Monday 18 September 2023

Four Books on War

“ .. Belgium’s leading living poet whose life before 1914 had been a flaming dedication to socialist and humanitarian ideals that were then believed to erase national lines. He prefaced his account with this dedication: “He who writes this book in which hate is not hidden was formerly a pacifist … For him no disillusionment was ever greater or more sudden. It struck him with such violence that he thought himself no longer the same man. And yet, as it seems to him that in this state of hatred his conscience becomes diminished, he dedicates these pages, with emotion, to the man he used to be.” – Tuchman quoting Emile Verhaeren in ‘The Guns of August’.



It’s pretty quiet in the shop on a night shift. This lead me to fulfil a long-time promise to myself to finally read Barbara Tuchmans ‘The Guns of August’, her celebrated history of the opening weeks of World War One. 

At the time I also had two books of WW1 poetry on the shelf, both from less currently-popular poets, which I had picked up because I wanted to find out what the actual man-on-the-street/jingo poetry of the war was like. 

At about the same time a friend online mentioned the Manga ‘Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths’, which I grabbed a copy of. 

·        Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki.

·        The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.

·        The Poetry of Jesse Pope.

·        Rough Rhymes of a Padre by ‘Woodbine Willie’.


So, with one very long book and three quite short ones, having finished ‘Guns of August’ why not add the rest and make an event out of it? (Because its stressful and depressing as hell but, being in idiot, I had not fully processed that.)



The Guns of August 

(Tuchman is actually a character in her own book too. 
She is the little girl interviewed by the American Ambassador about the British hunt for a German Battleship in the Med.)

Reading this book was like having a low-level panic attack, at times I had to get up and walk about to de-stress. At times it didn’t really matter who’s side I was on (the book is on the side of the Allies). I wouldn’t have thought a beat by beat breakdown of the days and hours before the second battle of Tannenberg, between Imperial Germans and Tsarists, would have me biting my nails and shouting at the screen (in my mind) but it did. 


The intensity, vividness, complexity and madness of the fog of war can, even when dealing with armies and factions I don't care much about, cause a kind of disaster-driven engagement. 

The book is a kind of anti-procedural. Instead of a cast of characters who are very good at things facing a big problem, working out what to do and coming together at the last minute against the odds, we have a massive spread of characters, all struggling against each other in big teams, arguing, perceiving and acting in different ways and coming together catastrophically, against the odds. 

It is the tension of confusion, the agony of crippled or misguided plans. Everyone has their own little section of reality and is struggling to do what they think they should and absolutely everyone is deluded, mistaken, or wrong. 

We, as the minds-eye of Tuchman, fly and flow across the battlefields, seeing more than any single person at that time ever could, simultaneously aware, as no-one living through those events ever could be, of the mutual, asynchronous and chaotic reality stuttering forth across the western front, an orchestra of staccato mistuned instruments, playing in blind opposition. Like two teams of Jazz musicians separated by a curtain, each group told to improvise and at the same time, to precisely counter the improvisation of the other side. Except no-one on either team actually likes each other. 

It is one thing to be locked in a story with your heroes point of view and to see thing going wrong. It is quite another to be slightly above that point of view, to see more of the situation than your protagonist, and to see why things are going wrong, in ways they can't. This is where the agony comes in, and yet another thing to zip across the scene, into the point of view of the antagonist, who is in fact the hero of their own story, and who’s enemy is the original hero, and to also see their schemes going wrong, and to see why they are going wrong. 


At the same time we are living in the future of these events and know that no-ones plans will go as expected and no-one (except maybe the Americans) will come out of this well - for all this striving we are watching a continent take itself apart. 

so really a poly-agony 

a poly-agonist history 


Irony, Readability and Satire 

Oh, the Kaiser and his whacky schemes, his military-style sleeping gown. The dithering-to-the-point-of-wooly-mania British Cabinet, the top-down but extremely secret and authoritarian French plans,

or French Plan, which can only be executed by having one guy in charge, and that guy not really telling the government what’s going on - was nearly the Dictator of France during the opening parts of the war, the SECRET DEALS, the French and their obsession with red pantaloons, Russia having the exact opposite of a Philosopher King - a guy genuinely dense but not quite dumb or weak willed enough to do a Coup against or just shuffle off to a Palace somewhere, all of this is part of what makes the book so readable and such a good and complex synthesis of history. 

