Saturday, 11 January 2014

My Great War reads for the 100th anniversary

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my latest book find just before Christmas, I mentioned that it was about something very pertinent to this year's centenary of the First World War (news and events relating to which have already begun to appear, so expect this blog to become heavy with them in the coming months!) - namely the collected early war letters of RNAS pilot Lieutenant Harold Rosher.  I added that it would become a welcome addition to my war library and stated my intention to read all the books in my collection that relate to World War One by the end of 2014.

Well, the other day, with the germ of an idea for a post in my mind, I got out all said books (including In The Royal Naval Air Service, 3rd row far right) and laid them out to take a picture of them for this blog.  I think I may have to revise my target!  The end of 2018 seems more realistic now I've reacquainted myself with the number books I have on the subject!

As you can see most of them focus on the aeronautical aspect of the Great War; no surprise really as that has always been my abiding area of interest.  In fact all but three are purely about aerial warfare.  True World War I Stories (2nd row from top, 3rd from left) is just that and was picked up from a library sale a few years ago for 50p.  Before Endeavours Fade by Rose E. B. Coombs (top, 3rd from left) was given to me by my stepfather several years back and is actually something of a guide book to the battlefields, detailing towns, landmarks and other locations that saw action as well as the innumerable memorials throughout Belgium and France.  Although now nearly 40 years old this book will doubtless be interesting and a still-useful guide if I should choose to visit the areas covered.

Once I realised just how many books I had, I got that nagging feeling that there were probably one or two more lying around somewhere that I'd forgotten about and such proved to be the case! 

Goodbye to All That is an autobiographical account of the the First World War (and the author's early pre-war life) by Robert Graves, the poet, scholar and author who served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was good friends with Siegfried Sassoon.  I picked up this copy for a few pence in Homebase (yes, the DIY people - my local store has a small second-hand book concession by the tills!) a year or so ago and it has been sitting patiently in my "to read" pile.

The rest all focus on the RFC and/or the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (except In the Company of Eagles, a novel by Ernest K. Gann about a duel between French and German pilots) with no less than four devoted solely to Manfred von Richthofen.  These include his own [translated] memoirs and a fascinating in-depth record of his 80 career victories.

German War Birds is a splendid book from the 1930s, written by the mysteriously pseudonymous "Vigilant" (generally agreed to be one Claud W. Sykes and probably a serving RAF officer hence the name), details of some of the lesser-known German pilots of the Great War and is written in wonderfully charming Thirties style.  I picked it up in 2003 from the wonderful book stalls that can still be found underneath Waterloo Bridge.

Many of the other books are written by well-regarded aviation/military historians such as Peter Hart, Alan Clark and Norman Franks.  Then there are the famous wartime memoirs of Cecil Lewis (Sagittarius Rising) and Victor Yeates (Winged Victory), not to mention James McCudden's Flying Fury.  Finally there is, of course, Biggles - who nearly 20 years ago introduced me to the fascinating world of dogfights, biplanes and heroic flying that I would later go on to read so much more about.  The First World War stories fully deserve their place here, being inspired by true events and stories that the author W. E. Johns (himself a bomber pilot in the war) saw or heard.

Finally, as a bit of light relief, Practical Flying is a good read - it being a facsimile of the standard training manual given to pilots joining the RFC.  I doubt there'll ever be any call for me to fly a Sopwith Camel, but you never know!  I actually got it (and a real hip flask!) with the old PC simulator, Flying Corps, way back in the late '90s and am pleased to report that the old game still runs so I can at least take my bus up for a spin virtually if not in reality(!).  Incidentally I'm amazed to see how far computers and graphics have progressed - the modern equivalent of Flying Corps, Rise Of Flight, looks incredibly realistic and expansive.

Just as soon as I've finished reading my current tome, Waiting For Hitler, which is an equally enthralling series of accounts from the first year of the Second World War when the invasion of Britain looked likely, I shall begin working my way through these Great War books.  Don't be surprised if you don't hear from me for a while!  But no, in all seriousness, I really looking forward to doing this; in the centenary year of the start of the Great War it just seems the "right" way to go about commemorating the occasion.  I may even post a review or two up along the way.  Then there's my film collection too, I haven't even touched on that yet.  If that's not enough the Daily Telegraph is also marking the anniversary by making available online copies of every one of its newspapers from 1914 to 1918, each day for the next four years!

What have you got planned for the 100th anniversary and are there any more(!) books you would recommend I seek out?


  1. I look forward to your posts. I should get out of my lazy condition and find a few books on WWI and read them.

    1. Thanks Bill!

      You've just reminded me of another of my books that I've overlooked. The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman is a fascinating story of the international intrigue and political machinations that brought the USA into the war in 1917. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the American aspect of the conflict.

  2. I do like my history and social history, the Robert Graves is very good.
    Can't get enough of war time diaries either!

  3. I haven't got anything planned barring, of course, the remembering - I shall be very interested to read what people do for the anniversary.

    My mum's got a book, 'Air of Battle', by Wing Commander William Fry, which is interesting as it's autobiographical. She left school at 15 and went to work for him and his wife, and stayed in touch, so years later I did get to meet a World War 1 flying ace... but I was very young my only memory of the day is of being bitten by a horse fly!

  4. Gah, your blog eats my comments! 'Air of Battle' by Wing Commander William Fry is very good.

    My mum worked for him and his wife after leaving school, so I did actually meet a WWI flying ace... though I was very young and can only remember being bitten by a horse fly that day!

    1. Sorry about the commenting problem, Mim! :( I hope it isn't Google mucking us about... If it's any consolation I did see both your comments so your first one is getting through. I do moderate comments so they might not appear straight away either. Thanks anyway for the book recommendation.

      I'm in the process of doing some renewed family history; I already knew what two of my great-grandfathers did in the Great War, but there is still so much to discover! My paternal grandmother's father was a machine-gunner in the trenches, wounded in the arm and invalided home. I did meet him once or twice as a toddler (pics exist) and I have vague memories of sitting on his knee.


Don't just sit there, type something! I enjoy reading all comments.


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