Book Review: “A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War” (2014), eds. Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf



Thanks to the centenary I have caught the WWI bug and I have started working my way through Great War literature. After Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, I figured it was time for a non-fiction account and decided on this collection of letters and diaries, edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf. The selection is varied, including not just British documents but also German, Russian, and Indian voices, plenty of women (much appreciated!), and mostly “ordinary people” with the occasional familiar name thrown in (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and so on). The fragments are not in chronological order, but have been organised by place and theme instead: ‘Hearing and imagining from afar’, ‘experience at close quarters’, ‘how the war divided us’, and ‘searching for what is lost.’ We get stories from all over Europe, ranging from published articles to letters from loved ones.

These varied first-hand accounts really bring home how the War changed many people’s lives forever, whether they fought in the trenches, did their part back home, or were imprisoned for refusing to have anything to do with it at all. We get beautifully poetic paragraphs by authors struggling to find the right words for what they’ve seen, but also a glimpse of painfully mundane, like a mother sending some flower seeds to her son at the front “to put in somewhere amongst the trees. it maybe some other lonely soldier, will see something of them, & be a voice to him. of Cheers.”

With events as enormous as these it is easy to forget about the individual and everyday life, but these letters bring you right down to earth, to the people and how they just tried to make it through another day. I cried when I read the letters of Frank Cocker, a private in the British army who was, in the grand scheme of things, no one special. Except that he was. I felt intensely connected to this man, this anonymous face in the crowd who would never make it into the history books, but whose words brought me to tears. And he was just one man, one man in an army of thousands, every single one of them with their own story to tell, all of them voices that deserve to be heard.

(N.B. A Broken World includes graphic details about life in the trenches and battles fought during the War. These fragments are very disturbing and can be extremely difficult to get through. If you are at all sensitive about death or violence, avoid at all costs. I mean it.)

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