Review: Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth by Paul Ham

9781864711448Paul Ham reaffirms his status as one of the best current Australian historians writing today, taking his astute eye to the devastating battle of Passchendaele. This is not a history book solely about Australia’s involvement in the Flanders campaign of 1917. This is an all-encompassing look at the events and the situation that led to the battle and the wholesale slaughter of over half a million men. Ham combs through the histories and memoirs of those involved on both sides and all ranks, wading through the lies and falsehoods, myths and legends, excuses and justifications that have festered over the decades to put together a picture of a battle that somehow exceeded the horrors of The Somme and Verdun only a year before.

Paul Ham primarily explores how a toxic relationship between Prime Minister Lloyd George and Field Marshall Douglas Haig allowed an offensive to go ahead whose only true goal was absolute attrition. He shows how the lessons learned during the butchery of The Somme about tactics (tactics that could preserve men’s lives and actually gain ground;  the creeping barrage, bite and hold) were not employed due to the weather and in some cases battles went ahead with no artillery support at all. Ham demonstrates that the immense casualties on both sides were not some catastrophe or blunder of leadership but planned for, expected and deemed necessary and shows how those in a position to stop the carnage did nothing, putting personal grievances ahead of the lives of over 500,000 men.

This is a book not only for all Australians to read but New Zealanders, Britons, French and Germans as well. Paul Ham puts this battle and consequently The First World War in its context of the time, not some revisionist context in light of subsequent events and conflicts. This a cutting, insightful and moving look at one of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the First World War.

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Review: The Dust That Falls From Dreams by Louis de Bernieres

9781846558771Louis de Bernieres adds to the pantheon of First World War novels with his latest book. Inspired by his own family history de Bernieres explores the devastation and changes the war wrought upon British lives and society following four daughters of the McCosh family. At it’s it is a centre a love story; about love lost, love found and love that needs to be discovered.

This is an entertaining novel about four sisters and how the First World War changes the course of their lives. This is not a novel about the trenches, although the scenes of war de Bernieres describes are remarkably vivid, particularly those of pilot Daniel Pitt. Instead it is about the lives lost and the consequences and possibilities that evaporated with them. The war opens doors and prospects they could never have imagined while also painfully closing and altering their future paths.

The immediate comparison the book drew for me was Downton Abbey and at times the novel does threaten to fall into melodrama but de Bernieres manages to steer away from the sensational, often just in the nick of time. Like Downton Abbey though de Bernieres does just stick to the changes to the family whose story he is telling, sometimes brushing up against the changes, but not exploring them in any deeper way than the effect they have on the McCosh’s lives.

Like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Birds Without Wings this is a story full of characters’ lives to get lost in while history sweeps around them. Told with good humour, compassion and tragedy this is a sweeping tale about rebuilding and re-finding happiness when it seems irrevocably lost, swept away by the indiscriminate tide of war.

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Top 10 War Novels: A Response

You might have seen the great post by Jon Page entitled My Top 10 War Novels. Like most people I was entertained and added more books to my ever growing ‘to be read’ list. I was also thinking about all the great war novels that were missed; in fact I made a mental list of my favourite war novels and we share no books in common. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers just missed my top 10 but that was the closest common book I found. What I enjoy about war novels is exploring the human connection, the struggle with the horrors of war and its aftermath. So I thought as a response to Jon Page’s post here are some great war novels that were missed.

10. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone dog soldiers

This cult novel seems to capture a unique mood of Americans during the Vietnam War. This book deals with some different themes, not just the war and its effect on America, but it takes a look at counter culture, drug trafficking and the corruptibility of authority.

the narrow road to the deep north9. Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I feel an Australian perspective is needed on the list and Flanagan offered a great option last year. This book focuses on not just the cruelty of war and its after effects but the impossibility of love, especially when so damaged.

8. Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding painter of silence

This novel looks at Post World War II Romania under the brutal Stalinist regime. This looks at the devastation war had on Romania, providing not only hopelessness and despair but also great beauty. This is a novel that feels like a piece of art and yet it still managed to capture the mental and physical burdens of the characters living in this post-war town.