But there is a danger to irony, in its distance, its easy synthesis and perhaps most in its argument-without-arguing. Tuchmans is a narrative history and, looking for the most interesting criticisms of the book I found that it was easy to avoid many of the more broad and obvious statements by claiming “well, Tuchman doesn’t really say that”. 

But what does she say? 

She makes few absolute and explicit value judgements, but the whole thing is an intense and vivid value judgement, only communicated through choice of detail, focus, method and rhythm of communication. A storyteller is not making a specific argument, one can hardly counter point-by-point, but they are convincing you of a something more ably than someone making a more explicit, leaden, and less persuasive statement. 


Hair-Thin Cracks In History 

the Russians being so badly organised that they start sending their orders for the next day out in Clear radio signal instead of code - this having a massive effect on the next days pivotal battle. 

Von Moltkes apprehension that the German line is too extended and loose, communicated just a day too late. 

The sheer and staggering number of times that personality conflicts between generals leads to serious problems in the war effort - they are as neurotic and sensitive as cats. 

It feels like there were not just one but a whole range of time-travellers zipping about making sure a series of cataclysmic co-incidences did and did not take place. 

Is this just the natural pixel-resolution of all history, made much more visible through this well-recorded super-crisis? Or were things genuinely more utterly bollocked than ever before? It truly is a kind of science fictional 19th century war; radio’s, codes, rail plans, the Germans bring an actual super-gun. World War One seems to take place at a fringe of complexity where nations and governments have just enough technological and organisational power to organise truly insanely massive groups, plans and actions but just not enough experience, or rapid or subtle enough technology, decision plans, structures, feedback systems or ideas to deal with the results of that complexity. 

Its curious how everyone seems to ‘play to type’. The Germans are angry and somewhat autistic, the French have a cartesian top-down view of everything, the British are dithery and pull something out of their arseholes at the last minute, the Russians are brutal, slow and fall apart. Is this just a feature of Tuchmans re-telling? I recently finished Julian Jacksons biography of De Gaule and he had a somewhat tragic view of European history in which no-one ever really changes and nations are fated to play out the conflicts of their essential character again and again over time. 


Criticisms Of Tuchman 

What are the most coherent, specific and least-whiney criticisms of Tuchman? 

The clearest is that for a book about the start of World War One, there is relatively little about whatever was going on between Serbia, Austria, Germany and Russia around and after the assassination. Neither is there a huge amount about the eastern front. 

She goes on a lot about how awful the Germans were in Balgium, but they were. 

Sir John French comes out as a borderline treasonous jumbled coward. His general reputation in history doesn’t seem anywhere nearly as bad as in this book, has anyone written about that? 


Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths 

A manga by a sweet old man; Shigeru Mizuki


This cute little guy! About the experiences of his youth! In east Asia. In the 1940s..

As part of the Imperial Japanese army.... 


Familiar Things 

I have read a few soldier-autobiographies including, oddly enough, 'Quartered Safe Out Here' by George McDonald Frasier, which is about some Cumbrian soldiers in the British army, fighting the Japanese Imperial Army, not in the same place, but in a similar environment. 

A few things flow between them; hunger, boredom, incoherent orders, officers and sergeants ranging from stupid to decent, the jungle being beautiful yet horrible, being permanently sweaty, dirty, hungry and damp, accidents and disease taking people out more regularly than the enemy, "there are people hiding in the Jungle", people popping out of holes or shooting at you from trees and whatever, if you see a dot in the sky better scatter till you know whose it is. 

It’s just guys hanging out you know!

just some guys having a time.


It’s curious to see the 'villains' from Quartered Safe Out Here' from the other side. The main difference between the forces, from the perspective of a common soldier, seems to be that, in the Imperial Japanese Army, literally everything is worse in every conceivable way. 

The Japanese soldiers are insanely hungry, on half a cup of rice a day, about 500 calories.


