Brothers in War by Michael Walsh

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Brothers in War by Michael Walsh

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Eight Beechey brothers volunteer to fight during the First World War and are scattered to all fronts: France, Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa. Only three will come back alive. Told largely through their letters home, this is a fascinating account of the reality of war in all its horror and, occasional, humour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Ebury Press
ISBN: 978-0091908843

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We think we know all there is to know about the First World War... and in one sense we do.

There is little to be told that we have not heard before, about the mud and the blood and the sheer senselessness of it all. We've been told of the bravado and bravery and brutality on all sides. Those who've been to the war graves will have a better sense than most of us of the real scale of the loss of life, which does not come home until you see the crosses stretching out away from you... or take in just how much space is required just to the write down the names from just this one tiny part of the war. Those who have visited the wonderful exhibit that used to be at the Imperial War Museum (and may still be there) will have some sense of the damp and the dark and the sickening smell. Those who have spent a cold and sleepless night under canvas can perhaps imagine what it would be like to be also soaked through, with only a single blanket and hungry and hear the guns and incendiaries going off, to say nothing of scurrying of rats and your fellows scratching with the louse. If you've ever been in a mine or explored a cave, you might imagine crawling through such darkness whilst hearing your enemy sapping not more than a couple of metres away through the earth.

The stupidity of leaders far from the action and a heartless War Office to come home to... are ingrained in our psyche.

We've imagined it, been told about it, read about it. In essence, there's little left to learn.

And yet...

It is still possible to come across a book that brings it all heartbreakingly home again. Michael Walsh has produced an intensely moving testament to everyone who lived and suffered and died in those days... but also to those who survived.

In particular, his testament is to one Lincolnshire family "The Beecheys" of whose 13 children, the eight brothers all went to war... and only three of them came out alive. Of those three - one would be physically shattered by the experience and another would come home to face the influenza epidemic. Their mother would need to enlist their MP to fight for the pittance of a pension due to her for her lost sons.

The focus on the experiences of this one family is possible because of the remarkable survival of some 300 letters and postcards from the Beechey boys through their training, on active service on the battlefields in France, Flanders, East Africa and Gallipoli, not to mention their stations en route and behind the lines, their treatment & recuperation in hospitals at home and abroad. These letters together with official communications from the War Office, photographs and eye-witness reports and statements culled from the official record, published and unpublished diaries, memoirs, and letters from those who served with the Beecheys combine to produce probably the most complete personal history of the Great War.

It impossible not to become involved in this account... because the Beecheys grow back into the real live people they once were. For the most part, they are allowed to tell the story themselves, with Walsh providing only so much linking narrative as is necessary to put the letters in context. Pages and pages are devoted to the minutiae of service life. Through the letters home we don't just witness again the absurdities of trench life - in both their horror and their humour - we get a real feel for the things that occupy minds perhaps too fraught to think on other things, or maybe welcoming a chance not to... requests for socks and mufflers and vests, we expect... but for a waistcoat because even in the mire, the soldier feels more a man for wearing one, or because he misses a place to put his watch. The joy of a pork pie or a jam triangle.

Do all of the Beechey's come over as heroes? Well, you'll have to judge for yourself. It is scarce that there is a word of criticism or complaint from any of them... other than against the racketeers and the weather and the filth of one kind or another... and all did what they saw to be their duty. But even in families personalities differ and varying attitudes whisper behind the lines.

Strangely moving are the things not said in the letters. Official testimonies from officers and medics tell more of the strain that we are so familiar with: the shell-shock, the exhaustion, the blatant overwhelming fear (which being of real and present danger should be rational and not shaming). None of these appears in the letters home to Mother (Amy Beechey) or her daughters. The boys continue to go on quite well even when things get a bit rough. But if you could send a bit of dripping...

The strain is hard to disguise at times when leave is cancelled or wills are sent home; when recovery from illness or injury is reported with some resignation. Or when the Beechey deaths begin and Amy is faced with cheerful enquiries from one brother after one of whose death he has yet to hear.

Walsh gives us the history... the grand sweep of the campaigns and their flaws and failings. He paints the backdrop to the letters from other sources. He does so in a manner that is succinct and unemotional, knowing that not only do the facts speak for themselves, they do so more powerfully for being allowed to.

So, on one level this is just another war story. But if like me, you're ever moved by that annual remembrance sound of a lone bugle playing the last post... it's one you should read.

You might also appreciate Bomber County by Daniel Swift.

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