The First World War: Battle of the books

The centenary of the outbreak of hostilities has mobilised both historians and publishers.

The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid (1918) by Walter Bayes

Some Desperate Glory
Max Egremont

Egremont has done the seemingly impossible; not only has he found a new way of looking at Brooke, Owen, Sassoon et al but he has brought them to life. His book deals with 11 poets in the years they fought. Brooke was dead by 1915, while Edward Thomas didn’t start (and end) his war until 1917. These writers were not the homogeneous group they seem in retrospect but experienced and wrote about the war in all its different phases. This is Egremont’s simple but telling aperçu and he illustrates it with an evocative selection of their verse.
Picador, 304pp, £20

Englanders and Huns
James Hawes

The enmity between Britain and Germany that burst out so bloodily in 1914 had a 50-year backstory, argues James Hawes. His book chronicles the shifting attitudes of each country towards the other as Germany rose from a minor, almost comical central European power to become a threat to Britain that needed to be countered in the colonies and through an arms race. As Hawes shows to lively effect, the bickering was enthusiastically played out and intensified in the popular press of both nations.
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War
Edited by Pete Ayrton

This handsome anthology of prose fiction emphasises the global nature of the war, with new translations of Croatian, Catalan, Italian, French and Hungarian texts, together with excerpts from classics such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We hear from ambulance drivers, Indian soldiers, children playing “Armenians and Turks” and Czech soldiers lambasting the Austrian emperor (“A chap at the pub told us . . . he is breastfed three times a day”). The first passage, taken from Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, exemplifies the hard-won irony that runs through the collection. Patients at a sanatorium receive the news that war has been declared. “Perhaps it is the war to end all wars,” says one. “An end to war! Can that be?” replies another. “The world’s affliction is incurable.”
Serpent’s Tail, 572pp, £25

1914: the Year the World Ended
Paul Ham

This broad-sweeping narrative history is intended to refute Christopher Clark’s watershed study of the year 1914, The Sleepwalkers. There was, the Australian historian Paul Ham writes, nothing sleepy about the outbreak of catastrophic hostilities: “A few powerful, old aristocratic men brought war on the world behind closed doors.” He sets out to prove that Europe’s leaders knew what they were doing and to explain why they went ahead anyway. Ham treats with scorn these men’s later claims that they were powerless to stop events that had taken on a tragic momentum of their own.
Doubleday, 736pp, £25

The Fateful Year: England 1914
Mark Bostridge

In his New Year message, the archbishop of York warned that 1914 might well prove a “very fateful year”. The government was bracing itself for civil war in Ireland, yet more strike action in England and an increasingly militant campaign for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, trendy youths were learning the tango, a dance the Vatican feared as an “assassination of family and social life”. Mark Bostridge’s lively, sometimes surprising, social history of 1914 is told through a series of short stories, from the grisly murder of a schoolboy in north London and Prime Minister Asquith’s romantic woes to the first staging of Pygmalion and the contagion of spy fever that spread through the country.
Viking, 432pp, £25

The Great War and Modern Memory
Paul Fussell

A canonical piece of war criticism, the cultural historian Paul Fussell’s book – originally published in 1975 – seeks to identify the swerve in literary sensibilities that emerged from the shock of the First World War. Fussell argues for the emergence of “modern memory” in 1914 – a commonly felt assault on the European psyche, detectable in the poetry and memoirs of Blunden, Graves, Owen and Sassoon. Though struck through with generalisations and even inaccuracies his analysis of the themes and motifs of the era as they appeared between 1914 and 1918 (and shortly afterwards) remains highly influential.
Folio Society, 464pp, £44.95

World War I Love Stories
Gill Paul

This collection of sketches of 14 real-life romances demonstrates how the war enabled some love affairs yet destroyed others. In a nod to the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms, the book charts how Ernest Hemingway fell for the nurse tending his war wounds at a Milan hospital in 1918. The most affecting tale is that of an English captain on the run in occupied France who falls for a local beauty. The couple’s doomed affair ends, however, when the French belle’s neighbours betray him to the Germans. Ephemera including photos, letters, journal entries and maps vivify the stories.
Ivy Press, 192pp, £14.99

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First Word War
Edited by Hew Strachan

Professor Strachan’s primer includes chapters from 25 of the most distinguished historians of the conflict. Tackling subjects such as the origins of the war and manoeuvre warfare, it also discusses economic mobilisation, the role of propaganda and the rise of socialism. This new edition contains significant new material on the Central Powers’ strategy, the role of women in the war, mutinies and military morale. It is an essential introduction for all students of the First World War; the many photos included will also make it appeal to a general audience.
Oxford University Press, 400pp, £25

Outside Verdun
Arnold Zweig

This new translation by Fiona Rintoul of a German novel first published in 1935 presents the events at Verdun (in which Germany attempted to “bleed France white” by attacking its strongest point, resulting in more than 600,000 casualties) with grim clarity. Based on Zweig’s experiences as a Jewish private, it invests the German forces with the ills at large in society: class prejudice, anti-Semitism, incompetence. It is a thoughtful, sturdy novel and a response to the nationalistic fiction that sprang up after the war: it was subsequently burned by the Nazis. Zweig later fled to Palestine, returning in 1948 to become an MP.
Freight Books, 432pp, £12.99

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Jerry White

The war, writes Jerry White, a historian of London, changed the capital profoundly. It became a mechanised hub: a hospital for wounded soldiers and an entrepôt for fresh ones, a munitions factory and a target for German Zeppelin raids. The effects were by no means all negative. The war also brought London full employment and improved public health and transformed the prospects for women. This is a rich social history and White is as adept with individual characters as he is with the statistics of munitions production or the rise in prostitutes walking the city’s streets.
Bodley Head, 368pp, £25

Secret Warriors
Taylor Downing

The war was not fought in the trenches alone. Scientists, Taylor Downing contends, played a crucial, if underacknowledged, role in Britain’s victory and their efforts enhanced our understanding of medicine, psychology, intelligence-gathering and aviation. Downing’s fascinating study of these pioneering men – and a few women – is as much about class as about science. Today, in an era of mass surveillance, it is amusing to think that army officers and government officials were reluctant to use aerial photography or cryptography to spy on the enemy as it seemed “ungentlemanly”.
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage