REVIEW: A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War

a_broken_world_600A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War

Edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf

Hutchinson

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

Stuart Cloete, the successful novelist, was a familiar face in Hermanus, where he lived most of his life. Before his death in 1976, the prolific writer and his wife, Tiny, would frequently be seen walking above the Old Harbour where a curious cairn commemorates locals who died in the World Wars.

In this compelling anthology of voices giving first-hand accounts of the ‘Great War’, Cloete’s description of his experiences on the Somme, a captain at the age of nineteen, is a vivid turn back of the clock.

The horror and misery of the 1914 battlefield comes vividly to life in 3D: “…where we fought several times over the same ground bodies became incorporated in the material of the trenches themselves….I once fell and put my hand right through the belly of a man.”

As Faulks notes in his introduction, before that war – that started precisely a century ago – it was difficult to imagine that humans were capable of its scale, dread and destruction. Never before had anyone experienced this dimension of killing, and hence to participants this was an unknown first-time theatre of dread.

If, as he suggests, the First World War was a marker of the defeat of an ‘enlightenment’ that had dated back centuries, subsequent history, and mainly WWII, put us on a new tangent of morality. Shock and awe degrading human life to no more than survival became possible.

Returning to those ‘innocent’ voices – the very personal recorded on scraps of postcards, diaries, BBC recordings and in private memoirs – is a powerful lesson for our time. The focus on the individual offers a corrective to our century, one typified by the valueless human being.

For this reason alone, A Broken World is recommended reading. But then there is the simple power of the words.

The anthology is cleverly divided into four themes that shifts from the distant experience, to the thick of it, to displacement, to loss. Personalities from all sides and classes feature, providing a rewarding richness, which enlightens and activates a history we thought we knew.

A short, factual note may mask the writer’s emotional truth, but as readers we are left in no uncertainty. Letters expose the most intimate of relationships; facts (the date, place) record how war blasted them away. Filled in by various ghost voices, small dramas play out, yet remain ever so individual, colourful. Feelings simmers in the simplest words and the briefest narratives.

Read the final entry in the poet Edward Thomas’ diary, the day before he was killed. Then return to his wife Helen’s description of their last hours together and her farewell. “I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.”

In Hermanus, where Stuart Cloete wrote and walked, two ancient guns guard the war memorial at the Old Harbour. The words from this fine publication break their silence ignorance.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times on 11 September 2014.

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