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.