NOTING the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, The Illustrated London News observed: “It has never been the habit of the English nation to dwell much on the recollections of battle.” As the plethora of recent books about the First World War shows, it is the habit now.
Amid works about past strategies and great conflicts, this book provides a different approach and a refreshing read. Peter Snow is a well-respected author in this genre. He and his wife, Ann MacMillan, are experienced journalists and broadcasters who pace a story and hold attention. The subtitle’s rather sensational Gripping tales . . . may be too redolent of spiffing yarns of the comics of yore; in fact, this is a serious and well-researched work.
The authors’ premise, long proven but here intriguingly brought to life, is that war draws out, from often unlikely men and women, amazingly good reactions and extraordinary bravery. The authors describe experiences of 28 individuals and four couples, mostly “ordinary”, who were caught up in war situations between 1741 and 2015.
Their tales, from four continents, are arranged in thematically headed sections. Courage, for example, is represented by Edward Seager of the “Charge of the Light Brigade”; Joshua Chamberlain, from the American Civil War; and Private Johnson Beharry, awarded a VC for heroism in the recent Iraq war.
Among familiar names, and concluding the collection, is Nicholas Winton, who saved Jewish children from the Nazis. Charles Lightoller, a hero of the Titanic, is included for his lesser-known bravery and skill, under fire at Dunkirk in his little ship, rescuing troops.
Fascinating are Ursula the Guerrilla, Queen of Nagaland, Sonya the Spy, and Magdalene de Lancey, of Waterloo. The authors have explored primary sources and long-forgotten contemporary accounts for their subjects. They have also interviewed, when possible, those still living, or surviving relatives. That has also enabled fresh insights and added information about known lives.
There are moving moments; but the book is never mawkish. A touching chapter is devoted to the poet Edward Thomas and his wife, Helen. The heartbreak of “their last goodbye”, based chiefly on Helen’s diary and subsequent books, and the authors’ conversation with Helen’s granddaughter, is tangible.
The horrific refugee journey of Ahmad Terkawi, escaping with his family from Syria, is a shameful story of our time which needs to be read and told.
There is an interesting appendix of notes and sources. At the beginning, the dedication properly includes “the countless others whose stories have yet to be told”. Such experiences, when discovered, may shape another book.
Meanwhile, the tale of Percy’s Purse and the journey bringing news of victory at the Battle of Waterloo quickly to London is gripping.
The Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch is Head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion and a former Bishop of Manchester.
War Stories: Gripping tales of courage, cunning and compassion
Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan
John Murray £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50