Hi folks! I don’t often review books on my blog, but for this series I’ll make an exception. I just finished re-reading Wendy Orr’s wonderful series, set in Bronze Age Crete. It’s a children’s series, but there is a lot of richness for adults to appreciate too. We follow three generations of girls growing up […]
1970 in suburban Melbourne: ‘That was how it happened, thought Harry, feeling the memories rise; they were never far away .. Trusting you to remember, trusting you to do something about it. As if you could fix things, mend the dead, put the world back the way it was.’
And so we go back into Harry’s memories, into the seared experiences that gave him nightmares for decades, back to the day in 1917 when Harry cannot find his foster brother Eddie. Harry searches. He crawls out of the Passchendaele mud in no-man’s land searching for him. He looks into dugouts and stumbles down communication trenches and he asks at Casualty Clearing Stations. Fifty years later his granddaughter comes upon an old notebook in the attic and asks him,”Who is Eddie?”
The Stars In The Night is a story of love. Nora waits for Harry but he harbours fears whether she can accept him after what he has been through. Eddie hopes for a life with Claudelle. It is a story too of love between men, brothers-in-arms, Harry and Eddie, Wallis, Hartigan, Alex. From Gallipoli to Flanders the war thunders over all of them like the endless numbing artillery barrages. But it does not end for them when the guns fall silent.
We only recently have begun to speak openly of PTSD and try to understand that it messes people up for a long time. Harry survives wounds and sickness and comes home, but in dreams he returns to no-mans’ land, still trying to rescue mates. The women have their losses too, made harder to bear by Harry’s inability to speak of things he simply does not want to bring to mind. Harry’s mother Ellen, for instance, cannot connect with him any more.
‘The mines and the shelling is like the end of the world. The worst we have seen, and we have seen some bad ones. Harry and me are fine but it makes you cry. There are so many dead you cant help but walk on them’. Eddies notebook.
Clare Rhoden takes us into this vast arena of events, from the debate in Australia about the rightness of the war, into terrible battles, and on through into the waves of pyschological effects upon those who survived and their families. These 220 pages hold material for a 1000 page book. But the author has brought large and complicated things down to the personal level by revealing them in the way that we all ordinarily talk to each other: through a household argument, the queries of a nosy neighbour, the grumbles of soldiers about the food and the cold, the guarded talk about Gallipoli by a sergeant to a fresh officer as they weigh each other up, and through diaries and letters home. This makes The Stars In The Night deeply personal and emotional. I got so caught up in it that I paused reading several times so as to absorb it. I cannot praise this novel highly enough both for its story and it’s technical execution.
Although it is about the experiences of Australian soldiers, this heartache and loss described in this novel could really be about the horror of any war, not just the one that millions prayed would be ‘The War To End All Wars.’ The character Harry Fletcher, like many veterans, could not bring himself to attend Anzac Day ceremonies but stayed quietly at home. Yet for anyone interested in the scars left by the Great War and thus the origin of the ‘Anzac legend’, the facts of it, and sometimes the mythology of it, this is a must-read.
Lest We Forget.
Note about ‘Anzac’ to readers unfamiliar with the term: The first units of Australians shipped out in 1915 were merged with the first New Zealanders into the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Their losses in Gallipoli and later in France shocked both young countries. Australia, population four million in 1914, sent 417,000 volunteers to the conflict. 62,000 died. Both Australia and New Zealand suffered casualty rates of over 55% – killed, wounded, gassed, captured, marked as ‘missing’. The term ‘ANZAC’ endures.
Personal note2020: As I began this book, Australia was dealing with the Black Summer and the whole world was attuned to news about some sort of virus. There was tension in the air, and for the first time I think I had an inkling of what it might have felt like in late 1914 in the households across nations as they readied for conflict, not knowing what lay ahead. On the day that I thoughtfully laid down The Stars in the Night, Anzac Day services were cancelled for the first time due to the menace of Covid-19.
You may have seen ‘1917’, a visual immersion in the hell of the Great War. The novel ‘Nursing Fox’also takes you into that rain of death, and in particular, the struggle to save the wounded on the front line.
