A Hundred Ways to Remember Them; A Vivid Snapshot of the Great War; HISTORY

Article excerpt

Byline: JANE SHILLINGs

100 DAYS TO VICTORY

by Saul David (Hodder [pounds sterling]20 [pounds sterling]16.99)

WITH less than a year until the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the first volumes of what will surely be a library's worth of books on the conflict are appearing.

With the deaths of the last surviving veterans, Claude Choules of the Royal Navy, who died in May 2011, and Florence Green of the WRAF, who died in February last year, the story of the Great War has passed out of memory and into the realms of history.

The problem for a historian is how to mark the anniversary of a war in which 8.4 million servicemen and a further seven million civilians perished, and the lives of many millions more were changed, from families left fatherless, to women who would live as spinsters -- their men slaughtered on the battlefields.

The human cost of the war is matched by its geo-political consequences: it caused the break-up of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires; it triggered the Russian Revolution, forced the U.S. on to the world stage, sowed the seeds of future conflict in the Middle East and created the conditions in Germany from which another global conflict sprang.

To encompass all that in a single volume seems an impossible task, but the military historian, novelist and television presenter Saul David has come up with an ingenious approach.

He tells the whole story of the conflict -- from the shots that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, to the final battlefield casualty -- in a series of snapshots of 100 key moments, one for each year since the declaration of the 'war to end all wars'.

The charm of this unorthodox technique becomes clear as soon as you open the book.

David doesn't shirk the details of conflict. But his constantly changing perspective means that his readers begin to understand the myriad different aspects of warfare -- from 15-year-old Kit Wykeham-Musgrave, a former Dartmouth cadet who survived three shipwrecks in a single day when his ships were sunk by German U-boats on September 22, 1914, to the heartbreaking vigil of Vera Brittain on Boxing Day, 1915.

Expecting her fiance, Roland Leighton, to arrive at any moment on home leave from France, Vera was putting the final touches to a pale blue silk blouse with which she hoped to impress him, when the telephone rang. The caller wasn't Roland, but his sister, Clare, announcing that he had died of 306 wounds at a casualty clearing station on December 23. David includes some of his own family stories. …