Look for the Silver Lining

British nurse Vera Brittain, in her classic memoir “Testament of Youth,” deplored the solders’ bad taste in music. They liked sentimental songs — she wondered how many men’s last memory was of a tinny “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.”


“Look for the Silver Lining” was written in 1919 for a failed musical, but became a hit in 1921. No doubt the soldiers would have liked that one also.


And they would have enjoyed this mawkish music in the trenches.

Gramophone in captured German dugout blog

“Downton Abbey” — 11th hour, 11th day, 11th month

The war ended last week on “Downton Abbey.”  Like many of you, I was questioned about the war with friends mostly asking, “Is that what the trenches were really like?”

Yes, sometimes they looked like this:

Waiting to go over the top.

But sometimes they looked like this:

British trench in the snow.

Or this:

Up to their knees in water.

Or this:

Rats, lice, decomposing remains — we can argue that this was PBS and not HBO, and the story mostly took place on the homefront. But here’s what they left out of the story on homefront:

One night during the time my brother was serving in Vietnam, my parents gave a dinner party. The guests had all arrived, everyone was chatting, and then the doorbell rang. My father says he could not bring himself to touch the doorknob. He is not a fanciful man, yet he says he felt so strongly that there was death on the other side, that if he opened the door, he would see a man in uniform come to tell him that his oldest boy had been killed.

British families lived with that sickening dread for 4-1/2 years. Every knock at the door, every time the phone rang, a telegram — some women never opened The Telegram. Families found them later tucked behind His Picture on the mantel.

The terrible fear, and the terrible cost. That’s what “Downtown Abbey” was missing.


Week 4: “The Forbidden Zone”

Mary Borden was an American nurse serving four years at French evacuation hospitals on the Western Front. In 1929, she published “The Forbidden Zone,” a collection of writings that she called “fragments of a great confusion.” Some of the  pieces were written during the war, and others after.  Just over a hundred pages, the book was republished by Hesperus Press in 1980.

Borden was prone to poetic writing. She describes pain as a mistress, lying down with the men, taking them into her arms. I rolled my eyes at times. But it’s hard to dismiss the power of passages like this, for their evocative bitterness:

“There has been a harvest. Crops of men were cut down in the fields of France where they were growing. They were mown down with a scythe,  gathered into bundles, were tossed about with pitchforks, pitchforked into wagons and transported great distances and flung into ditches and scattered by storms and gathered up again and at last brought here — what was left of them.”

Strongly recommended.

Add this title to your reading list

Here’s a review of Adam Hochschild’s book, which is a finalist for the National Books Critics Circle Award.


Charity Tahmaseb is a fellow participant in the War Through the Generations WWI Reading Challenge.

The Princess Pats

Last night on “Downton Abbey,” a soldier turned up from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The PPCLI — named for the daughter of Canada’s Governor General and known as the Patricias — was an independent regiment formed in Montreal in 1914.  It was the first Canadian infantry unit to reach France, in December.

In May 1915, the regiment held trenches on Bellewaerde Ridge for four days under intense shelling and fought off multiple German attacks with rifle fire. Their machine guns were knocked out, and they eventually ran out of ammunition, but not before the Germans had withdrawn. The regiment suffered 80% casualties. They had their backs to Ypres, and they held the line.

From the Bellewaerde Ridge, looking down toward Ypres.

Here’s a link with a blow-by-blow account of the Patricias in action.


Princess Patricia’s father, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught,  served as Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. Here he is talking with four American soldiers.

Duke of Connaught with Doughboys

Week 3:“1918: Year of Victory”

Malcolm Brown’s fourth book for the British Imperial War Museum is “1918: Year of Victory.” He’s a wonderful writer, so engaging and personable, and of course he has access to a huge source of contemporaneous diaries, letters and memoirs with which to tell his stories.

He begins the book with a recap of 1917 to explain the resigned despair with which everyone involved began 1918 and ends in 1919 by contrasting the words of those who thought the war really had ended all wars with those who could already see World War II coming.

I was inspired to read this book now because of “Downton Abbey” – Cousin Matthew and William were just at Amiens (American viewer; no spoilers, please!). I knew it was in 1918, but since the entire series appears to be taking place in the summer, I wasn’t sure when. August 8th, as you may know. It was the start of the Last Hundred Days.

The war began for the British along this road, or so the plaque says, on Aug. 23, 1914. It ended very near here on Nov. 11, 1918.

Day One

Welcome to the blog of the World War One Historical Association.

On Feb. 1, 1916, Major General Beeg, who commanded the artillery for Germany’s Fifth Army, reported to General Erich von Falkenhayn that he had the guns in position for the attack on Verdun, France.

More than 1,200 guns. With more than 2 million shells. The initial bombardment was nearly 24 hours long.

Of course the city was virtually destroyed, though the Germans never managed to take it. It’s a pretty little place now.

Except for this: