Book Review: Major Tom’s War by Vee Walker.

Hardback, 448 pages, 234 x 156 mm
20 b&w photographs and 1 map
Publication Date: 21 September 2018
ISBN: 9781911271147

Kashi House publishes excellent books, I’ve not seen one yet that hasn’t been up to a very high standard, and what I believe to be their first fictional offering maintains this tradition. Major Tom’s War is a well crafted drama about a British officer serving with the Indian cavalry, a nurse on the home front and a French civilian during the First World War. It is a book about loss, love and life lived at a time when such things were both at their most immediate and their most cheap.

Sometimes understanding comes inaudibly. Removed by culture, time and place it is a challenge to move past sympathy and respect for the soldiers of the Indian army to some kind of understanding of what it must have been like. The difference between India and Flanders is difficult to quantify, but they must have missed the sun, the warmth, the colour and the vibrancy of their homeland as they pulled their feet out of the sucking mud of the trenches, ducking the bullets of the German enemy. Feeling to frozen rain on their faces, and pulling their clothes tighter around them in a vain struggle to defeat the damp and cold, countless miles from a loved one’s face. Death for the cause represented by many patriotic biscuit tins bearing the enigmatic face of the King-Emperor must have seemed all the more terrible to contemplate.

Author, Vee Walker, an experienced museum’s and heritage consultant from the UK, has managed to put her finger on the heart of their struggle, through the story of, ‘Major Tom’. Although the entire book is not about the Indian army, a great deal of it is set against the life of an officer serving in a regiment of ‘Empire’ troops.

In a pivotal passage we find Tom, who from the beginning is grieving for a lost love, whose demise has haunted him all the more for the part he played in it, and embracing the war in hopes of the blessed relief of a meaningful death, commanding a detail of Indian Cavalry ordered to bury the neglected corpses of some French Infantry.

Beside him is the superb study of Rissaldar Harnam Singh, expertly painted as one of the many vertebrae that form the backbone of the army. The bodies have been left to the elements for some time and burying them is a trial for everyone. As another collection of flesh and bones is consigned to the ground, Harnam Singh, turbaned, bearded and proud looks at his Sahib Officer, Tom Westmacott. A thin, bookish and bespectacled officer, who strays from human contact but who talks lovingly in Hindi to his horses.

Quietly horrified by the sight of the graves, Singh asks, Tom to promise him one thing. A clean flame so that he might live again, and never to throw him as a decaying corpse into a filthy hole. It is a request eminently suited, not only to the human condition of two men from two very different cultural and religious backgrounds, and not just a powerful moment for these two characters, but it speaks of the understanding that exists between military men in times of war, and of a subordinate to an officer. Embodying the relationship between men in uniform, of those, like the Centurion in the New Testament, who has men under his authority that do what he says without argument and in return it is the responsibility of those officers to act in their best interests.

A clean flame. How many fresh-faced boys, whose beards had yet to thicken, let alone the stoic veterans, from Punjab, Maharashtra, Carnatica and countless others contemplated the horror of being tipped into the cold, brown darkness, never to feel the warmth of rebirth given by that clean flame. And how many could count on a sympathetic officer to see that it would be done.

At the point in the book when this happens, neither Tom or Harnam have engaged the enemy, but death and injury has nonetheless become part of their lives and Harnam’s request comes with the suggestion of the inevitable, not the possible.

Vee Walker has crafted a narrative that begins with Broken lives, drawn together by the war, over from over great distances and much of the story is focused on how these lives are rebuilt or endured, investigating themes such as redemption, purpose and healing, populated by real people. The two central characters are extremely well fleshed out, and they slowly grow to be ones you can care about, though neither are perfect. Both are unfair to each other at first.
One is unreasonable in their expectations of the other, while said other is overly judgmental and suspicious, maybe afraid. This detached interplay, at first undertaken through letters, allows the reader to form an opinion about the characters and brings them into sharper focus. Even the character, who seems to be cast as the villain, whose principle purpose in being part of this story is to thwart and annoy, Tom, is now and then more than just a cypher of evil.

I found the writing style to be compulsive and intriguing in the way each sentence, almost, queues up the next so the reader gets easily hooked in the story, drawing you along. Three plot-lines slowly converge on each other, and I was kept guessing throughout as to where they would all meet.

However foreknowledge of some of the inspiration behind the book does rob the reader of a certain suspense. In totality the author wishes the reader to become interested in the why rather than the how, divulging certain information from the start but revealing the whole picture piece by piece.
I won’t give away anything here, but I will say that a good alternate title for the book would have been ‘what happened to Mary?’

As a plot, Major Tom’s War is personal for the author, and this is instantly apparent, but those not wishing spoilers would do well to avoid the interesting selection of photographs at the end, and perhaps not pay too much attention to the jacket blurb. This is not to say the book lacks tension, this is brought to us in spectacular fashion through the character of Gaston Derome, Mayor of Bavay, who, just as the characters from Tom’s Regiment draw attention to the commonwealth effort, can look at the war from the perspective of an occupied French town.

I know I said the book is about love and war etc, but in fact, Major Tom’s War is about something much simpler. It is a book about people, plain, ordinary people who find themselves allowed the role of heroes. This story isn’t about heroism exactly, I wouldn’t call any of the main characters except perhaps Gaston and Harnam Singh classically heroic, nor is the surprisingly complex “villain” truly beyond empathy, (though his is a right piece of work). As such it is an excellent novel of war, and indeed of life.


Book Review: The Truce by Chris Baker.


Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Sept. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445634902

In the age of social media, Christmas is a time of year when WW1 Historians get asked a common question. What was the Christmas truce?
This legend is the focus of Chris Baker’s book, The truce. It’s one of a small group of small books dealing with December 1914 in the trenches, and this one does an excellent job of answering the question of what happened, and many more.

Tied up with the legend is the old story of opposing sides playing football, singing carols and meetings in no man’s land. Beginning with a thorough look at “Bloody December”, and the different units involved during the winter offensives in the western front, including the appearance of the Indian Corps, Baker dedicates half the book to combat.

Commonality is to be observed in all WW1 narratives, because no one can escape the appalling losses. Wether the writer is of the old school and focuses on the useless waste, or is of the newer mindset that admits the high casualties were an inevitable byproduct of old minds in a modern war, no one can deny the shocking scale of casualties had a numbing affect on those involved.

Midway through the book the tense changes from straight narrative, to a section called “In their words”. This ambitiously lists by Corps, division and brigade down to battalion, those units present on the frontline roughly from the 23rd to the 26th of December. Under their organisational headings are first hand reports, some from letters and diaries, some from official histories, that show quite clearly whether the soldiers present noticed a truce in their sector.

The picture that builds up left me in no doubt that the Christmas truce is no legend. Yet it was not the quiet Yuletide often imagined, where everyone just stopped fighting. Men died on parts of the frontline on Christmas Day. Some of the truces were merely excuses to bury the dead, a few of the accounts mention taking a good look at the enemy trenches.

However truces did occur, carols were exchanged across the darkness of no man’s land during Christmas Eve, football was played though wether it was with the Germans or not, is open to debate. Some had a try at starting a game but the officers couldn’t allow it. Indeed if it hadn’t been for some of the senior officers present it seems likely both sides would have had quite a party with each other, but there was a limit.

Small tokens were exchanged, some photographs were even snapped. Local field officers on both sides arranged unofficial ceasefires that lasted until the next day or the day after. There is no doubt about it, in a broad sense of the word a Christmas truce did occur. But sadly the Pope’s humane plea for a general ceasefire over the Christmas period went unheeded, apparently because the Russians wouldn’t agree. What that had to do with the Western front is anybody’s guess.

Reading through the accounts one is struck by a few commonalities. Motives were truces occurred were broadly the same, opposing sides both came away with a surprised realisation that the enemy were human. From the British camp comes many curious instances of finding Germans who had worked in Britain and who had family there. Often they reported that Saxons and Bavarians (who were the most friendly during the truces) were resentful of the Prussians for dragging them into the war and hoped for the end of hostilities soon.

How much of this is true? I ask. Was Germany really so divided about the war? Some say it was made up, others say there’s no reason to dismiss it totally. No answer is given here, because the book is really about letting the words of those who were present tell the story, and in that it does an excellent job.


