“We are in the trenches again …

… this time for a longer term, but it is a very easy life. In my present shelter there is actually a four-poster spring bed, and picture prints of distractingly pretty girls round the walls. What do you think of that, within two hundred yards of the Huns? … Of course we are only in the front line part of the time, but it really is the best place …

Letter to Hazel from Cecil Malthus, 11 June 1916
Letter to Hazel from Cecil Malthus, 11 June 1916

Timaru-born Cecil Malthus wrote two books about his war-time experiences. Born in 1890, he spent three years in service in the 1st Canterbury Battalion from 1914. The Canterbury College modern languages professor first published ANZAC: A retrospect in 1965. In the foreword of the book he wrote:

I offer nothing but the truth for those who want to know what the war was like for the average man. Readers can believe that whatever I relate of my own experience is very nearly the same as what happened to their own uncle or grandfather.

A collection of Malthus’ letters has been digitised and made available online by Christchurch City Libraries. The letters are penned to his future wife, Hazel Watters. Malthus died on 25 July 1976.

This collection of letters and documents dates from April 1914 to his discharge in April 1917. The collection is not complete, and portions of some letters are missing. The letters follow Malthus’ progress from training in New Zealand to his experiences throughout the war, including time in Egypt preparing for Gallipoli, and his time in France. Malthus was injured in September 1916 and returned to New Zealand in March 1917.

“My subject is war…

…And the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

Cover: Wildred Owen - PoemsThat quote from Wilfred Owen is on the monument to the war poets in Westminster Abbey. A line from Owen also provides the title for the 2010 book by Wellington author and academic Harry Ricketts – Strange meetings: the poets of the Great War.

Owen has always seemed the most tragic of the war poets, dying as he did just days before the end of the war. Is it true that his mother received the news of his death just as the bells were ringing to celebrate the Armistice?

The Great War has contined to provide the subject matter for some wonderful Cover: Regeneration Trilogyfiction, including the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker. The treatment of poet Siegfried Sassoon for shell shock  at Craiglockhart Hospital is one of the major themes of the novel, and Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography, the Sherston trilogy,  is worth reading. Start with Memoirs of a fox hunting man.

Barker returned to the subject of the Great War in Life class and Toby’s room, both up to her usual standard.

A. S. Byatt’s The children’s book has Rupert Brooke (‘ the handsomest man in England’) as a bit player and ends with the return of the soldiers from the war. In a book of many fascinating (or irritating, depending on how you feel about staying on the subject,) digressions, Byatt’s listing of the names the soldiers gave to the trenches is among the most unusual.

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong featured in the Big Read, which aimed to find Britain’s favourite book, and on Best British books 1980-2005. It’s sold a lot of copies, but it’s not one of my favourites; although Eddie Redmayne was in the T.V. series, which is a definite reason to watch it.

Do you have a favourite piece of fiction set in the Great War?