Tag Archives: first world war

The Last Summer: A Review

Note: I have tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, because I think quite a few of you will be interested in reading this book and I don’t want to give anything away!

A grand old English country estate.  A forbidden romance set against the backdrop of World War I.    The blurb for Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer intrigued me, and in all honesty, I was hoping to get a Downton Abbey fix.  But what I got was so much more.

Spanning roughly 16 years (1914-1930), The Last Summer is a beautifully written story about the young generation impacted by World War I.  Told through the eyes of Clarissa Granville, we see how the war crashes into her life and those around her, smashing every hope and dream in its path, causing inexplicable loss that sets all Clarissa thought she knew adrift.  But there is one thing that she always comes back to, one true thing that guides her: her love for Tom Cuthbert.

Clarissa meets Tom at her family’s country estate, Deyning.  Tom is the son of the housekeeper, and she is quickly drawn to his quiet intensity, despite their class difference.  The two make a connection that last summer before the First World War begins that cannot be broken, even with the many obstacles they face in the years to come.

I appreciated how the story didn’t stop with the war’s end, allowing the reader to see the long-lasting impact the conflict has on Clarissa and her generation.  Through her, we experience the pain, the loss, and the need to escape from it all.

Through the first-person narrative, the reader develops a very intimate relationship with Clarissa.  Every thought, every hope, every justification is laid out.  She hides nothing from us, but there is much she feels she must conceal from the other characters in the story.

We only see the other main characters through Clarissa’s eyes, but they are well-developed and all play a major role in Clarissa’s life and the decisions she makes.

As a writer, I have huge respect for what Judith Kinghorn was able to accomplish with this novel.  The story is well-crafted, the characters rich, the prose brilliant.  It will take up a permanent place on my bookshelf (yes, I still read real-life, feel-in-your-hands paper books).  If you have an interest in World War I and the period directly following it, societal change, or just a great love story, get thee to the bookstore and pick up a copy of The Last Summer.

Here’s a link to The Last Summer’s GoodReads page.

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Parade’s End

Parade's End

So, I know I’m a little late to the party (since it aired in February), but I had to write a post about the BBC/HBO miniseries Parade’s End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, and Adelaide Clemens.  The five-part series is adapted from four books written by Ford Madox Ford between 1924 and 1928.  Ford served in the Welsh Regiment during World War I, and used his experience on the Front to bring the conflict to life in his books, which were eventually combined into one volume, entitled Parade’s End.

Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for this particular adaptation, and it received a lot of critical acclaim.  So I had high hopes when it finally arrived in my mailbox.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall

Christopher & Sylvia

Parade’s End tells the story of Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), an intelligent British aristocrat who clings to the old code of moral conduct, even though the world around him is changing at a rapid pace.  The story opens in 1908, on his wedding day to flirtatious socialite Sylvia (Hall), who is two-months pregnant.  He’s not sure if the child is his, but determined to do the honorable thing, he marries her.  The two are complete opposites, both in temperament and the way they view the world.  Sylvia’s destructive actions are motivated by her need to get a reaction out of her stoic husband.  In one scene a frustrated Sylvia lobs a breakfast plate at Christopher’s head as he pencils in corrections to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he barely flinches.  While Sylvia enters into affairs to try to get her husband to notice her, Christopher’s principles prevent him from consummating his love for the earnest, passionate young suffragette Valentine Wannop (Clemens).

When World War I erupts across Europe, Christopher resigns from his job as a government statistician after he is asked to manipulate the facts.  Honorable principles in tact, he joins the army to fight for the preservation of the old ways he holds dear.  But the chaos of war will cause him to question those beliefs.

Christopher & Valentine

Christopher & Valentine

Christopher Tietjens’s transformation, along with his tumultuous relationship with his wife and longing for the woman he will not allow himself to have made this series enthralling to watch.  There are some subplots that drag a bit (but are nonetheless necessary), and at times this story does move slowly.  But the performances by Cumberbatch and Hall more than make up for it.  And the plot had me wondering to the very end who Christopher would choose to spend his life with.

I also appreciated the series’ treatment of World War I, as it showed not only what was happening on the front lines, but also the inefficiency of the military as Christopher is placed in a post to outfit troops preparing for the trenches.

And despite the gravity of the content, there are actually some surprisingly laugh-out-loud moments scattered throughout the series.  But I will say, though it takes place during the same time period, Downton Abbey this is not.  TIME’s James Poniewozik summed it up well when he wrote: “If Downton is a nostalgic champagne toast to the bygone Edwardian aristocracy, HBO’s five-hour miniseries is more of a cold, bitter drink of scotch at its wake.”

Christopher

With great performances, wonderful cast chemistry, and beautiful cinematography, Parade’s End is a fantastic period piece I highly recommend.

Here’s the trailer (I honestly think I could listen to Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice all day…not that it influenced my review or anything): 

 

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Open Christmas Letter: December 1914

While I was researching the Christmas Truce of 1914, I came across the “Open Christmas Letter” of 1914, a piece of history I had not read about before.  World War I took place between 1914 and 1918, a time in which women in both Europe and America were battling for the vote.  In fact, the war helped the women’s suffrage movement by giving women a chance to step into traditionally male roles as more and more men went off to fight.  Their contributions did not go unnoticed, and both the UK and the US passed women’s suffrage amendments in part due to their efforts.

By December of 1914 it was obvious that World War I would not be a short conflict.  Several German suffragists wrote letters to Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), who published them in Jus Suffragii, the journal for the IWSA.  The letters expressed these women’s desire that the war not divide them and they remain united despite the bloodshed, “by the common striving for the highest object–personal and political freedom.”

Emily Hobhouse, author of the Open Christmas Letter

Emily Hobhouse, author of the Open Christmas Letter

British suffragist Emily Hobhouse read the letters and decided to take action in what would become the “Open Christmas Letter.”  101 fellow suffragists signed the letter before sending it to the US press (because the two nations were at war, the British suffragists were prevented from directly communicating with those in Germany).  The letter, published under the heading: “On Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men,” offered a Christmas greeting to the women in Germany and Austria: “The Christmas message sounds like mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to such of you who feel as we do.”  It continued with a call for peace among the nations:

Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women of neutral countries, and urge our rulers to stay further bloodshed? …
Even through the clash of arms, we treasure our poet’s vision, and already seem to hear

“A hundred nations swear that there shall be
Pity and Peace and Love among the good and free.”

May Christmas hasten that day..

On March 1, 1915, the German and Austrian suffragists responded to the letter.  Their reply, entitled “Open Letter in Reply to the Open Christmas Letter from Englishwomen to German and Austrian Women,” was signed by 155 suffragists and printed in Jus Suffragii.

To our English sisters, sisters of the same race, we express in the name of many German women our warm and heartfelt thanks for their Christmas greetings, which we only heard of lately.
This message was a confirmation of what we foresaw—that women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness, devotion, and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, and that really civilised women never lose their humanity…

Rosa Mayreder, one of those who signed the response to the Open Christmas Letter

Rosa Mayreder, one of those who signed the response to the Open Christmas Letter

This shared hope of peace spurred the IWSA to hold an international peace conference of women in The Hague rather than their regular International Alliance meeting.  At the meeting Julia Grace Wales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, presented her ideas on bringing about peace, which came to be known as the Wisconsin Plan.  Wales’s plan envisioned an international group made up of neutral nations who would gather in order to serve as mediators between warring countries and also to provide peaceful solutions.  The Wisconsin Plan was unanimously adopted by the 1,150 women who attended the conference, and a delegation was selected to travel to neutral countries and present the plan.  One of these countries was the then neutral United States, and President Woodrow Wilson would later use many of the ideas from the Wisconsin Plan when creating his Fourteen Points.  Through these women’s efforts to bring about peace, they helped to bring about the League of Nations.

Source: Wikipedia

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A Christmas Truce

German and British soldiers

By December 1914, four months after the start of World War I, the “Race to the Sea” was complete, and two parallel lines of trenches ran from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.  The devastating effects of modern warfare were becoming alarmingly apparent, and some, such as Pope Benedict XV, called for a truce between the warring countries.  But as we know, the call for a ceasefire went unheeded, and the war would continue for four more years.

However, that first Christmas on the Western Front saw a number of spontaneous temporary ceasefires among the men on both sides of No Man’s Land.

In the days leading up to Christmas, German and British troops received a number of care packages, both from home and from their governments.  German soldiers decorated their parapets with candle-lit Christmas trees and sang carols, which could easily be seen and heard by the British troops, who were sometimes no more than 30 yards away.  The trees became a conversation piece between the trenches.  As the men spoke of Christmas, mutual goodwill led to carol singing, and in some areas, German and British troops actually met in No Man’s Land (at this point not the shell hole laden muddy nightmare it would later become as the war dragged on).  There they exchanged presents (items taken from their care packages), and in some cases, buttons from each others’ uniforms as a type of souvenir.  There was even an instance of a soccer game that took  place between the two sides.