Maus7. Maus by Art Spiegelman 

This graphic novel tells the story of a Jewish family living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. This offers a unique perspective of a type of story that has been told time and time again. Maus is also the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

People of Forever are not Afraid6. People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu 

This is the story of three normal Israeli girls who go from passing notes in school, talking about boys to turning eighteen and being conscripted into the army. For the most, this book is about a perpetual state of war.  The conflict between Israel and Lebanon still puts them into real danger, it is here we explore the idea of self-discovery when they are thrown into such an extreme situation.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk5. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 

This entire book really showed the disconnection between the military and civil life in the modern day. American wants revenge for 9/11 but they are not willing to sacrifice some like a Thanksgiving football game for it. This is a powerful book in the same vain as Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Constellation of Vital Phenomena4. Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 

Chechnya is in a fragile state due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) followed by the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split (1992). This novel takes place during the second Chechen War. This is a beautiful novel of human connection and the struggles found in an abused country. This was one of the best novels of 2013 (for me anyway).

catch 223. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

This satirical masterpiece is a novel I’ll never forget; it was surprisingly funny but also remained insightful. This novel talks about the mental suffering caused from war but also the absurdity that can be found in bureaucratic operation and reasoning.

war and peace2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 

This Russian classic depicts the French invasion of Russia in 1812. True to Tolstoy form, War and Peace also looks at classes and the impact of the Napoleonic invasion on the Tsarist society. One of the things I love about Tolstoy’s writing is the way he looks at a situation as a whole; he had a unique ability to capture the lives of everyone involved in one war.

slaughterhouse-five1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This story just has so many layers to try to explain, but it makes for an interesting read. Billy keeps randomly traveling to the Past, Future and a planet called Tralfamadore; this may seem weird but this classic really captures the effects of war on its survivors and the mental scaring it causes.

My Top 10 War Novels

There has been a resurgence in war novels in recent years as veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq return from the conflict and begin to try and make sense of what they have experienced and what the future holds for themselves. I am a huge fan of war fiction. Fiction about war I find is so much more powerful than non fiction. Non fiction is limited by facts and hindsight. In the case of biography it is limited to one point of view (which is also often the case with some history books). Fiction however has no such limits. Fiction can go inside the heads of people, in can give us both sides of the conflict, in can be in the ‘here and now’ or it can be reflective and it can trigger an emotional response rarely found in non fiction. 2014 has delivered another two wonderful books about what it is like to go to war, Redeployment by Phil Klay and Fives And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre, so I thought I would list my Top 10:

10. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden9780143037071

Just pipping Birdsong this fantastic novel is about two Native Canadian friends who are  both expert sharpshooters and, using the field craft they learned hunting in the forests of Hudson Bay, quickly become accomplished snipers on the Western Front. However the horrors of the war will not only test their courage and sanity but also their friendship.

97814088544579. Five And Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

War is never one-sided. It is all-encompassing and personally harrowing. Pitre has captured this aspect of war with compassion, complexity and clarity. It maybe a cliche to say that this is an important book about war that we should all read but it is only a cliche because it is true. We can’t understand a war until we have seen all its sides and Michael Pitre’s powerful debut novel is the first to explorer the pain and destruction wreaked on both sides of this long and different war.

8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien9780006543947

The way Tim O’Brien blends fact and fiction, short stories and a long narrative is breathtaking in its scope and emotional resonance. There is a reason why this is considered an absolute classic.

7. Fields Of Fire by James Webb

9780553583854Webb presents the war in all its twisted glory and shame but without breaking the bond the reader quickly develops with the lead characters. You are immersed in the jungle and its claustrophobia, the monotony and futility of life as a soldier and the fear and insanity of being in combat.

6. Regeneration by Pat Barker

9780241969144Easily the finest novel about the First World War. Barker’s novel is set in Scotland and explorers the effects of shell-shock and the experimental means of treating it. Featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen this a powerful psychological portrait of the effects of war and what it takes to return to the frontlines.