Book Review: King’s African Rifles Soldier vs Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 by Greg Adams


Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (22 Sept. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813278

After 100 years of writing and discussion, there’s really no such thing as a neglected field of research when it comes to WW1. Look around and you will find books about what you want, especially general ones. Rather there is a curve which is categorised by volume; Which aspect has the most written about it against those that have comparatively little in print, yet when compared to other subjects are actually quite well off. The East African campaign of WW1 fits into this latter category. First you have the war in France, then most probably the Turkish fronts of Gallipoli and Palestine, then without doubt the eastern front and right down at the bottom you find a clump made up of Asia, Africa and most probably Italy. Continue reading “Book Review: King’s African Rifles Soldier vs Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 by Greg Adams”

Book Review: The Forgotten Monarch by Matthieu Santerre.


File Size: 593 KB
Publisher: Sainte-Ursule Books; 1 edition (March 15, 2016)
Publication Date: March 15, 2016
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Language: English

Not a day ago I was asked to explain some of the reasons why Europeans went to war between 1745 and 1882. One of the common reasons I sighted was Dynastic interest. It was with some kismet perhaps that only a few hours had gone by before I was asked to review this book.

The most arguably devastating weapon ever made was a fairly commonplace pistol wielded by an obscure assassin in a street in Sarajevo in June 1914. This gun through a chain of events would trigger the machine guns a’rattling and the field guns a’roaring. Yet in the gap between that shot and then first battle was filled with letters and talking, it did not so much directly start the war, as it caused the crisis that prompted the decisions that started it all. It set the train in motion and although this belligerent locomotive, with death as the engineer, seemed to ride smoothly from station peace to station war, there were not a few stops in between that could have rerouted it or indeed derailed it.

In this book Matthieu Santerre forcibly argues, aided by a no nonsense bullet point style that suits the perimeters of the work well, that one of the key decision makers of the crisis was the Austro Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph. It is commonly understood that WW1 was fought against Germany, but Austro-Hungary was actually the catalyst that brought the world crashing down in 1914. Largely ignored by history Franz Joseph was actually at he heart of the fateful decision after the attack at Sarajevo.

Readers today will understand better than other generations how an act of political or religious violence directed in one direction can expand to engulf events with alarming speed. The author is at pains to explain that the Emperor here had warded off several descents into war in years previous, as the final arbiter of his country when it came to war, Franz Joseph was central to the outcome of the crisis, yet war was not a foregone conclusion, nor was it a snap decision.

Santerre begins by explaining the former and current academic views regarding the start of the war, this is ably done, he also wisely asserts that no historical work can be entirely devoid of bias, yet he makes his case clear when he says that he is not there to lay blame on Franz Joseph in any way, any kind of moral judgement is out of the question here as his aim is to replace the Emperor to the spotlight that he does seem to deserve.

I will admit that I am so out of the loop in terms of the debate of who did what in 1914, that I would be completely unable to give any sort of opinion on whether Franz Joseph deserves to be central to the play. Yet the author here lays out a convincing argument that to me echoes other instances of central players getting lost in the footlights.

The author ably constructs and then defends a course of events that begin with the infamous attack, to the search for options, to the agreed course to demand redress and the follow through. Franz Joseph’s motivation is clearly outlined and also how he kept his options open until the last, as he was very soon fully aware that military action might well endanger the peace of all Europe. Yet as we discover to a man like the emperor the Sarajevo incident was personal, and as the fateful events of that Summer took their course, it can reasonably be said that the great powers were watching Austria for their queue.

Yet although this would seem to condemn him at that point World War was not foreseen. The author demonstrates that until 3 days before the fatal ultimatum expired he had only decided to risk war, rather than being decided to embark upon it. Yet in the end having I think made his point, Santerre sensitively leaves the decision about whether or not to condemn Franz Joseph to the reader. Presenting a clear, concise but readable case for the emperor to be considered the principle decision maker in the road towards Serbian intervention. Therefore giving us a firm basis of fact with which to view the subject.

Although the tone throughout is terse and businesslike, I found the final chapter (there are 7) very touching. I think this is a useful work, that will be invaluable to anyone wishing to understand the roadmap of how Europe went to war in 1914. As it sheds light on a shadowy corner of the story, and in plain terms shows us why the days of monarchical control, based upon often very personal motives, that were connected to the good of the nation by the given monarch’s ancestral house, were numbered. And hammers home loud and clear that the awesome responsibility of guiding a nation, very often lay not upon the concept of divine rule in which rested the intertwined relationship between national identity, a ruling dynasty and the monarch, but very often on the shoulders of a very human man.