Western Front

The Great War Bookshop Diary, April 2015 – 1915

Monday, March 30th

King George decides to takes a pledge to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the war. In South West Africa General Botha’s men advance.

Tuesday, March 31st

The German armies on the Western Front now comprise over 5,000,000 men. In New York, crowds flock to see the first epic of the film era – ‘The Birth of a Nation’.

Wednesday, April 1st

British planes bomb German submarine bases in Belgium. Over 30,000 British women have signed an official register to apply for war work.

 Thursday, April 2nd

Behind the German lines on the Western Front, scientists test how to release poison gas. ANZAC troops camped near Cairo riot through the city’s brothels.

Friday, April 3rd

French troops for Gallipoli arrive at their staging camp in Egypt.

Saturday, April 4th

Further progress reported in South West Africa. The strategic German settlement at Warmbad is occupied.

Sunday, April 5th

Two German officers escape from a prisoner of war camp at Denbigh in North Wales. They will stay on the run for a week before being re-captured.

Monday, April 6th

The Austrians want to take troops from the Eastern Front to defend themselves in the event of attack from Italy but the Germans object.

Tuesday, April 7th

British forces in Egypt start to leave for bases on the Greek islands to make their final preparations for the Gallipoli landings.

Wednesday, April 8th

The Germans near Ypres prepare chlorine gas for an attack but the wind is against them. Italy demands territory from Austria in return for neutrality.

Thursday, April 9th

German attempts to attack on rafts over the flooded ground north of Ypres are driven off. Germany accuses the United States of shipping contraband to the Allies.

Friday, April 10th

A ship carrying American war relief for Belgian refugees in Britain is sunk when a German submarine attacks a convoy near the Hebrides.

Saturday, April 11th

A giant German biplane with three powerful motors, the Staaken bomber, makes its maiden flight.

Sunday, April 12th

In the first pitched battle of the Mesopotamia campaign, a British force of 6,000 troops defeats a Turkish force of 12,000 at Shaiba.

Monday, April 13th

Lloyd George takes charge of the government’s Munitions Committee. A zeppelin is brought down by anti-aircraft fire near Ypres.

Tuesday, April 14th

A zeppelin reaches Wallsend, on Tyneside, and drops incendiary bombs: four civilian casualties. The work of the Red Cross is banned in German-occupied areas of Belgium.

Wednesday, April 15th

Italy builds up its forces in five areas facing the Austrian border. Night-time zeppelin raids against East Anglia: zero casualties.

Thursday, April 16th

The Canadian parliament approve a sum of $100,000,000 to be spent on the war. More than 100,000 Canadians are now in uniform.

Friday, April 17th

The British blow up German trenches on Hill 60 near Ypres with mines and, on occupying the craters, beat off counter attacks.

Saturday, April 18th

Fierce fighting for the craters at Hill 60. British aircraft locate and attack a German airstrip at the Dardanelles.

Sunday, April 19th

A French plane is shot down behind German lines, enabling the Germans to copy its device for allowing a machine gun to fire through its propeller.

Monday, April 20th

German artillery bombards Ypres ahead of a new attempt to seize the city using gas. The burning town’s civilian population departs in a hurry.

Tuesday, April 21st

The Austrians begin readying defences on their Italian borders in anticipation of attack.

Wednesday, April 22nd

The Germans use chlorine gas on a wide front to launch their mass assault against Ypres. French troops flee in panic. The Canadians move into the gap and steady the line.

Thursday, April 23rd

Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher becomes the first Canadian VC winner of the war after sticking by his machine gun when his comrades were killed.

Friday, April 24th

The death of the British poet, Rupert Brooke, is mourned on a French hospital ship. He died of blood poisoning caused by a mosquito bite on his lip.

 Saturday, April 25th

The British land at two places on the Gallipoli peninsula, ANZAC Cove and Cape Helles. Determined Turkish defenders pin the invaders to the beaches.

Sunday, April 26th

The British sustain heavy casualties at Gallipoli trying to establish their beachheads. On the Western Front, Lt. William Rhodes-Moorhouse wins the first VC in the air.

Monday, April 27th

Sir John French sacks one of his generals, Horace Smith-Dorrien, for urging a strategic retreat at Ypres. The cabinet authorises gas to be used as a weapon.

Tuesday, April 28th

British troops at Cape Helles advance two miles while the Royal Navy bombards Turkish positions. The Germans halt their attacks at Ypres.

