As part of my work, I have responsibility for dealing with WW1 centenary commemorations.  What an honour, and privilege this is.

Like so many people, I am reading about the start of the Great War, as it was of course originally called, and the causes of it.  I have just opened a book which has moved me to write this post, so magnificent is the first paragraph:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.  In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jewelled orders flashing in the sun.  After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.  Together they represented seventy nations in the greets assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last.  The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again.”

Right from the outset, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August promises to be an amazing work of non-fiction.  These lines took my breath away.  It is not surprising that the Pulitzer Committee found a way to breach their own rules (the donor’s will forbids the awarding of a prize to a work about non-American history) by awarding Tuchman a Prize for General Non-fiction.

One feels as if one is there in turn-of-the-century London, among the crowds, gasping with them, but with the hideous benefit of knowing what is to follow the blazing sunset.  One feels full of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.  Was the war inevitable? Could that esteemed gathering have gathered together their plumes, sashes and orders to better effect?  My goodness – what a considerably longer post would be needed to take on the answers to those questions…

I shall instead content myself with going back to Ms Tuchman and urging anyone who is interested in this subject to do the same.


14 thoughts on ““A funeral”

  1. I am glad that centenary commemorations are in your good hands. As I have travelled across our Canterbury Plains in recent days, I have been thinking a great deal about all the resources they contributed to WW1, human resources in particular. The Guns of August sounds like a splendid read.

  2. Liz, that has long been one of my favourite books of all time. It is stunningly good all the way through. Her ability to bring individuals to life is extraordinary. I have so many vivid mental pictures from that book. I also totally recommend her book The Proud Tower, about the world before the War (“while from a proud tower in the town / death looked disastrously down.” – Edgar Allen Poe, who else…) Her essays about Thomas Reed, and about the Dreyfus Affair, are just brilliant. I can still see the Texan Senator whetting his knife on the sole of his boot as a key debate in the Senate got a tad heated! I hope you love August 1914 as much as you are expecting to!

    1. So glad to hear how much you like this book, Liz. Can’t wait to read it – and will now have to try her other material, as well as the other works you recommend in your second comment. My reading pile has suddenly got a whole lot taller!

  3. Just to add, another superb book on WW1 is Alistair. Horne’s Verdun, especially if you previously read his book Paris: The Seige and The Commune, about the 1870 war and its aftermath. To read Verdun is to understand completely why the French keeled over so fast in 1940.

  4. What a beautiful description and so well written. I will have to read that book. “The muffled tongue of Big Ben” that phrase stayed with me.

  5. As you know my son is a bagpiper. On Canada Day, he was part of a ceremony honouring Lieutenant Augustus Wilberforce McKnight, who was an active citizen of Port Moody, British Columbia, before he went to France and Flanders. He was fatally wounded on August 11, 1916 and is buried at Reninghelst New Military Cemetery in Belgian. We hear about the famous names, but it is the long forgotten names for which I weep. Those soldiers who suffered in the trenches and for those who waited at home, with hopeful hearts. For many, there were no extravagant funerals.

    The book I recommend is Joseph Persico’s “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918. WWI. Although the subject matter is difficult, Persico was able to bring out difficult messages in a compassionate way.

    I wish you all the very best in your project – I know that it will bring honour to those who never came back.

    1. You are so right about the nature of so many funerals – and so beautifully put as usual. Thanks for the book recommendation which I will add to my growing list x

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