Magazine article The Spectator

Sounding the Last Post

Magazine article The Spectator

Sounding the Last Post

Article excerpt

Sounding the last post THE DAILY TELEGRAPH BOOK OF MILITARY OBITUARIES edited by David Twiston-Davies Grub Street, L17.99, pp. 416, ISBN 1904010342

The work of the obituarist is not unlike that of the book reviewer. Both have to tell their reader what the subject of their piece is all about; both have to pass judgment on its merits and demerits; both have to provide something which will be entertaining as well as informative. Under the direction of Hugh Massingberd and with the encouragement of the editor, Max Hastings, the Daily Telegraph made obituaries a leading feature of the paper - a fashion which has been followed by most of London's broadsheets. This book assembles 100 of them, dealing with soldiers who died between 1987 and 2002.

Where obituaries and book reviews differ is that if the reviewer dislikes a book he need not be too mealy-mouthed in inveighing against its failings. An obituarist is inevitably constrained by thoughts of grieving widows or widowers, children and old friends; a feeling that it is rather bad taste to malign the recently deceased. De mortuis nil nisi bonum may no longer be obligatory but de mortuis not too much malice is a rule still generally observed. In the last two months I have had cause to read - or at least glance at - more than 1,500 obituaries covering 100 years. As the procession of paragons passed before me, each more chivalrous, courageous, resourceful than the last, magnificently self-confident yet with becoming modesty, endlessly concerned about humanity; witty, imaginative, humorous, I felt a weary incredulity. They cannot all have been so special.

The Daily Telegraph obituarists are more subtle but they still pull their punches. Such criticism as exists is delicately nuanced. As well as being 'a thrusting, aggressive horseman, both on the polo ground and out pig-sticking', we are told that General Loftus Tottenham was 'in no way a brilliant man' - a kindly way, one assumes, of saying that he was remarkably thick. General Cowley was 'a man of strongly-held convictions, which he never hesitated to express even when they made him unpopular' - i.e. he was notoriously quarrelsome. Lord Carver was 'not noted for his bonhomie'. Every obituary should be taken with a pinch of salt; the merit of these is that the smallest of pinches will suffice.

The soldiers described here tend to be either nobs, heroes or eccentrics. …

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