Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel; Some Desperate Glory by Edwin Campion Vaughan; Forgotten Voices of the Victoria Cross by Roderick Bailey; Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways by Christian Wolmar - review by Nigel Jones

Nigel Jones

Fighting Words

  • John Lewis-Stempel, 
  • Edwin Campion Vaughan, 
  • Roderick Bailey, 
  • Christian Wolmar
 

In his classic The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell titled a chapter ‘Oh What a Literary War’, remarking that the generation of 1914 not only packed up their troubles when preparing their old kitbags, but stashed away Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English verse, too. As John Lewis-Stempel repeatedly underlines in his superb study, Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, the vast majority of the subalterns – the junior officers who bore the brunt of the fighting – on the Western Front were steeped in literary antecedents, from the classics to contemporary writings such as John Masefield’s Everlasting Mercy, Thomas Hardy’s poems and, above all, A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Aptly, Lewis-Stempel dubs his subjects the ‘golden generation of belle lettrists’ – but they were also a golden generation in many other ways.

When future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was wounded on the Somme and fell into a shellhole, he did what any other self-respecting Old Etonian would have done: he opened Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, which he happened to be carrying in the breast pocket of his tunic, and, in between

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