Jim Ditchfield’s novel is a homage to the women who served as nurses on the Western Front. He says, ‘Although they performed a crucial role, the nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service are rarely mentioned in accounts of that conflict’. I feel well read about that war but until now I did not know about the conditions these nurses had to endure. The Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) had to be close to the trenches to give the wounded the best chance of survival. That meant the doctors, nurses and patients got regularly shelled and bombed.
We follow the fortunes of Lucy Paignton-Fox who has been raised on a cattle station in the Northern Territory. She has studied for what was in 1914 for women an extraordinary chance to train as a doctor. But when Australia follows Britain into the war in Europe, Lucy volunteers to be an army nurse.
The nurses work until exhausted and then keep on working. The wounded stream in from ‘stunts’ (battles) the names of which are now engraved on war memorials: The Somme, Fromelles, Pozieres, Ypres, Messines, the Menin Road, Passchendaele. Each name represents astonishing numbers of mangled humans.
‘There were only 41 men still fighting fit, four walking wounded, one who needed a stretcher. Just 41. The company had been 250 strong when the stunt started’. P.120 John Mitchell reviews his shattered company.
We are also introduced to John Mitchell of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and to Adam Haywood (Royal Flying Corps), Through their eyes we see the fighting on the ground and in the air. We are taken through the frentic disorganisation of things as basic as getting fed, getting the hospital tents set up, and moving about on the shattered ‘roads’ (planks laid over mud). As readers we get to know as little of the ruthless decisions being made by the base-wallahs (staff officers) as do the troops and nurses. But we see the results in the plethora of grim details. As well as the human toll, the author reminds us of the transport horses and mules killed by artillery or worked to exhaustion. There is no blaze of glory anywhere, just the endurance of the unbearable by men and women at a time when the best anyone could hope for was a ‘ticket to blighty’ (a wound so bad they’ll be sent to England.)
For a gripping account of the service of the nurses in France, and for a carefully researched and engrossing picture of how awful was ‘The War To End All Wars’, I highly recommend Nursing Fox.
Another excellent novel involving the field hospitals and nurses on the Western Front is The Bishops Girlby Rebecca Burns. You can see my review here.
Personal Note: One battle name in particular gave me an irrational start: The Menin Road. As a child in New Zealand I lived on a quiet suburban street called Menin Road. The streets all around bore names which I later learnt to be battles of that terrible war. It’s curious to think that as I played games on the neat lawns I had no idea across the other side of the world so many thousands had died by the original Menin Road that their number will never be known.
Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.
Two books to consider around Anzac Day are this history of the battle in 1941 and a novel of what happened from then until 1945 to the Cretan population, resistance fighters of Crete, and soldiers from Greece, Italy, Germany, Britain, Australia and New Zealand (ANZACS).
An innocuous title, thought I, as I selected The Girl Under the Olive Tree, by Leah Flemming for a holiday read. Well, it starts quietly enough with young Penelope George in Scotland mainly concerned to avoid being married off by her status conscious mother. But in her search to find her own identity in life, she takes up nursing training, then accepts a chance to join her sister in Athens.
An idyllic time follows for Penelope but as Italian and then German forces invade Greece, she is caught up in a malestrom of war. As she turns 21 she makes hard choices, the courage and cost of which not one male in the story seems to appreciate.
Through this fictional story of her endurance and trials, and those of her friend, Yolanda, and of her love for the infuriating Bruce Jardin, we are taken through the horrors endured by this island.
The Girl Under the Olive Tree, by Leah Flemming, published by Simon and Schuster 2013, was inspired in part by Johanna Stavridi, a nurse honoured by the Hellenic Red Cross for her courage and work.
Anzac Fury: The Bloody Battle of Crete 1941, by Peter Thompson, published by William Heinemann 2010, concerns, as you’d expect from the title, the fighting itself during the invasion, particularly by the ANZACS*. So that we can make sense of it all, Thompson takes in the wider scenario beginning with the fighting in North Africa and Greece.
He describes ordinary fighting men and the astonishing things they did through use of surviving diaries and letters, and he goes into the personalities and motivations of the commanders and politicians, whose decisions cost so many so much.
