A Broken World is a remarkable collection of letters, diaries and memories of the Great War, one of a tide of new publications timed to coincide with the hundred-year anniversary of the start of the war last year. This collection is different from many as it seeks to capture not just voices from the front line, but also of those both left behind and involved in quite different endeavours: the women, the dissidents, conscientious objectors and those who saw the impact.
I am a great fan of Sebastian Faulks. He has previously written 12 books of fiction and three of non-fiction, and a quick scan of my bookshelves shows that I own 12 of these. This collection is, no doubt, the result of our association with him as a writer of wartime adventures – first there was Birdsong and then Charlotte Grey, and one of his non-fiction works, The Fatal Englishman, includes the life of a wartime English pilot.
I had originally thought A Broken World might be a simple collection of letters and memories from the front line, but it far exceeded my expectations. Faulks’ collection hardly touches well known poets and writers from the First World War, the likes of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden, to name but a few. Instead, we have a different group of familiar writers: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Pankhurst, D H Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford and E M Forster, who are set amongst a myriad of unknown names whose short and often dramatic accounts are everything from heart warming to horrific.
The book is divided into four sections. ‘Distant Hammers’ concerns the hearing and imagining of the war from afar, ‘Mind and Matter’ is the experience of war at close quarters, ‘Between Borders’ looks at how the war divided us and finally ‘White Spots’ concerns the searching for what was lost. These divisions allow the anthology to produce some unexpected gems and insights into the wide-ranging impacts of the war. Among the famous contributors, many are women who bring an incredible poignancy to the collection. Some items concern the fate of conscientious objectors and the treatment they received.
Among the many poignant stories three or four stood out for me. Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette and campaigner for women’s rights, wrote a very moving piece about her visit to Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast at Christmas 1914. I had never heard of the bombing raids she describes that Britain was subject to. Two startling letters surprised me. An open letter to the Women of Germany and Austria written at Christmas 1914 by English women fighting for peace said “Do not let us forget our very anguish unites us, that we are passing together through the same experiences of pain and grief.” The reply three months later starts “To our English sisters, sisters of the same race, we express in the name of many German woman our warm and heartfelt thanks for their Christmas greetings.” Another piece that caught my attention is the most beautiful of love stories, written by Ernst Toller, a German-Jewish playwright.
And finally, one story that, for me, resonates deeply. It is written by Arthur Mee, author of a Children’s Encyclopedia and also a collection of books that cover each of the 42 of the English Counties – each a gazetteer of every village and town describing their history and some of the interesting buildings and events. On the bookshelf behind me I have 25 of these volumes, covering my favourite counties. What Mee describes so beautifully in this passage is his discovery of the “Thankful Villages”, in this case Woolley in Somerset where the tiny hamlet of thirteen houses sent thirteen men to the war and every one came back. There is no shop, school, inn or even letterbox in Woolley, but there is a little brass plaque giving thanks for the safe return of those thirteen men. When Mee toured the country in the late 1930s, he found only 23 “Thankful Villages”. He had visited more than 10,000 places, and so I realised how much the war touched every corner of the land.
If you read only one book to understand the events of a century ago, make it this one. There are the most amazing stories to be found here. Very varied, and all very touching in so many different ways, they form a wonderful way to remember the sacrifices and the extraordinary events of a very different age.