In all, roughly 100,000 men participated in this unofficial truce.  It is important to note that this number mostly consisted of German and British troops.  The French and Belgian soldiers were not as involved because at this point their land was occupied by the Germans, and any Christmas feelings of goodwill were overshadowed by this fact.

christmas truce

In most cases the men did not receive any discipline for this fraternization.  This was due to the mixed reaction by both the British and German commanders when they heard the news.  Some made clear their disapproval of such actions and the dangers that could come from interacting with the opposing side.  Others did not see any major harm coming of the impromptu ceasefires, and felt that it might give their troops time to strengthen their trench structures, since they did not have to worry about being picked off by snipers or shell fire from the opposing side for a few days.

Some of the ceasefires ended with the close of Christmas Day–though a few lasted until the start of the New Year.  And in some sectors no truce took place at all, providing no respite from the routine of war.

Evidence of Christmas truces in 1915 and 1916 were also recorded.  Private Ronald MacKinnon, a 23 year old from Canada, wrote a letter home about Christmas on Vimy Ridge in 1916:

“I had quite a good Xmas considering I was in the front line. Xmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Xmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars.”

Private MacKinnon was killed four months later during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

British and German troops meeting in No Man's Land, Christmas 1914.

British and German troops meeting in No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914.

After 1916, the armies on both sides made a concerted effort to prevent further fraternization with the enemy.  They scheduled bombardments to take place on Christmas Eve so the opportunity to share Christmas tidings would be impossible.  Troops were also shuffled around to different sectors along the Front so that they never became too friendly with the men in the opposite trenches.

Today, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has become legendary.  It gives us a bit of hope for humanity, knowing that even during the horrors of World War I, men from both sides were willing to put their guns aside for a day and offer goodwill towards men they were told to hate, to shoot, to kill.

Sources: First World War.com, Wikipedia

For more, check out this YouTube clip from a PBS documentary, featuring the Christmas Truce of 1914:

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Propaganda Posters of World War I

While the United States did not enter the First World War until 1917, they produced more war propaganda posters than all the other belligerent countries combined: 20 million copies of approximately 2,500 different posters.  The United States’s Publicity Bureau quickly learned that propaganda posters worked as “a silent and powerful recruiter.”

Posters were an excellent way to disseminate news and information in an era before radios were commonplace in homes.  The images were effective, and one did not have to be literate to understand their meaning.

Harry A. Garfield, the head of the wartime United States Fuel Administration, spoke of posters’ ability to get the word out to people:

“I can get the authority to write a column or a page about fuel—but I cannot make everybody or even anybody read it. But if I can get a striking drawing with or without a legend of a few lines, everyone who runs by must see it.”

Some of the most successful poster artists came from magazine and book publishing, which makes sense, as they had been trained to create artwork that was evocative.  And that was the point of propaganda posters–to appeal to one’s emotions and give one cause for immediate action.

Below is a selection of war propaganda posters found in the digital “North Carolinians and the Great War” project by UNC Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South program.  These posters were widely distributed in North Carolina, and throughout the United States.  You can see the full collection here.

Source: American Posters of the Great War by Dr. Libby Chenault

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Last Dispatches

The Harry Ransom Center (a research library and museum at the University of Austin in Texas) is putting together what looks like a wonderful exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I.  The new exhibit will tell the story of the war through letters and diaries from soldiers, among other primary resources.  The museum gave The Daily Beast website a look at the final letters from famous English writers, which is posted on their website (visit it here: Last Letters from World War I Literary Heroes).

Seeing these last letters in the soldiers’ own handwriting humanizes the war in a way that nothing else can.

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Birdsong: Part II

I’m a bit behind posting my thoughts on part II of Birdsong.  The conclusion of the series did not disappoint.  I know that there have been some mixed reviews about this adaptation, but I felt the production was solid throughout and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the main complaints has been the flashbacks to Stephen’s life before the war threaded in throughout his wartime experience.  But as I said before, I think this only strengthened the story.  The horrors of the war are so vividly depicted that the viewer needs a chance to escape to a time before the nightmare began, just as it is likely the soldiers would have done when things became too much to bear.

Stephen going over the top during the Somme Offensive

Birdsong portrays the First World War very well, hitting all of the major notes that made this war so devastating, including the horrendous loss of life during the Somme Offensive.  I don’t want to write too much in the event some of you have not seen it, but I strongly urge you to watch it online on PBS while it is still available.

There’s also a good interview with Eddie Redmayne about his role as Stephen Wraysford which you can read here.

Jack Firebrace & Stephen Wraysford

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