Yuletide Selections II
I’m a bit of a gruff creature when it comes to the commercialisation of Christmas – but there’s one thing that I fervently believe: a book is a present that, if well chosen for the recipient, will give hours of pleasure and be a lasting reminder in itself of someone putting thought, not just money, into a Yuletide gift. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone in this somewhat eclectic selection. They range from a superb coffee table book on the Kriegstein Collection of historic ship models to the true story of the Christmas truce. So do consider adding one or more from this selection to your gift-buying list – or just indulging yourself!
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Historic Ship Models of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Arnold and Henry Kriegstein
I can never pass by a museum that houses a ship model collection without spending considerable time admiring these intricate works of art. The authors of this incomparably superb book, identical twins, have amassed a ship model collection that is recognised as the finest in private hands anywhere in the world, principally made up of official 17th- and 18th-century models in the Admiralty or Navy Board style. As well as lengthy descriptions of these magnificent artefacts, there is background information on how they were identified, and details of the research done by the Kriegsteins. Beyond the technicalities of the ships, readers will be fascinated by the brothers’ adventures in pursuit of every model and their dogged determination to secure them against official obstruction and dubious antiques-trade practices. The book also includes a chapter on the intricate bone PoW ship models of the Napoleonic era in the collection. One of my favourite, albeit humble, models is that of a ship’s boat c. 1750. In a similar craft in 1789, Bligh completed a heroic 4000-mile journey across the open ocean. Sadly, the Kriegstein models are not on public display but this book, a fully revised edition of a 2007 tome of the same name is an invaluable guide to the skills and dedication of the Golden Age of Sail model makers – and would make a treasured gift to any with an interest in this art form.
Tommy French by Julian Walker
The colourful language of Jack Tar certainly had an influence on the English language – as did the cant of the British soldiery. Anglicized French phrases came into use on the Western Front during the First World War as British troops struggled to communicate in French. One such is ‘napoo’ from ‘il n’y en a plus’ – there’s none left. Julian Walker explores the subject in detail and in the process gives us an insight into the British soldiers’ experience in France during the war and the special language they invented in order to cope with their situation. He shows how French place-names were anglicized as were words for food and drink, and he looks at what these slang terms tell us about the soldiers’ perception of France, their relationship with the French and their ideas of home. He traces the spread of ‘Tommy French’ back to the Home Front, where it was popularized in songs and on postcards, and looks at the French reaction to the anglicization of their language. A fascinating study of an encounter between two languages and cultures.
Years of Endurance by John R Muir
Regular readers of this blog will know I have a soft spot for memoirs from Old Salts. Muir’s book is a vivid recollection of life in a Royal Navy battlecruiser during World War I. The author was the senior medical officer aboard HMS Tiger, from her commissioning in October 1914 until his departure in the autumn of 1916, when she sailed to Rosyth for repairs to the damage incurred at the battle of Jutland. Muir takes the reader right to the centre of the action in the first years of the war, his story also about the officers and men who were his comrades in those years; their qualities, their anxieties and the emotional dimension of their experiences. His insights are those of a man sensitive to the human condition in all its facets, and they bring vividly to life a generation of men who fought at sea more than one hundred years ago. Published in the late 30s, this new reprint edition is a valuable contribution to our present appreciation of the life in the Royal Navy afloat in the Great War.
The True Story of the Christmas Truce by Anthony Richards
‘One of them shouted “A Merry Christmas English. We’re not shooting tonight.” . . . [then] they stuck up a light. Not to be outdone, so did we. Then up went another. So, we shoved up another. Soon the lines looked like an illuminated fete.’ Rifleman Leslie Walkington.
On Christmas Eve 1914, a group of German soldiers laid down their arms, lit lanterns and started to sing Christmas carols. The British troops in nearby trenches responded by singing songs of their own. The next day, men from both sides met in No Man’s Land. They shook hands, took photos and exchanged food and souvenirs. Some even played improvised football games, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using helmets for goalposts. Both sides also saw the lull in fighting as a chance to bury the bodies of their comrades. In some parts of the front, the truce lasted a few hours. In others, it continued to the New Year. But everywhere, sooner or later, the fighting resumed.
In his book, historian Anthony Richards has brought together hundreds of first-hand reminiscences from those who were there – including previously unpublished German accounts – to cast fresh light on this extraordinary episode.
They Have Their Exits by Airey Neave
I have watched the classic BBC production ‘Colditz’ several times, in my mind one of the great television dramas of the age. ‘They Have Their Exits’ was first published in 1953 and continues to stand in the premier division of military memoirs. The author, who as a senior member of Mrs Thatcher’s Government was tragically assassinated by the IRA, had the most distinguished of war records. Wounded and taken prisoner in the desperate fighting at Calais in 1940, he became a compulsive escaper and the first one of the very few to make a ‘home-run’ from Colditz Castle. Thereafter he rejoined the fighting serving in France and Holland before becoming a member of the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials. There he was to meet the most notorious members of the Nazi hierarchy as they faced justice and, in many cases, death. This book is a fitting memorial to a man of exceptional energy, initiative and courage.
Thank you for your recommendation of “Years of Endurance”. As my grandfather was an MD serving in the Coast Guard in WW 2 in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters I look forward to reading about the Great War from a naval MD. Regards, James Buckley
Best wishes Julian. G