Instead of being shouted at and condescended to by officers and sergeants the new boys are literally slapped repeatedly in the face and punched to the ground. This is when they do something wrong, or just for existing. The end of a normal day is almost lining up to be repeatedly brutally slapped in the face for no reason



Their officers, or at least some of them, or many of them much of the time, are in a death cult. 

Their immediate commanding officer seems to fantasise pretty much continually about executing a Banzai charge and going to an 'honourable death' to the extent that he has to be talked out of it whenever a crisis happens, and eventually they can't talk him out of it.




The central 'plot element' of the book is that the Lieutenant finally manages to order the suicidal midnight jungle Banzai charge of his dreams. 

HQ finds out about this and valorises their noble sacrifice, making it a point of propaganda; the Japanese soldier never surrenders! When they are finally doomed they do a mass Banzai! For the Emperor! 

But because it was dark and the jungle a bunch of soldiers manage not to get themselves killed and get lost. Come morning they meet up and decide to go get some food before trying to Banzai themselves again. 

When this gets back to HQ, that there are still guys alive from the suicide charge, it becomes a major problem and an officer is sent down the river to re-Banzai them, at sword or gunpoint if necessary  (he shouldn't join them of course). 

The author was part of this outpost and either got ill or was knocked out by bombs during the whole thing, went missing and only got back after the remnants had been 're-Banzai'd'. This left him..  sceptical of war. 


Hell in the Pacific 

Looking into the war in the Pacific and the Imperial Japanese Army was definitely on a vibe.

The Imperial Army ate quite a lot of people, specifically they ate quite a lot of Indians, often alive, carving out the flesh of their thighs while they were still living and throwing them in a ditch to die while they ate them like steak. There are accusations that some officers ate their own men. 

I don't really know where to go from here..


The Poetry of Jesse Pope 

I picked this up I think after hearing it referenced in an episode of 'In Our Time'. 

I wanted to hear about the war poets who were not of the alienated faction, I wanted the Patriots and jingoists. WW1 has been re-written in our imagination, well perhaps not entirely re-written, but re-emphasised, reorganised and reset around the 'sad victim soldier' stereotype and the 'vague cataclysm' tale. 

These views have a lot of truth to them, they are not really 'lies', there were a lot of sad victim soldiers and it was a vague stumbling cataclysm, but the left likes to remember things a certain way

and the popular imagination of WW1 has essentially been transmitted by the left; Siegfried Sassoon, Pat Barker, All Quiet on the Western Front. I mean think of a WW1 tale and you know what you are going to get (in the anglo/westosphere at least) Amilie, Blackadder, you know the scenes, the characters, the tone, the mud and the vague emotional tenor that hangs over it all. 

Peter Jacksons documentary about WW1 ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, had an interesting piece of editing which exemplified this. It’s based on interviews with soldiers. The opening interviews are all have a relatively positive view of the war, while the voices at the end all have a negative view. The way they are distributed creates the impression of the grieving 'sad soldier' who went in with high spirits and was crushed and alienated by the experience of the war. But, both of those strands, those interviews and recordings, are taken from the same people, all recorded long after the war. It is their dividing up and the way they are edited which creates the nice neat moral story of the 'sad soldier', not the actual recordings themselves. 

The views of a lot of WW1 soldiers, certainly of a lot of Anglosphere soldiers (the ones I am familiar with) might well strike a modern ear as not what they were expecting at all. many of those men were proud of their service and convinced they fought in a good cause, to save Europe and the world from Prussian militarism. 

Those recordings wouldn't be free of trauma and dead friends but the moral view those men had of their own actions, the weight and colour they placed on various parts, would be very different to that of later generations. 

That is why I wanted to read the poetry of Jessie Pope, because it was the popular poetry of the Daily Mail, the actually-popular poetry of the opening years of the war. The actual voice of the time rather than the remembered voice. 

I also wanted to know if she was as utterly awful as the historians claim she was. 

She was.. not *quite* as bad.. entirely 

but still pretty bad 


"A Humble Appeal 

She was a pretty, nicely mannered mare,

The children's pet, the master's pride and care,

Until a man in khaki came one day,

Looked at her teeth, and hurried her away.