Wednesday, April 29th

A zeppelin drops bombs on Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds: zero casualties.

Thursday, April 30th

The British at Cape Helles repulse a Turkish counter-attack after the government in Constantinople orders General Liman to ‘drive the invaders into the sea’.

Friday, May 1st

The first Mills hand grenades reach troops on the Western Front. A German submarine sinks an American tanker without warning in the Mediterranean.

 Saturday, May 2nd

The German government buys adverts in New York newspapers warning that ships flying the flags of the Allies will be attacked.

Sunday, May 3rd

Italy renounces its treaty obligations towards Austria, signalling the gradual mobilisation of its army.


War Books, a poem by Ivor Gurney.


Ivor Gurney served as an infantryman on the Western Front, 1916 – 1917. This poem comes from ‘Ivor Gurney, War Letters’, edited by R.K.R Thornton, published 1983.


War Books

What did they expect of our toil and extreme

Hunger – the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?

Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,

Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?

Out of the heart’s sickness the spirit wrote

For delight. Or to escape hunger, or of war’s worst anger,

When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense

Somehow together, and find this was life indeed,

And praise another’s nobleness, or to Cotswold get hence.

There we wrote – Corbie Ridge – or in Gonnehem at rest,

Or Fauquissart or world’s death songs, ever the best.

One made sorrows’ praise passing the Church where silence

Opened for the long quivering strokes of the bell –

Another wrote all soldiers’ praise, and of France and night’s stars,

Served his guns, got immortality, and died well.

But Ypres played another trick with its danger on me,

Kept still the needing and loving of action body;

Gave no candles, and nearly killed me twice as well,

And no souvenirs though I risked my life in the stuck tanks,

Yet there was praise of Ypres, love came sweet in hospital

And Old Flanders went under to long ages of plays thought in my pages.


Religion in Trench Lingo, 1914 -1918, by Chris Moore

The amen snorter could be spotted easily in France and Flanders during the First World War. British officers were allowed a narrow leeway when it came to idiosyncrasies of style in their uniform but only a chaplain could get away with a dog collar. Most infantry battalions had one God botherer attached to them, at least for a spell. By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, about 3,500 vicars had done their bit for the cure of souls on the Western Front.

In polite conversation they were universally referred to as padres, even though most of them were Protestants and the word, meaning father, derives from the Roman Catholic Church. Behind their backs they were devil dodgers, pulpit thumpers, sky pilots, Holy Joes or bible bashers. The average infantryman had little time for organised religion but the Army forced it on him. An abbreviation for each Christian denomination was stamped on every soldier’s cold meat ticket, his identity disc, to indicate the rites to be observed in the event of his death. ‘C of E’ meant Church of England; ‘RC’ denoted a Roman Catholic; ‘NC’ stood for the Non Conformists, the Methodists, Baptists, etc.

Any conscript or volunteer who didn’t express a preference on enlistment – “I’ll follow the band” – became C of E by default because as far as the Army was concerned, in the matter of religious faith, everybody had to be something. Attendance at church parade each Sunday was compulsory. Knee drill it was called, from all the praying required. It gave the sergeants an extra opportunity to display one of their favourite regimental witticisms. “Take your hat off in the House of the Lord …,” they would whisper in seeming reverence, before spitting out with concentrated venom, “you heathen bastard!”

Tommy never called anything by its proper name if trench lingo provided a slang alternative. A church was therefore a candle shop or joss house, joss meaning luck or superstition, derived from the Asiatic’s pronunciation of the Portuguese, deos, god. A church key was a bottle opener, providing access to the exaltation of the spirit. A Holy Boy in the British Army was not a Christian soldier but a member of the Norfolk Regiment, some of whom, while campaigning with Wellington during the Peninsular War, 1807 – 1814, were alleged to have sold their bibles to buy liquor. Woe betide any padre who took himself too seriously. Pi jaw, uplifting words and patriotic exhortations, were frowned on at the Front. Religious tracts given out by padres were derided as bumf, bum fodder, for wiping purposes.

