Tuesday, 6 November 2018

1918 - The Decisive Year... Richard Van Emden

1918 - The Decisive Year in Soldiers' Own Words & Photographs
Richard Van Emden
Pen & Sword Books; £30

You can't blame Richard Van Emden for having one last Big Push with First World War non-fiction. Now that the centenary commemorations are drawing to a close, the opportunities to monetise the war will also dwindle. For that matter, Richard VE has authored some cracking books over the years, picking up the mantle where Martin Middlebrook and Lyn MacDonald left off, and cleverly interleaving veteran narratives with his compelling re-telling of the events. He does that very well and he must count himself fortunate to have spoken to so many veterans while there was still time.

For those familiar with Van Emden's work I don't think there will be a lot to be learned from the narrative. Many of the veterans' names will be familiar from other works, and there are also familiar accounts from long-published works by the likes of Stephen Graham, Aubrey Smith, Rudolf Binding, Lancelot Spicer... Admittedly, it takes skill to weave these narratives together and Richard is a past master at doing so.

So much for the words, it is the photographs that really stand out for me in this volume. Just as those of us whose interest was kindled in the Great War decades ago are overly familiar with War Letters to a Wife and A Medico's Luck in the War, so too are we used to seeing those same images of stretcher bearers struggling through mud or a skeleton with its arm across its skull at the bottom of a trench. Thankfully, those images do not get a re-run in this volume. What we do have are many photos that have been published for the first time and that show images not just of allied troops but of German soldiers as well. For the most part these are photographs that were "taken by soldiers on their own illegally held cameras" and they are wonderful - if occasionally shocking - to behold.

There will be those who buy this book for whom this is an entry into the Great War, and for those people this will be a terrific introduction: top authors, previously unseen photos, first hand veteran accounts and a skillful narrator in the shape of Van Emden. It has it all. I'm only giving my copy away because after four and a half years I feel somewhat battle fatigued. I can't wait for Peace to descend.

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