*Note for non-Australasian readers: The term ANZAC was coined in 1915 to denote the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that fought in the disaster known as Gallipoli, a campaign conceived by Mr Winston Churchill. Turkish, French and British troops died there too in huge numbers, yet the event has a special place in the histories of Australia and New Zealand. Both were small countries that had only been self governing for 13 or 14 years. They suffered losses that shook their national psyches. The day the troops landed, 25 April, is a day of Remembrance.
When, 26 years later, the troops of these nations were shipped to the hopeless cause of defending Greece, again due to the decisions of Mr Churchill, they were acutely conscious that ill-fated Gallipoli was not far away.
Mark is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.
Fifty years ago when this world was very young, your correspondent’s hobby was War Gaming.
I don’t mean shootups on a screen at implausible digitalised foes. There were no screens then; we’re talking about the dark ages here, the 1970s. No, this War Gaming was played out with regiments of miniature figurines on a table covered in green paint or blaze cloth and set up with ‘terrain’ cobbled together from home made paper mache hills and railway-model trees and buildings.
These days there are entire shops in shopping centres that sell excellent figurines. These are mostly figures of imaginary hordes loosely modelled on Tolkein’s orcs and various Star-Wars and other villains. But many wargamers still stick to the traditional idea of attempting to refight historic campaigns with forces more or less representing those of the (human) past.
All War Gamers, whether they prefer Orcs or Elves, Persians or Prussians, Incas or Ghurkas, take pride in their labour of sourcing (recruiting), painting and marshalling their formations. The range of figurines available today, metal and plastic, covers every concievable era- and Middle Earth and several alternative universes. But in the aforementioned dawn of time when I were a lad, none of this was so.
My first ‘troops’ were cardboard ‘flats’; soldiers that I carefully copied from books, re-scaled, drew, and patiently cut out. My focus and patience on this activity amazed my parents because I was utterly clumsy at everything else. I was also hopeless at drawing anything else. Mum worked out where her best nail scissors had got to and retrieved them, a set-back which slowed my recruitment drive.
Then I chanced upon a packet of metal figures, some of which you see in these photos*. They represented forces from the 19th Century: British, Highlanders, Maori, Zouaves, Italians, Foreign Legion, Prussians and Austrians. Beautifully moulded and painted, they were sold in groups of five. They were expensive! I sank all my earnings from lawn mowing into this collection, recruiting soldiers five at a time until I had something of a force to manoeuvre. At that time the floor was my battleground and the furniture formed the terrain.
In my teens, I discovered the plastic figures put out by ‘Airfix’. These were far cheaper and came in twenties. Box by box I recruited and handpainted my Romans, Ancient Britons, medievals, American Civil War troops and my ‘moderns’. (I am one of the few table top wargamers to have not bothered with the Napoleonic era.) Eventually, I could field mighty armies of a sort with up to 200 figures a side.
But in the early days, the only figurines I had were these few, hard-earned, difficult-to-source metal figures shown in the photos. Though I never used them after the age of 13, I have carried them about ever since from flat to flat, house to house. Today they are helping to show off to you my well preserved very first book of wargaming rules,
Wargaming requires rules, preferably a playable set with which contenders can set up their forces, clash, and come to a conclusion within two or three hours, all the while bickering away amiably. You need agreement on how to deal with movement, missile discharges, melees, morale, and casualties. Clubs of wargamers formed in the sixties especially in England. They created makeshift sets of rules, all different. This was no use to me in Australia nor to any other gamer, and there turned out to be many table top wargamers also in the USA.
Terence Wise’s 170 page heavily illustrated “Introduction to Battle Gaming” book changed this. His simple set of suggestions was indeed highly playable. With this book in hand, I was able to form a group of my own among my school mates. One of us focused on Napoleonics, one on Moderns, and two of us on other eras. Between us we enjoyed many hours of table top play along with the requisite amiable bickering. But eventually we wanted something more challenging. I then discovered the Rules that for a long time dominated the small but growing wargaming people -those that were by published by the Wargames Research Group. I put Mr Wise’s book away. But clearly I have treasured it. His was the publication that properly began the hobby for me, and for many others.
