War and Remembrance

November 10, 2015 | Raimo

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My generation, the generation born after World War II, but before the sixties, in many ways grew up in the long shadow cast by the two World Wars. We all had some family, teachers and neighbours who had lived through one or both of the World Wars: in uniform, on the home front, or as refugees. There were reminders in the neighbourhood: Dieppe Park, Dunkirk Avenue, the Cenotaph, Memorial Gardens. One elementary school teacher had lived through the Blitz in London, a math teacher had served in the Italian campaign. Military items sometimes surfaced during show and tell at school - including a hand grenade on one occasion! So when we started reading chapter books, many of us were attracted to war stories, both fiction and nonfiction.

Biggles Sweeps the Dessert Great Escape  And No Birds Sang

British RAF pilot and author Captain W. E. Johns penned more than 100 juvenile fiction titles featuring the adventures of pilot James "Biggles" Bigglesworth.  Biggles Sweeps the Dessert, a ripping yarn that glossed over the horrors of war and thrilled many a young lad (a wiseacre friend remarked that Biggles must have had a big broom). The Great Escape by Australian Paul Brickhill is a nonfiction account of the 1944 large scale escape from Stalag Luft III by Allied prisoners of war that we read in Grade Six. This story of how POWs surreptitiously created an escape tunnel is well known from the movie of the same name based on Brickhill's book. Prolific Canadian author Farley Mowat served as a young infantry officer during the Italian Campaign. In And No Birds Sang he gives a graphic, stark autobiographical account of his experience of war.

The two World Wars have been a perennially popular theme for both authors and readers. Toronto Public Library has over 3000 First or Second World War fiction titles in its collections, and new titles continue to be published every year. Here is a brief selection:

War and RemembranceThe WarsRegeneration












Herman Wouk's sequel to The Winds of War, War and Remembrance is a massive (1000 pages plus) yet highly readable epic of historical fiction. The saga of the Henry family during the Second World War, it is notable for its attention to historical detail. The Wars by Timothy Findley is probably the most read and studied Canadian novel of the Great War. Along with Three Day Road and Obasan, it is on my list of the top three Canadian war novels. Regeneration, a fictionalized account of poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon's time in a military hospital for shell-shocked officers, is the final book in Pat Barker's trilogy of novels set during WWI.

Eye of the Needle The Cruel Sea Slaughterhouse Five












The Eye of the Needle is a thriller about a top German spy nicknamed the Needle who must be stopped by British intelligence before he can spill the beans about the D-Day invasion to his masters. Great literature it is not, but nevertheless it's a gripping and entertaining page turner by Ken Follett. The Cruel Sea is one of the great novels of war at sea. Nicholas Monsarrat drew on his own service as a naval officer to craft this story of WWII convoys and the escort vessels that protected them from U-boats - a classic. American author Kurt Vonnegut's anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five was based on the WWII firebombing of Dresden, an allied operation that resulted in 2500 civilian casualties.


Goodbye to All That Three Day Road Sharks and Little Fish












Goodbye to All That, by poet, critic and novelist Robert Graves, is perhaps the greatest memoir of the Great War. Graves was also close friends with Siegfried Sassoon, a relationship that is fictionalized in Regeneration. In Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road, the horrifying experiences of trench warfare have a profound effect on two young Cree soldiers from Northern Ontario. One becomes an extraordinary sniper but descends into madness and death. The other returns from the Western Front wounded in body and spirit, and addicted to morphine. Wolfgang Ott, the author of  Sharks and Little Fish, had served as a German submariner in WWII and wrote his novel drawing on his U-boat experiences. Translated from the German to English in 1958, it became a bestseller.

What are your favourite war titles?