Thursday, 9 May 2019

Review: The Blue Book of the War, edited by Herbert Strang

The edition I read was reprinted in 1917, and I think originally came out late 1916 (preceding the revolution in Russia and collapse of the Eastern Front). I believe this book was aimed at older children (it’s a little similar in style to The Wonder Book of Aircraft). The mindset is fascinating and the writing engaging.

Most books about The Great War nowadays tend to conjure images of terrible grind, both in terms of trench warfare not moving very much, and in terms of immense grimness. And those things are not wrong. But they’re also not the complete story.

In the Middle East and Africa, things moved with greater pace, and the middle of the book is dedicated to stories of naval exploits, many of which I had no idea about (British submarines getting up to mischief in the Bosphorus, for example).

The mentality of the book is of another age, with the start of a battle described as an adventure beginning. There’s both a recognition of how terrible war is (quoted below) and a celebration of the human spirit that can arise in conflict.

Early on, the book is poignant (a letter home from a soldier the day before he got killed in one of the many large battles standing out in the memory). But the overriding sense is of a quite alien attitude to both Britain and war, the latter perhaps closer to Livy’s Romanesque glory than today’s immense reluctance. I was wondering if it would be a parochial book, yet one of the examples of heroism cited was of a priest who gave the last rites to an enemy soldier, and whilst there is some German-bashing there’s also praise for Turkish manoeuvres around Suez, Von Mackensen’s Eastern shenanigans, and the final chapter is dedicated to heroism from British allies (Frenchmen, Russians, and Italians singled out, with kudos also given to the Sikhs, Maoris, and others).

Must admit, I found the book to have a lively writing style, and yet was perhaps even more interesting from a psychological perspective. The differing topics of the various aspects of the naval conflict and doings further afield ensured that, whilst the focus is on Britain and her Empire, there is plenty about other arenas where our involvement was either minimal or non-existent.

I shall end this review with a few excerpts that I made note of as I read:
War is a terrible, hideous thing.” [A short time later in the same paragraph]. “Yet there is something even more terrible than war, and that is the weak and cowardly acceptance of what we believe to be evil for the sake of saving our skins.”

We shall not, therefore, be surprised when we learn that by far the greater part of British naval strength and resources has in the Great War been devoted to the efficient maintenance of its patrol services: and we may well wonder at the weakness of human nature which impels us to esteem a dashing exploit, carried through in, perhaps, a few minutes, more highly than we regard the faithful endurance of hardship and the vigilant discharge of duty continued for long, weary months amid the stress and perils of the northern seas.”

Their brigade was lying in front of Gorizia and was much inconvenienced by the enemy’s fire from a particular hill that dominated their position – a hill so craggy, in fact, as to seem quite inaccessible.”


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