With other horses packed into a train

She hungered for her masters voice in vain;

And later, led 'twixt planks that scare and slip,

They slung her, terrified, on board a ship.


Next came, where thumps and throbbing filled the air,

Her first experience of mal de mare;

And when that oscillating trip was done

They hitched her up in traces to a gun.


She worked and pulled and sweated with the best;

A stranger now her glossy coat caressed

Till flashing thunderstorms came bursting round

And splitting leaden hail bestrewed the ground.


With quivering limbs, and silky ears laid back,

She feels a shock succeed a sharper crack,

And, whinnying her pitiful surprise,

Staggers and falls, and tries in vain to rise.


Alone, forsaken, on a foreign field

What moral does this little record yield?

Who tends the wounded horses in the war?

Well that is what the Blue Cross league is for."


Many of the poems are quite interesting. Not all the rhymes are leaden or as faintly ridiculous as the one above. There is a lot of early stuff from 1914 to 1916 in praise of ANZACS, the soldiers, the war. She is not as bigoted or wrathful as a really hardcore blood and soil type but is more glib, positive, patriotic, a booster-upper cheering from the sides of the football match (a football match is one of the metaphors used in the poems), there are fragments of sort-of feminist stuff about war-girls doing jobs. 

I went in for Jesse Pope and what I got was pretty much what I half expected, a very British Church-Hall type quite common before the 1960’s. That she doesn’t seem to write much after 1916 means we don’t see any development. She is more shallow than evil and so tea-stained mildly bad a poet that I would feel bad for making fun of her.

(The BBC of all people argues here that the Pope vs Owen match is a stitch-up).



Rough Rhymes of a Padre


Willie is G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, an Anglican Priest who served as a chaplain on the western front and gained the name ‘Woodbine Willie’ for offering wounded and dying soldiers Woodbine cigarettes. 

This book ‘Rough Rhymes’ was mainly written in and around the front. 

Its great virtue for this review is that it is a direct and explicit search for meaning. Mizuki, with whom Willie would perhaps have had some things in common is, in ‘On Towards Our Noble Deaths’ seemingly detached, almost ironic, but possessed of a deeply buried rage. Tuchman is actually detached and ironic (apart from about Sir John French). Pope is patriotic, glib, 'keen', jolly. 

‘Rugh Rhymes has a combination of emotions and experience that was missing from every other book in this list. Even 'Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths' has little of hatred for the enemy, they barely play much part directly and are rarely depicted. 


"Whats the Good?" [first two verses]

 "Well, I've done my bit o' scrappin',

And I've done quite a lot;

Nicked 'em neatly with my bayonet,

So I needn't waste a shot.

'Twas my duty, and I done it,

But I 'opes the doctor's quick,

For I wish I 'adn't done it,

Gawd! it turns me shamed and sick.


There's a young 'un like our Richard,

And I bashed 'is 'ead in two,

And there's that ole grey 'aired geezer

Which I stuck 'is belly though.

Gawd, you women, wives and mothers,

It's sich waste of all your pain,

If you knowed what I'd been doin'

Could yer kiss me still, my Jane?”


Studdert-Kennedys post-war journey is quite a ride.  He went into the war delivering stirring sermons about the virtues of the bayonet and came out a Christian Socialist. He wrote a book called "Lies!", was 100 per cent behind Bismark being essentially the antichrist was denied burial in a Cathedral for being too much of a leftie. 

From his Wikipedia; 

“"After the war, Studdert Kennedy was given charge of St Edmund, King and Martyr in Lombard Street, London. Having been converted to Christian socialism and pacifism during the war, he wrote Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921) (featuring such chapters as "The Church Is Not a Movement but a Mob", "Capitalism is Nothing But Greed, Grab, and Profit-Mongering" and "So-Called Religious Education Worse than Useless"), Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925). He moved to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for whom he went on speaking tours of Britain." 

He was also capable of some rather spicy gothic verse;


“Truth [lines 34 to 45]

The shadows have departed,

And black night

Lies brooding over all the earth,

And hideous things find birth.

The world brings forth abortions,

And then weeps with bloody tears,

Because her womb is shamed,

Her children maimed,

And all her home become a wilderness of sin.

