No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor)

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No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor)

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Category: Anthologies
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Richard T Watson
Reviewed by Richard T Watson
Summary: A timely collection of short pieces of fiction, taken from both sides of the Great War, and from all around the world – although with a bias towards the Western Front's trenches. Featuring established and lesser-known names, and nothing published after 1945, this is a multi-faceted portrayal of a world tearing itself apart; and without the taint of hindsight, it's all very much in the moment.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 572 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846689253

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July 2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War: a war that has become imprinted on the national consciousness of Britain (and plenty of modern nation-states), partly because of the large numbers of people (mostly men) writing about it. I don't mean journalists, who had been covering wars for the Victorian public, but artists: poets, authors, memoirists and painters. The poets especially have stamped World War One on collective memory, through countless poetry anthologies, recitals at memorials, and in school classrooms.

Pete Ayrton's collection, No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War, aims to redress the balance and presents WWI as seen by the fiction writers, often in translation. These are short stories and extracts from novels or semi-fictionalised memoirs from all over the first global battlefield, in combat and on the home front. As you'd expect it's a hefty tome (over 500 pages, and there's a lot I haven't room to go into here), but such a weighty ambition demands a weighty result.

And it must be considered broadly a success. The stories Ayrton has chosen do contribute, layer-by-layer, to an impression, a portrayal, of the world as it must have been in the war years. It's not so much an account of the war as a fascinating immersion in countless lives. Every few pages takes the reader to a new angle on the same worldwide fracture, the same fissure running through reality just as the famous trenches ran through Belgium and France.

That's not to say that these 500-plus pages are full of the unremitting horror of trench warfare on the Western Front. While that is a significant feature, Ayrton's Introduction discusses the international nature of the conflict (the authors come from twenty different countries, including those in the ethnic melting pots of the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires), and the collection moves frequently to spotlight the Eastern Front, the Southern Fronts, the assaults on Gallipoli and so on.

Inevitably, there is an emphasis on that Western Front, with plenty of accounts of mud-drenched shelling, crawling through rain-sodden fields, and the ever-present spectre of death. Stratis Myrivilis puts it best in 'Anchorites of Lust', with a description of Greek soldiers living in Death's kingdom under sufferance; he could claim them at any moment. It's a pretty hellish experience for both sides, and the collection highlights that by including stories of trench warfare that could plausibly be written by men on either side. The stories are littered with references to the idea that the soldiers are much the same as their enemies: young men sent to kill or be killed, who never wanted to fight but must. The final entries are left to Erich Maria Remarque's successful and beautiful All Quiet on the Western Front, whose mix of nationalist jingoism, youthful sacrifice and sheer brutal endurance of military hardship by a lost generation rings true for troops of the Allies and the Central Powers.

More similarities between the two sides appear in Vera Brittain's account of treating German soldiers in a British field hospital; they are prisoners, but how like the British soldiers they are. Brittain, of course, was writing a memoir that became a novel, and in that respect she's in good company in No Man's Land. That's what makes this such a compelling and urgent collection; it's written by people who lived WWI, either as soldiers, nurses or civilians – and with it all being published before 1945, the immediacy of the writing isn't diluted by hindsight.

Probably my favourite entry – like many, it's not one for the squeamish – is Helen Zenna Smith's 'Liquid Fire'. It begins with a volunteer ambulance driver unloading shattered men from the Front into her ambulance to take to a field hospital, but in her mind she's giving a guided tour of battlefield horror to her mother and the older generation who were so keen on sending the younger to fight. It captures a theme running through the collection: WWI was instigated and perpetuated by people too old or important to fight, whose pride and financial interests demanded that other people sacrifice their lives and their loved ones' lives for the sake of a national interest which became increasingly hard to believe in. Smith challenges the jingoists to face the brutal consequence of their war-mongering, knowing that they haven't the stomach for it.

At their best, that's what these stories do. They depict the suffering of lives lived under the unremitting grind of trench warfare, the people picking up the pieces after shell bombardments, and most importantly, the humans thrown into the heart of the battle. And then there are the moments of peace, like when Emilio Lussu's Lieutenant decides against shooting an enemy officer in cold blood, and the world carries on around them. Ultimately, and rightly, this is a celebration not of the Great War, but of the human spirit; that is what we should never forget, especially in this centenary year."

It's worth reading the full versions of any of the extracts from this collection, but specifically The Bookbag has reviewed Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, which features towards the end.

I was surprised to note the absence of Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy from No Man's Land, but there you have it: Regeneration by Pat Barker.

Buy No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy No Man's Land: Writings From A World At War by Pete Ayrton (editor) at Amazon.com.

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