Where to FindIntroduction to Battle Gaming by Terence Wise, published 1969 by Model and Alliled Publications Ltd, Argus Press Ltd: When I searched the Net to see where you might find this books, I was surprised to discover that other wargamers of the 1970’s vintage must still be about because several copies of this revered tome still exist, mainly through Abebooks.com. There is also an updated version, apparently.
*I have forgotten the brand name of these soldiers and could perhaps make a miniature fortune on EBay if only I could remember it.
**Because the range even of the plastic figures was then limited, I would alter figures to resemble other troops eg by adding tiny spears and shields to certain Medievals to create Persians. I am amazed now that I ever did anything so finicky. All gamers then did such things. We researched our eras, and we were all possibly a bit barmy. They were good days. Good days.
You are at Baffled Bear Books. Here writes Mark, guardian of Mawson Bear. Mawson is a Ponderer of Baffling Things and one of this bright world’s few published bears. He is the writer bear of It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In . Mawson has many qualitites but he is not a drop bear.
A word from Kitty Baba about Ukraine, books, and love.
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‘How could she have fallen through a brick wall in Melbourne, emerged from a mirror on the other side, and finished up surrounded by mountains?’ Ch. 2 Alone
Songbird is the first in a trilogy called GriffinSong. Aeryl has gone out at night to pick up medicines at a late night chemist (drugstore). That’s all. Nothing unusual there. And she has arrived another world via a collision with brick wall. She desperately needs to rejoin her child but the mirror from which she emerged does not seem to work in reverse. But right now her immediate problem is to avoid being burned alive by the people in this strange place.
‘Aeryl tried to picture the distance between here and Irenya’s other reality. Was it as far away as the stars netted in Meias’s hair. Or a hand span through the mirror? Were there other worlds slidingacross the surface of theirs?’ Ch. 3 Distractions.
The hallmark of a good series, I think, is that you finish the first book very keen to know what happens next. In this regard, Songbird is a winner. I had to know how on earth, or how on this strange world, at least, she would ever get back to her child. Fortunately for the reader, the next volumes are now available. My recommendation? Get them all and read them one after another.
‘This is a cruel twist of fate, that an infant in another world should be derived of her mother in order to transform ours.’ Ch. 5 Quandary.
The tale of how Major Frederick Browning met and courted Daphne du Maurier would seem to belong to one of the novelist’s less likely plots.
The Major had read Du Maurier’s first novel, The Loving Spirit. Inspired by her description of the coastline of Cornwall, and also dreaming of possibly being able to meet the novelist herself, he visited the county to go sailing.
He did indeed met her; and she liked what she saw. But as the months passed they both baulked for one reason or another at marrying. In the end it was she who proposed to him. The church they wed in was the very church where an important fictional marriage had taken place as part of the story told in The Loving Spirit. That fictional marriage in the book had been based on a real one. So a real marriage had inspired the fictional one in the novel, which in turn brought Major Browning to Cornwall, where he met and married the writer .. in that same church. It is like one of the loops of intertwined fates which occur in several of her stories.
The Bridge Too Far
As with all career soldiers, Browning’s army postings took him away from home often. As WWII advanced, he rose in rank to be a General. He believed in air power and he formed the First Airborne Division. This division served in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and Normandy. By 1944, he commanded the First Allied Airborne Army at Arnhem. The battle turned into a ghastly British defeat.
Browning’s decisions during the Battle of Arnhem are still debated among enthusiasts of military history. Some claim much of the defeat was his fault. Yet, it was he who had given the famous warning to General Montgomery, to no avail, that Operation Market Garden was reaching for “a bridge too far”.
The General and his fuzzy travelling companions
The General ended his all hastily scribbled letters home to his wife, son and daughters with “kisses from the Boys”. The “Boys” were his childhood bears who travelled everywhere with him, packed in a briefcase.
You are at Baffled Bear Books, the blog of Mark, guardian,chocolate-fetcher and blundering typist for Mawson Bear, Ponderer of Baffling Things and one of this bright world’s few published bears. Mawson is writer bear of It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In.