The sun is darkened,

And the moon turned into blood

And down upon us sweeps a flood

Of Lust and Cruelty.”


These are not really an accurate representation of the full tone and weight of the poems but are some of the darker fragments which I personally like and which I think will grab your attention and will also make vivid the contrast between Willie and Pope. The full range of the verse is more religious, with much more seeking and finding of divine grace, and I thought if I put that stuff in right away my audience would find it a bit twee. 



“Thy Will Be Done [last verse]

And Bill, 'e were doin' 'is duty boys,

What e came on the earth to do,

And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed

Was 'is power to see it through.

To see it through to the very end,

And to die as my old pal died,

Wi' a thought for 'is pal and prayer for 'is gal,

And 'is brave 'eart satisfied."


Fundamentally ‘Rough Rhymes’ is a religious text about the search for meaning in a crushing and annihilating place, with the central praxis or dichotomy being between deeply held faith and the martial virtues, and hatreds, of a soldier and a patriot. The two don’t mix but that hasn’t stopped Europeans, and Abrahamics generally, for a couple thousand years. And you get a lot of interesting thinking and reflection out of it. 

For me G. A. Studdert-Kennedy is the most human of these writers, or the one who seems to exhibit the greatest humanity or the greatest and deepest range of feeling and questions. Tuchman comes close but the sheen of her irony, which aids her in gliding over great spans of history and synthesising its details into a coherent and engaging story, also keeps her a windowglass' depth from the image. 

Willie is also the person who seems most like a full or real soldier, someone ready to stab crush and shoot his fellow man, sometimes feeling bad about it after. Sentimental, patriotic, though not as thoughtless or stupid as Pope who is just those things resigned, sometimes despairing, resolute, breaking down, wrathful at the war and at the enemy.  Mizuki has this too but his war was so much darker and there are deep elisions in his telling. I don’t know if anyone could grapple with the whole thing head-on. 


“Her Gift [lines 12 to 47] 

"We’ve seen men die,

Not once, nor twice, but many times

In agony

A ghastly to behold as that.

We’ve seen men fall,

And rise, and staggering onward fall again,

Bedrenched in their own blood,

Fast flowing like a flood,

Of crimson sacrifice upon the snow.

We’ve seen and would forget.

Why then should there be set

Before our eyes these monuments of crime?

It’s time, high time,

That they were buried in the past;

There let them lie,

In that great sea of merciful oblivion,

               Where our vile deeds,

               And outworn creeds,

               Are left to rot and die.

               We would forget,

               And yet,

Do you remember Rob McNeil

               And how he died,

               And cried,

And pleaded with his men

               To take that gun,

               And kill the Hun

               That worked it dead?

               He bled

Horribly. Do you remember?

I can’t forget,

I would not if I could,

It were not right I should,

               He died for me.

He was a God that boy,

The only God I could adore.”



  1. Read this whole thing, which I don't always do for your book reviews, especially if I haven't read the works referenced. Great post! I appreciated that you chose to do multiple authors so you could contrast the voice in their works and their outlook on the war.

  2. Thank you for this post. Something about Studdert-Kennedy's voice reminds me of Robert Service's, and what do you know, they grew up pretty close geographically in England.

  3. My school had a bunch of ancient Punch volumes from WW1, and they printed most of Pope's doggerel and more besides. One of the main things I remember is how abruptly they stopped mentioning Gallipolli after doing a big cartoon for the first landings.

  4. I'd never heard of Pope: thanks for flagging her up. The real contrast with Wilfred Owen should be to make sure people remember every verse of 'In Flanders Fields'.
    [There's probably a whole discussion to be had about the 'elite' memory of WW I in Britain between the wars and the popular one, but I don't think I could properly start it here.]

    The criticism I recall of Tuchman was her willingness to skip over her sources or get a little too narrative-focused. That said, I like The Guns of August for its focus on the plans and decisions of High Command(s) - which is the sort of thing that most every bookish Anglosphere-type will know about, but it's rarely laid out so clearly and thoroughly. (And every time someone tries to summarise it, the picture gets blurrier and blurrier and you make one more jump towards a clip from Blackadder Goes Forth...)
    I may have to look out for a few books by French authors on the Great War.

