The War Walk: A Journey along the Western Front by Nigel H Jones t Robert Hale, 1 I .50). They Called it Passchendaele by Lyn Macdonald (Macmillan. L4.95. paperback).
IT IS memories which dominate the colossal literature which the Great War, like no other, has inspired. To explain still seems impossible. and an embarassing profanity against all the lives which were sacrificed upon the killing grounds of the "war to end all v. ars".
For the collective psyche of the English peoples has never come to any stable understanding of that war. It is unaccountable within the English warrior tradition of chivalrous adventure: it was an aimless. self-perpetuating confrontation derived from the Continental experience of stability achieved through the exercise of equal and opposing power. No one could explain, because no one understood how it could possibly have happened, so it became a war of only human memories of comradeship and impossible suffering and an indomitable spirit which came through.
That way the horror of the thing was tamed. "There had been very little glory," Mr Jones quotes one old soldier. "but satisfaction. that in some small measure. my pals and I had done our duty." And. again: "On the credit side there was • the comradeship that a peacetime life could never equal."
But neither these memories nor the scars which they went sonic way to heal have faded with the generation by which the war was fought. The restless. questing spirit of disquiet which the war had created has been visited upon the sons and grandsons of its victims as upon their forefathers. Just as with Nigel Jones for whom this walk along the Western Front has been a personal pilgrimage and not a historical adventure there can be few of us who cannot identify some ancestor who must be lying somewhere in the mud out there.
He chronicles t he inconceivable as he wanders through the shell-torn landscape with reference to the recollections of survivors and the written testament of others who had been involved. and in doing so he spans the ages and we see how hopeless it is that this war can even now be made to go away.
The War Walk does not contain sufficient details of itinerary to he of much use as a walker's companion. but the narrative treatment of the various battles which makes up a great proportion of the book is neatly compartmentalised to allow the chief actions of any one zone to he comprehended together.
Better in many ways the straightforward documentary approach of Lyn Macdonald in They Called it Passehenduele. now reissued in paperback. This is vernacular history at its most effective, for it is difficult to
imagine an analytical interpretation which could hope to make sense out of Passchendaele. But by bringing together the accounts of a great many people who had been involved. she has created a coherent and approachable history through which it may be possible to know at least something of what really happened.
Job: The Story of a Simple Man by Joseph Roth (Chatto & Windus: The Hogarth Press £7.95). No, this is not the Biblical Job, but a man very much like him living in Russia in the Czarist days, and then in the more squalid parts of New York. From one Ghetto to another! It is obvious he had no direct connection with the original Job, but it is equally obvious that he suffered many tribulations and trials, not quite like his namesake, but including loss of faith and its renewal, and all this to a simple, pious God-fearing Jew. A moving story, poetic, and ruthless happenings. He needed and deserved a miracle!