Further First World War stories

Although the commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War have come to an end, the war continues to be remembered and its stories continue to be told.

The war is a huge, big subject which sometimes, to me, feels too massive to truly comprehend. Therefore it really is those individual or local stories that can connect us back to the subject.

image_proxyThis year two books about very specific aspects of the war have stood out for me. One is In the shadow of Bois Hugo: The 8th Lincolns at the Battle of Loos by Nigel Atter. I like is because it is a detailed reexamination of one battalion at one battle, something quite rare.

The 8th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment were one of the volunteers units raised soon after the war broke out in 1914. Very new to the Western Front in September 1915 they were part of a group of untested battalions thrown into the Battle of Loos. Following the men of the battalion through their training and the confusion of this first battle, Atter has researched and told their story in incredible detail. This is an excellent book if you want to find out about some, perhaps, less well-known aspects of the war.

image_proxy (1)The other book that stands out for me is Percy: a story of 1918 by Peter Doyle and with illustrations by Tim Godden. This is the story of an individual, based on a small archival collection, poignant and moving.

From this archival collection Doyle has fleshed out the story of Percy Edwards, a conscript from North Wales who joined the army in 1918. We are introduced to his family of miners, the village of Cefn where they come from, and his sweetheart, Kitty. The illustrations really add to the atmosphere of the book, which reminds us that however big the big picture is, its the stories of individuals that connect us to and create that picture.

Are there any recent (or not) First World War book that have made an impression on you?

Dracul – viscerally visual

The characters and scenes in this story remain imprinted in my mind’s eye. Dacre Stoker’s Dracul has not been written like a screenplay but it would make a sumptuously surreal film.

Dracul is written by Bram Stoker’s Great Grand-Nephew, Dacre Stoker, in collaboration with J.D. Barker.

The authors’ note (p.483) asserts that this is the story that was left out of the original Dracula. Bram’s publishers shied away from the content of the first 101 pages of Dracula, which Bram claimed to be a true story:

I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight. (pp. 483-4.)

In the original preface of Dracula, Bram states that it is his “duty to present it before the eyes of the public;” “a warning of a very real evil” (Dracul, p.484).

Compiled from Bram’s notes and translated from other language editions, that apparently did include the original text, Dacre and Barker have deftly crafted the story of Ellen Crone. Ellen is the Stoker family’s nanny and the reason for Jonathan Harker’s pursuit of Dracula in the later part of the story.

Ellen is beautiful; ageless and perfect. Yet sometimes her blue eyes become grey; her blonde curls become wispy, thin, and she disappears from the house, hiding under her hood, to regain her strength.

“What colour will Ellen’s eyes be today?” wonders Bram. Where does she go, returning replenished and young again: what is her secret?

Bram, suddenly fit after being unwell for years as a child, and his sister Matilda become obsessed with finding out. 

Ellen appears never to eat. Her room is coated in dust. Under her bed is another: filled with soil. 

Bram and Matilda’s investigations lead them to a tower room in Artane Castle: another bed, more soil, and whose hand?!

Ellen’s trail grows cold then until, as adults, the Stoker siblings renew their investigations. They are sure they have seen someone from their past die for a second time. How can this be?

This compelling tale begins with Bram undergoing an ordeal that lasts the duration of the book; interspersed with the history learned during childhood as Bram hurries to write down his story. Guarding a malevolent creature in a locked tower room, Bram recounts the events that led him here, fearing his own demise.

Not all of this story is focused on the gory habits of vampires (but be warned, dear reader, there is much blood). Ellen’s character is problematical. Her story is poignant; her eventual fate even more so. Are her intentions self-serving and evil? If so, why has she nurtured Bram and not harmed him? And who is the creature in the tower?

The language of this book harks back to the original literary text – reflecting the way English was spoken in the nineteenth century – so it comes across as authentic. It’s up to the reader if you believe it…or not!

Dracul placed a commendable third in GoodRead’s best reads for 2018 – Horror – almost toppling the twentieth century’s master of horror, Stephen King. In my opinion it should have won.

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