The first world war

The recklessness of George Mallory

George Mallory bookended the 20th century history of Everest with his pioneering attempts in the 1920s to climb the mountain – and with the spectacular discovery, in 1999, of his body high up on the North Face, preserved by the ice for 75 years after he had failed to do so. His flip remark to a journalist that he was climbing Everest ‘because it was there’ became mountaineering’s most celebrated quote, while masking other less noble reasons. Mick Conefrey has become one of our finest gazetteers of the Himalaya, with successive books on K2, Kangchenjunga and later exploits on Everest. Now he turns his attention to a great conundrum of

They felt they could achieve anything together: two brave women in war-torn Serbia

Lesbian military fiction is a popular genre, featuring titles such as Silver Wings and An Army of One, but Jack and Eve is a true story. Written by the journalist Wendy Moore, whose previous books tackled medical and social history, it tells of two suffragettes who caused havoc in the first world war and exposed the absurdity of Edwardian homophobes. Before the war, the jobbing actor Vera Holme, who liked to be known as Jack, changed careers to become Emmeline Pankhurst’s mechanic and chauffeur. In 1908 she met Evelina Haverfield, the conventionally beautiful, wealthy daughter of a Scottish baron. The two fell in love, began living together and soon became

Longing for oblivion: The Warm Hands of Ghosts, by Katherine Arden, reviewed

This novel, set towards the end of the first world war, is eerie and fanciful yet gruesomely down-to-earth. It features Laura Iven, formerly a nurse at the Front – awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1915 – and her brother Freddie, part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sent to take Passchendaele Ridge in November 1917. Owing to a deep shrapnel wound, Laura is back home in Halifax, Canada. It is January 1918, and the previous month her parents died when their ship Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax harbour. To make matters even worse, Freddie is missing. Laura is now a live-in nurse companion to three elderly sisters who conduct séances.

What Britain owed to Gracie Fields

Simon Heffer is the supreme Stakhanovite among British writers. Where the original Stakhanov moved 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift, within the past decade Heffer has produced four massive volumes of modern British history, each little less than 1,000 pages. Alongside them he has edited three equally voluminous diaries of the waspish socialite MP ‘Chips’ Channon, as well as writing regular reviews and columns. Hats off to the master! In this latest and final volume of his tetralogy chronicling the British century between Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837 and Neville Chamberlain’s reluctant declaration of war on Germany in 1939, Heffer once more treats us to his vast knowledge

Why did the Weimar Republic descend so rapidly into chaos?

‘Thirteen wasted years’ bellowed Adolf Hitler at receptive audiences in the spring of 1932. He was talking about the first full German democracy, the Weimar Republic. Proclaimed in November 1918, it was born out of a desire to do things better after the horrors of the first world war and was an ambitious attempt to establish one of the most progressive states in history. ‘Democratic chaos,’ sneered Hitler, ‘unmitigated political and economic chaos.’ Much of the electorate agreed. Less than a year later, Hitler became chancellor and immediately set about fulfilling his electoral promise to destroy democracy. The short and tumultuous story of the Weimar Republic continues to fascinate. The

The making of a poet: Wilfred Owen’s ‘autobiography’ in letters

Here is the opening of a sonnet written by Wilfred Owen in the spring of 1911: ‘Three colours have I known the Deep to wear;/ ’Tis well today that Purple grandeurs gloom.’ Owen was 18 and had just been on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in Devon, where his hero John Keats had once stayed. The kindest thing to say about this poem is that it is heavy with the influence of Keats. Six years later, in a seaside hotel requisitioned by the army and waiting to be sent back to the Western Front, he begins a poem like this: ‘Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.’ This

Who needed who most? The complex bond between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

These letters between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby cover 15 years of a remarkable friendship that began at Somerville College, Oxford in 1919 and ended only with Holtby’s premature death from kidney failure in 1935. Brittain went up to Oxford in 1914, but left to serve as a nurse in the first world war. She returned freighted with tragic experience, having lost both her lover and her brother and tended the wounds of horribly injured soldiers close to the front. She disconcerted younger undergraduates with her fiercely competitive and forthright views combined with fragile looks and a general air of suppressed trauma. Holtby, five years her junior, had also interrupted

Lord Northcliffe’s war of words

‘What a man,’ enthused Wilhelm II from exile in 1921. ‘If we had had Northcliffe we would have won the war.’ The Kaiser wasn’t describing a general or politician but a not- so-humble newspaperman, Lord Northcliffe, the pugnacious proprietor of the Times, Daily Mail and a host of other print publications, who had ended the Great War pumping news into Germany as the British government’s director of propaganda in enemy countries. Northcliffe brought to that post the drive he had shown building up his media empire over three decades. The Germans so reviled – or perhaps admired – him that they struck a medallion depicting him, quill in hand, with

War was never Sir Edward Grey’s métier

This meaty but easily digested biography pivots around the events either side of that fateful evening of 4 August 1914 when Britain’s ultimatum to Germany over Belgium ran out and Sir Edward Grey memorably remarked that the lamps were going out over Europe. As foreign secretary for almost a decade before that, Grey had deftly orchestrated a web of alliances designed to keep the peace in Europe, and Britain the dominant global power. But war and its attendant carnage unravelled his life’s work, leaving him a nervous wreck. He hung on in office until 1916 when the new prime minister David Lloyd George unceremoniously swept him out. Lloyd George later

A brutal education: At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop, reviewed

Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier fighting for France in the trenches of the Great War, is consumed by bloodlust, which you’d think might be an asset under the circumstances. But after watching the protracted, gruesome death of his friend and ‘more than brother’, Mademba, a switch is flicked in Alfa’s mind. He becomes, in effect, a sadistic serial killer, until war itself cannot provide sufficient cover for his extremity. David Diop’s powerful novel, not much more than novella length, is full of echoes and portents. Over the course of his self-justifying narrative, Alfa says ‘God’s truth’ so often that the notion is drained of meaning. Translated from the French, the

Never a dull sentence: the journalism of Harry Perry Robinson

Is Boris Johnson a fan of Harry Perry Robinson? If he isn’t, he really ought to be. Reading this absorbing biography, I was struck by how much they have in common — especially in their early lives. Both men went to public school, then on to Oxford, then into journalism, where they proved incapable of writing a dull sentence. They both divorced and remarried — and were also American citizens, for a while. Both dipped a toe into politics, but while Boris took the plunge, Harry stepped back and remained a jobbing hack until his dying day, the finest journalist of his generation. The biggest difference, however, is that Harry