A History of the First World War in a Hundred Objects

WW1

A History of the First World War in a Hundred Objects

John Hughes-Wilson, IWM Consultant Nigel Steel
London, Cassell, in Association with the Imperial War Museums 2014

Films and books can often hold the reader at an emotional distance from the human experience of war. Or we can take to heart how the old men ‘killed their sons and half the seed of Europe, one by one’ to paraphrase Wilfred Owen, only to hear some historian disdaining ‘the poets’ war’. Such scholars seem more concerned with strategy and statistics than the experience of soldiers and civilians across Europe.

John Hughes-Wilson has given us two books in one: a picture book of artefacts, precious relics, of the time with a commentary on each one to bring home the human experience, and an account of events over the four years and more that the Great War held sway over Europe. Each strand is moving as well as scholarly.

The first temptation is to skim the pages, alighting on a striking picture and reading about it, such as: No 17, a button given to Cpl Eric Rowden by Werner Keil, a German soldier he met during the Christmas Truce of 1814; No 27, A Lusitania Survivor’s Camisole, forever stained with oil from the surface of the sea; No 52, the football kicked by Lt Billie Nevill as he led his men over the top at the Somme in 1916, to die within the first few yards of the advance; No 78 A Hanukkah Lamp from Jerusalem.

Then after reading the brown print about the picture, the layout invites the reader to explore the topic it represents. Thus we learn of the U-boat peril and how the sinking of liners like the Lusitania led Germany to fear American reprisals and so cease attacking passenger liners; how lack of communications led to lack of co-ordination in battles where inspired leadership alone was no guarantee of victory; how this truly became a global war, not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and off the coast of South America.

More poignant topics are not avoided: the inept handling of the Irish Question and the Easter Rising (02, 13, 64); the work of chaplains (58); the sheer numbers of dead bodies in some very confined areas (59); the execution of deserters (75).

Hughes-Wilson looks beyond the battlefields, to cover the causes of the War, the blunders as well as the deliberate steps that led up to it. The Home Fronts are not forgotten, and the effects of the War on the future of Europe; new nations, memories and memorials, the permanently wounded, a great realisation of loss (95-100).

Each of the 100 chapters of this book could move as well as inform the reader. No doubt in a hundred years’ time our grandchildren will be saying, ‘never again’. This book will help them, like us, realise just how terrible war is, and how awesome the responsibility to be peacemakers.

With more than 400 pages of illustrated text this book is a bargain at £30 in hardback. It should be in every secondary school library, helping to breathe life into History. If every military recruit were to read it, would they become less docile, more prepared to question their role and their military duty in any operation? And would that be a bad thing? Were the generals right to suppress the Christmas Truces? Are such fraternisations at all possible now, when killer drones are commanded from thousands of miles away? Are we brothers and sisters under the skin? Let this book remind you that we are.

MMB.

This review was first published on the Independent Catholic News Website.

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