5. City of Thieves by David Benioff

9780340977392Captures the absurdity of war perfectly. Set during the Nazis’ siege ofLeningrad the futility of war is explored through an absurd life or death mission. In a city that has been cut off from the outside world, a 17-year-old boy and a Red Army deserter, must survive the starving, shell-ravaged city and the dangerous, lawless countryside in search of a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a Russian Colonel’s daughter.

4. Redeployment by Phil Klay

9780857864239This collection of short stories is unlike anything you have read before. Each story examines a different part of the decade long war in Iraq. From coming home to staying behind, from soldiers to civilians and all the chaos that war can cause.

3. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Which sounds odd for a novel about war but Kevin Powers is able to evocatively 9781444756142capture not only what is happening to the physical landscape of the novel but also the mental landscape. I have never read a book that captures the disintegration of humanity but also the power of humanity quite like The Yellow Birds.

2. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

This isn’t a war novel about heroes. It is not a war novel about politics. Although both are factors throughout the s9781848874961tory. This is not about why America was in Vietnam, because the characters in the story didn’t get a choice in the matter. This is about men and boys who experience something that changes them forever and it is about societies that will change forever. It is about war, but the biggest battles are those that the men of Bravo Company have to fight with each other and themselves

1. The Thin Red Line by James Jones

I have not read another book that comes close to the raw emotion displayed in this novel. The vast 9780141393247array of characters, from PFCs to Colonels, gave a unique insight into the life and experience not only of an individual soldier but an army company as a whole. Charlie Company was a character in the book and the ridge they had to take was a ‘dancing elephant’ that was alive and violent.

What are your favourite war novels?

Dispels the myths of how the world went to war

9781864711424Review – 1914 The Year The World Ended by Paul Ham

I am not big on First World War history. The war it is not as captivating to me as the Second World War probably because of the static, stalemate nature of the war and the utter senselessness, not only of why the world went to war, but how long outdated tactics were used and the number of lives wasted. The First World War was also what I studied at school (until I dropped history) and the way it was presented, dates after dates, without any personal stories, meant I never could really relate to the conflict. It wasn’t until I read Pat Barker’s phenomenal Regeneration Trilogy and learnt about the likes of Siegfried Sassoon that I started to have any interest at all. Unlike the Second World War which still fascinates me greatly..

As I’ve written about numerous times I rank Paul Ham as one of the best Australian historians writing at the moment so I had no hesitations about reading his take on the First World War. Not that this book is a book about the war. Instead Paul Ham tells the story of how the world went to war and dispels many of the myths that have been perpetuated (particularly by high school history teachers!)

The popular version of the origins of the First World War is that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered a number of treaties that led to Germany invading France and the world going to war. Paul Ham shows us that the assassination, rather than being the spark that ignited the war,  was an event exploited by a small few in power who wanted war. Who chose war. Who would have found another reason, another event, to trigger the whole catastrophe. In doing so Ham also dispels the myth that Europe slept walked to war in August 1914.

Ham follows the ebb and flow of diplomacy in Europe in the years leading up to The Great War.  He demonstrates that the huge divisions that seemed to cause the war were not always in evidence and that even as late as early 1914 problems between the powers of Europe were not insurmountable. However a feeling of war’s inevitability, going back a decade, seemed to cloud everyone’s judgement. This led to an escalation in high stakes diplomacy (and in other cases a complete lack of diplomacy) which coupled together with miscommunication and misunderstanding brought about a devastating war that could have been prevented. Instead those in power chose war and the world as it was known until 1914 ended.

1914 was a pivotal year in human history. It led to the Russian Revolution and The Cold War and was the seed that allowed Nazism and the horror of the Second World War to grow. It changed societies and countries around the globe. It was the beginning of the end of empires and monarchies as the world had known them. Paul Ham deftly and expertly guides us through all the pivotal events that led to this cataclysm and in doing so shows us that lessons can still be learnt one hundred years on.

Buy the book here…