The best-liked padres concentrated on being helpful. They lent money to the hard up, wrote letters for the illiterate and distributed parcels from their parishioners to men who might otherwise receive none. Most popular of all was the padre who could organise a gaff, an impromptu concert behind the lines, especially if he could enliven the proceedings by shuffling the dominoes, playing the piano. The pattern of this type was Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, who became known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, from his habit of pressing Woodbine cigarettes on the wounded. Studdert-Kennedy’s poems extolling the Christ-like forbearance of the fighting man earned him a wide readership in Blighty, but it was his determination to go where the fighting was, with plenty of buckshee fags about his person, that won him the Military Cross.

When it came to stopping one, men wanted it nice and clean in a mentionable part of the anatomy, not the orchestra (orchestra stalls – balls, Cockney rhyming slang). If he copped a Blighty one Tommy was happy, it would get him sent home. If he came a gutser or went napoo he didn’t care if the padre was there or not to plant him in the stiffs’ paddock. In the trench war, the fatalism of the gambler prevailed. If a packet had your name on it you were done for, God or no God. Comrades would forgive the occasional bout of funk (war was a terrifying business) but otherwise Tommy had to face up to the bowling, however hot, until he got his final issue from Quartermaster Death.

(For more trench lingo on the Western Front see Chris Moore’s dictionary, Roger, Sausage and Whippet, published by Headline, 2012)





Excuse Me While I Rant

It was bad timing that two hours after blogging about how useless television is for discussing books in general and Great War books in particular BBC Four should pop up with a programme just for me introduced by Martha Kearney. I came in late so missed the introduction but I soon caught the gist. There were images of war cemeteries and B&W archive footage of the trenches. But it turned out not be a book programme about the Great War at all. It was a programme about the Hay on Wye literary festival. So there was no discussion, just a series of severely edited interviews with writers gagging to promote their books.

The first sequence of soundbites featured three writers with books to plug about the Great War. By books, I mean novels. The first novel had been written by someone called Helen Dunmore. She spoke about being interested not so much in the Great War as what had happened after it. She spoke about liberating the archive and “wanting to break the silence.”

The second novelist was called Louisa Young, plugging the second installment of a trilogy. She said it didn’t have a lot of the Great War in it because she was “not that interested in explosions.” She was more interested, it turned out, in doing a Pat Barker on us – the same Pat Barker who is esteemed among Great War book readers for her beautifully conceived and written ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, which dramatises the use of electric shocks to treat soldiers suffering from what is referred to today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Louisa Young’s trilogy concerns men with their faces blown off, thereby requiring plastic surgery, as pioneered by the New Zealand doctor, Harold Gillies. She said that because men spent most of their time on the Western Front in trenches their heads were the most vulnerable part of their anatomy, especially since steel helmets were not introduced “until some time in 1915.”

The third novel was written by someone called Kamila Shamsie. Her protagonist was an Indian soldier who, while being treated for wounds in the Indian hospital set up in Brighton Pavilion, “becomes aware that he is being treated differently from English soldiers.”

Was it better, I wondered as I watched, to have something, anything, on telly about Great War books, no matter how superficial, than nothing at all? Was it better, from the novelist’s point of view, to serve up any old re-heated mish-mash than to miss the 1914 – 2014 bandwagon altogether? Did it really make for better telly to talk to a female Indian or Pakistani novelist about the experience of Indian soldiers on the Western Front rather than some white, middle-aged British male historian who might have invested years of research in the subject? And was it better for me, as BBC viewer interested in Great War books, for the BBC to spend money on sending Martha Kearney to Hay on Wye for two days with a camera team (five hotel rooms; five salaries; ten breakfasts; ten lunches; ten dinners; plus cappuccinos in between) to fill nine-minutes of Sunday night telly with televisual froth rather than literary fibre? I think you know the answer.

For readers interested, like Helen Dunmore , in what came after 1914 – 1918, the Great War Bookshop has a whole catalogue devoted to the Aftermath which currently contains more than 50 items, mostly written by men and women who experienced the Great War at the sharp end rather than imagining it one hundred years later. Readers interested in the pioneering work of Dr. Harold Gillies at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, are likewise directed to the catalogue called ‘Medical, Nurses & Doctors’ which contains his original journal articles with diagrammatic explanations of his breakthrough surgical techniques. As for the experience of Indian troops on the Western Front, the classic novel Across the Black Waters by Raj Mulk Anand, first published in 1939 and translated into almost every European language, is still available as a paperback so there’s no obvious reason to re-imagine it, thank you all the same. The great Great War books are out there already, if you know where to look, and they’re often better written and cheaper than the new ones. Happy hunting …