the troop trains, steam up, had long left the stations. Humanity as a whole, to quote Sylvia Plath, had ‘boarded the train there’s no getting off ’. To order these books, see LR Bookshop on page 22
THE ROAD TO WAR THE TRIUMPH OF THE DARK: EUROPEAN
INTERNATIONAL HISTORY 1933–1939
By Zara Steiner (Oxford University Press 1,130pp £35)
The Triumph of the Dark is the sequel to The Lights that Failed (2005), which covered the period from 1919 to 1933: together they are a whopping 2,000 pages long. The author clearly sees the two volumes as a single whole, and has written them as such; she herself observes that the concluding section of the first, a recapitulation of what she calls ‘The Hinge Years’, is the necessary introduction to the second. If an abridged version is ever published, it is tempting to suggest that Steiner’s magisterial essays, ‘Europe Reconstructed?’ (1918–29), ‘The Hinge Years’ (1929–33), and the conclusion of this volume, which might be called ‘Slouching Towards Berchtesgarten, or The Second Hecatomb’ (1933–39), should be brought together as the Steiner interpretation.
In the meantime, we have the whole nine yards. Steiner’s opus is part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe, commissioned by Alan Bullock, who did not live to see its completion. Its predecessor in the series, A J P Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848–1918, achieved classic status. Generations of students were swept along by its scintillating prose; its very title became something of a cliché. Taylor is a hard act to follow. Will Steiner’s history imprint itself on her contemporaries like that of her illustrious predecessor, as Tony Judt’s Postwar surely will for its respective period? Leaving aside the question of length or manageability – among other things, Taylor’s was a brilliant feat of compression, distilling sixty years of European diplomacy into a mere 600 pages – there are some obvious disparities of stance and style. Taylor was writing diplomatic history (‘what one clerk said to another clerk’, in G M Young’s phrase), and proudly so. Steiner has tried to write international history, as she says, ‘not restr icting my narrative to the exchanges between foreign offices’: not only clerks, or commissars, or crowned heads, but an attempt to embrace what whole peoples thought and felt and did.
The temper of the text is different. Steiner is cooler and calmer than Taylor, less emphatic and epigrammatic, not as boisterous, mischievous or contentious; she is robust but restrained. The prose is more staid and so is the interpretation. Furthermore, Steiner has a deep-seated, almost Actonian sense of humility as she contemplates the panjandrums of the past. The hallmark of her history is a
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010