    Have you reviewed Quartered Safe Out Here anywhere? I'd be interested in seeing your thoughts.

    1. I read QSoH so long ago its only a dim memory. My dad had it, in part because we lived in Cumbria. The characters did seem very Cumbrian. Especially their relentless thieving from official supplies at any opportunity. The one soldier who was probably the best infantryman in the company also being a nasty piece of work who no-one really liked. And the writer getting into trouble for 'acting posh' when he was talking about maths to another public schoolboy in a foxhole.

  5. I recommended this to you already but the Max Hastings book is more thorough and fair than Tuchman and benefits from an additional 50 years of whatever of historical research. It takes in much more about Serbia, Austria, and Russia. And he knows how to write a compelling book, say what you will about him.

    Liaison 1914 is an extremely good counterpoint. It's a memoir of the same period as the Guns of August, written by a guy who was the British military attache to the French high command, doing translation etc. If you want to know what the war 'felt like' at ground level during those months, I strongly recommend it. Simply astonishing, and very well written.

    1. NO MORE WAR! NO! Enough for a while but suggestions noted.

  6. Shigeru Mizuki's autobiography Showa: A History of Japan (he was born in 1923, the same year Hirohito was enthroned) goes into the same memories Onward to Our Nobles Deaths is about but with additional context.
    He was suffering his second bout of maleria when a bomb hit the field hospital and took off his arm. That's what got him shipped home.
    A number of those elisions you mention are definitely there but he mentions a little more in passing. He certainly saw and was a willing bystander to what were later deemed warcrimes. His unit treked through the jungle mud with their wounded commander on a stretcher only to find they were thought to have died and that needed to be rectified.
    A lot of Onward seems to be survivor's guilt about being sent home maimed when everyone else died. He was even a conscript unlike his brother who was later imprisoned for warcrimes he did in the Philippines.

    1. Well well well, the nice little man done a warcrime or two..

      Thanks for the context, I may read Showa if I ever get my taste for War back.

    2. Showa is good because it provided a lot of missing context for me as to the civilian Japanese perspective about why the went to war.

      Everything was broken due to economic and literal collapse following the liberal Taisho decade. This was due to Japan being ultimately an agricultural nation that was trying to industrialise by export alone.
      The military was the only people who seemed to know what they were doing since they hid things going wrong. The military kept interfering and the traditionalists let it happen.

      The bit at the end, where he (in the 1980s) admits Japan finally had the prosperity they were promised, it had just taken the destruction and rebuilding of the country to achieve it. He wasn't sure if it was worth the cost.

  7. Anthony Beevers "Stalingrad" and "Berlin" juxtapose nicely as a concise history of the Eastern Front although it's a truly sobering experience to read them.

  8. The above view of WW1 and the sad soldier trope is not entirely from the left. I would recommend reading Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. First few chapters about the war paints a very bleak picture and it is without any enthusiasm for war.

  9. amazing post I'll gladly read all four as soon as I can

  10. If you want the king of weird WW1 jingoists -- try Ernst Junger's "Storm of Steel". Absolute madness and perverse love of war coupled with near poetic description. In this, despite it's efforts, it becomes something of an ironic text. It's also incredibly, poisonously, formative for German views after the war. Junger himself opposed the rise of Fascism in Germany (though not very hard and seemingly more because it was gauche and not Prussian enough then from humanism), so he's semi-rehabilitated. I think of him as the same sort of amazing 19th century absolute jackass of the same sort as the 3 cousins who ran various sides of the war. A 19th century buffoon trying to grasp the 20th.

    Junger's Sci Fi novel about tiny drones, society changing billionaires, and retired cavalry officers -- "The Glass Bees" is also rather interesting.

    Read Massie's "Castles of Steel" about the naval side of WW1 a while back - also gave the sense of idiot blundering into something for their own petty reasons/careers and unaware of the actual destructive potential of 14-inch shells. Plus the Imperial Yacht rivalry is amazing. The Russian one actually managed to sink another ship though ... in 1941.