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Revisiting WW-I

Debasish Chakrabarty

By Peter Hepplewhite . Illustrations and Maps by David Wyatt
Macmillan, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xii 274, Rs. 299.00


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? —Only the monstrous anger of the guns.  Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. Wilfred Owen from ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’ In these lines Owen captures the monumental losses of a generation. In the four years of the War about 10,300 people died everyday for four and half years. Yet many who lived to tell their tales made places like Somme, Flanders and Gallipoli enter the domain of popular mythology across the world. There are no veterans from the War alive today; the last sailor Claude Choules died in 2011. In this year of centenary celebrations it is apt that Macmillan decided to reprint True Stories from World War I, first printed in 2003. Peter Hepplewhite, the author who is an ex-History teacher claims in his preface that he ‘tries in a small way to join the commemorations with twelve cracking tales of bravery and endurance from that remarkable era’ (p. viii).  The book is divided in two parts: ‘Stories from the land’ and ‘Stories from the air’. Each part has six stories; a trench song or a poem separating the chapters; maps, statistics, line sketches or images that illustrate the point being made; battle briefings and quotations provided in italics; and a glossary of ‘Trench Talk’ and ‘RFC Lingo’ to aid the readers comprehend the jargon used. Each story is neatly separated into thematic subparts neatly marked out which makes the reading experience a lot easier for children. For a generation that grew up on a steady diet of Commando Comics, Hepplewhite’s narration rings a familiar bell. The narrative journey begins with a rather frothy tale of Christmas of 1914 when the spirit of Nöel transcends the enmity between the troops and results in exchange of gifts, carol contests, listening to an Opera star and football matches. So much so that the Garhwal Rifles soldiers fighting for the British are reminded of Diwali and home at the sight of the ‘small candle-lit trees’ on the parapet of the German trenches. The stories take a grim turn with the underground tunnel war at Ypres followed by the ‘dirty war’ of Gallipoli and the escape from PoW camps through neutral Holland. This mild upswing in the last tale is countered by the story of grit and sacrifice of the British nurse Edith Cavell. The closure to this section is ...

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