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Search tags: great-war-1914-18
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review 2019-04-21 15:49
At the going down of the sun...
Nobody of Any Importance - New,Phil Sutcliffe

The passing of the one hundredth Remembrance Day since the end of the Great War 1914-18, last November, gave good reason (if it was needed) to revisit some of the written records of that gloomy period of European history. Often poignant, the poetry, letters and tragic lists of the fallen offer reminders, lest we forget, of the sacrifice of a generation. However, given the colossal loss of life, what sometimes appears absent from contemporary accounts is a view from the non-commissioned ranks, a ‘Tommy’s’ experience from the trenches of the front lines. As such, this memoir by Cpl Sam Sutcliffe, collated/edited by his son Phillip, offers a telling insight into the chaos of conflict visited on so many and the mind-set of those so often cast as ‘cannon-fodder’. Even allowing for the retrospective writing of this lengthy book, the vivid descriptions created by the author and the accompanying endnotes, cross-referencing a wide range of confirmatory material, make this a sobering but compelling read.
The title of the book gives an immediate flavour of the self-effacing humility of the author and yet he goes on to describe joining up aged just sixteen, with his older brother (Ted) and friends (in fact, Sam lied about his age, as the youngest recruit allowed was 19). The swell of public patriotic fervour in 1912 and the casual acceptance of the need to do ‘one’s duty’, in hindsight, seems naive. Moreover, the apparent absence of apprehension suggests a misunderstanding of the carnage of war. The phlegmatic acceptance of Sutcliffe’s parents to their young son’s decision also perhaps an echo of the national willingness to tolerate sacrifice. Though later, conscription became necessary and through his journey the author develops a certain cynicism about those who avoided service altogether and those who sought to distance themselves from the trenches at the front line, tempered only by the psychological breakdowns he witnessed there.

Subsequently Sutcliffe’s tender age did confer a temporary reprieve. Still not eighteen, the author had already fought in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and the first battle of the Somme, rising to the rank of acting Sergeant, when he was plucked briefly to safety until 1917 (when he became nineteen) and could be returned to the western front, in time for the anticipated Spring offensive. Captured during that monumental effort by Germany to end the war, Sutcliffe relates his subsequent experience as a prisoner-of-war and an equally challenging personal struggle to just stay alive and survive the attendant risk of disease and privation.

This book is an extraordinary account of a teenager’s experience of a brutal conflict that culminated in a vast body count. After Gallipoli (wherein having been evacuated his unit was returned to cover the withdrawal of the foremost positions), the author laments the decimation of his original battalion of volunteers from London, culled from a thousand men to around just two hundred. Indeed the scale of this loss appears to haunt Sutcliffe throughout his account and his perspective clearly changes regarding the veneer of national pride, which he sees laid bare amid such abject failure.

At times the book reads like a novel. For example, the author is separated from his brother early on, but their paths cross several times in the course of the war. Yet, there is no disguising the sense of relief when the siblings both survive, albeit Ted’s exposure to gas in the trenches had a lasting effect. No commentary on the strategic mistakes pored over by historians in subsequent decades, nor criticism of the class system which conferred leadership roles on some ill-equipped to inspire others, though Sutcliffe does single out a couple of officers revered for their compassionate and resilient example, who did indeed lead from the front. Nonetheless, the reader is left with the distinct impression that notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, Sam Sutcliffe’s contribution was indeed heroic and it is the collective efforts of many such ‘nobodies’ and a preparedness to do their ‘bit’ that ultimately made the crucial difference. We shall remember them...

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review 2018-03-08 15:27
Entertaining, but limited
The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford Paperbacks) - Richard Alexander Hough

The title of Richard Hough's book promises more than it delivers, for instead of providing a comprehensive coverage of the naval campaigns of the First World War he offers a study focused on the arms race involving dreadnought construction and the stalemated confrontation between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet between the start of the war and the battle of Jutland. While Hough's focus is understandable, it comes at slighting the myriad other aspects of the naval war: of the sixteen chapters, only five do not address either one of these two relatively narrow aspects of the war at sea. Yet Hough is an able writer who provides a gripping account of such events as the pursuit of Germany's Pacific Squadron or the battle of Jutland. Readers seeking an entertaining account of the naval war will not be disappointed by this book, though those desiring a more comprehensive analysis would be better served turning to Lawrence Sondhaus's similarly titled The Great War at Sea.

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text 2018-02-07 05:26
Reading progress update: I've read 1 out of 704 pages.
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 - G.J. Meyer

My next non-fiction. I expect this one will take me a while.

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review 2016-01-31 22:37
Great War Fighter Aces 1914-1916 (Images of War) - Norman Franks

"GREAT WAR FIGHTER ACES 1914-1916" is one of those books that truly lives up to its billing. It provides the reader with a thorough and comprehensive history of the creation and development of the fighter plane as a weapon of war and the birth and celebration by the warring nations (Great Britain excepted) of the fighter ace during the first 2 years of the First World War. What's more: THERE'S A RICH CORNUCOPIA OF PHOTOS (sprinkled throughout the book) featuring various aircraft of the period and the pilots who helped usher in a new type of warfare. Some of these pilots who survived beyond 1916 - Guynemer, Ball, Dallas, Nungesser, Voss, Deullin, and von Richthofen (aka 'The Red Baron') - would later become household names due to their prowess as great aces and leaders.


(Ohhhh, I can't wait to receive the second volume, which will cover the fighter aces of the 1917 & 1918 period.    That is, once it becomes available in the market.)


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review 2013-08-18 00:00
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 - G.J. Meyer in contrast to LSE Professor David Stevenson's economics/statistics approach, historian G.J. Meyer (M.A., English, Univ. Minnesota) gives a personality-centred story. in other words, 'this ruler ordered this,' but 'that general favoured that.' to some degree, modern historical science is moving away from that approach to examine apersonal forces and broad statistical facts, but until the individual is completely erased from story, the journalist/historian still writes a damn good book. in fact, you might complain the narrative is too unified, too hypnotic. fate is not ignored either, with Archduke Franz Ferdinand's motorcade proceeding down the pre-arranged route despite being targeted by grenade-throwing Serbian nationalists. the German ambassador and Russian foreign minister weep, knowing what is to come. German strategy plays out as it must, despite armchair generals in later decades pointing out what could have been done.

WWI will never lose its power over western civilization in the sheer number of casualties involved. I had the opportunity to speak with some Chinese nationalists amidst rising China this past year, and they point out that in the 19th century, they too had a multi-million casualty war-- but it was a civil war, so it tends not to be studied or known outside the country. apparently in the late 19th century, some messianic religious leader some Hong Qi or something like that declared himself Jesus Christ and said he was going to establish a Heavenly Kingdom in place of the dying Qing Dynasty. he attracted hundreds of millions of followers and nearly succeeded, eventually falling to the superior arms-production of the Qing Dynasty (now considered by history to be supremely unarmed, but by comparison to a grassroots movement, still in possession of muskets), and millions upon millions died. BUT, in the final analysis, international / inter-state war is far more indelible in human memory, and it causes people to retain a reputation far more than the mix-up of civil warfare, where two brothers in the same family might belong to different sides.

in a year's time will come the 100-year anniversary of the Great War, and of course, mankind still has not eliminated warfare from its midst
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