War stories…. World War Two edition (2)

Buried in the jungle

I’m trying to find the quote from an old writer about the things that a fulfilled man must do with his life. It included going to war**, yet many people who have been in actual combat found it horrible and suffer still, despite the intensity of the experience and the irreproducible camaraderie induced by your lives being dependent on each other. They are a smaller group than everyone who actually served in uniform- for every single combat marine in the US Pacific campaign there were about 19 other members of the armed forces in logistics, engineering, supplies, catering, transport and so on.

So this is the second, in a short series

The Chindits in Burma, 1943 –

At the time of writing, today’s patient is still alive – 99 going on 100. A tall distinguished looking fellow, he had a relatively ordinary job back in civilian life, and is pretty healthy, despite the need for various operations. He is always quite happy to reminisce about his time in Burma with the Chindits.

If you want to know how tough these guys were, and what they suffered behind enemy lines, mostly in the jungle, read John Masters’ quite extraordinary – and horrific – account of having to shoot their own wounded. My man has numerous stories – fighting naked because of the damp and the ever present dysentery (this is different from their slightly crazy founder, Orde Wingate’s, propensity for wandering around naked); waiting for air drops knowing that the Japanese would also benefit from these clues to their location; having, amazingly, colleagues killed by an airdrop landing on them; hand to hand fighting with knives, in the jungle; blowing up Japanese installations when you’re a long, long way from safety….how do you return to ‘normal life’ after experiences like these?

..it might look nice, but…

And they were pretty effective, not just for morale at a time when Japan was looking like a most formidable enemy. This excellent account of the 1943 Operation Longcloth tells you what you need to know. Although David Stirling started developing the unique capabilities of the SAS in 1941, Wingate’s not dissimilar long range, behind enemy lines work – with the added challenge of much larger numbers of men – was pioneering and not universally accepted. As he said at the time “If we succeed, we shall have demonstrated a new style of warfare to the world”.

The Japanese were the most brutal of opponents, as everyone knows these days – although I believe that Japanese schools still play down the extent of this – and compared to urban fighting in Europe against opponents with possibly similar values, the risk of capture was too much to contemplate – hence Masters’ impossible decision – not unlike ISIS in recent times. To quote John Hutchin, a veteran of the campaign, on how he was left behind by his fellow soldiers suffering from exhaustion with three days’ rations and a clip of ammunition.

“I’ve only got one nightmare left, and that is being left”

Hutchin in fact made it, but many didn’t. To contemplate that as my patient does, and the near impossible nature of their mission, from a vantage point of  74 years later, as one heads for centenarian status is something that I – as someone who has never been to war – can barely comprehend.

A risky airdrop


**though this quote from Ilya Radozhitskii’s  campaign memoirs, relating to Napoleon’s disaster in Russia, resonates here:  A military career, thus, occasionally presents experiences that do not exist in civilian life. The war reveals all of the human horrors and miseries that make our souls tremble, but they also elevate us amidst these dangers. He who has not been to war has not learned how to despise death. The ordinary tribulations of civilian life are nothing compared to the calamities of war where neither sighs nor tears could change anything. Their source soon runs dry and the warrior’s heart hardens like steel with which he brings death to the enemy.


War stories…. World War Two edition (1)

A 400kg bullet ridden bronze nazi eagle, anyone?

When I graduated in 1986 I spent a lot of time as a junior doctor admitting elderly patients to hospital. So if my patient was 90 they were born in the Victorian era, and the men would frequently have served in the First World War, with the stories to go with that. The last WWI veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, died in 2009. They’re all gone, along with their astonishing oral histories.

These days the average Second World War veteran is 90ish. There are still plenty of them, but they’re disappearing rapidly. A few years ago in the US, it was estimated that they were dying off at 600 per day.  So when I get in a patient – male or female – in their late 80’s or 90’s, I always ask them what they did in the war, and they certainly have stories to tell.

I thought I’d summarise just a few of them. These remarkable pensioners are living history. Bear in mind that these are the most ordinary and unassuming of elderly citizens, living out their retirements without much money, in an average British town. You would not notice them in the street.

The Battle of the River Plate, December 1939

Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

 The German panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee had cruised into the South Atlantic a fortnight before the war began, and had been commerce raiding after receiving appropriate authorisation on 26 September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navy cruisersHMS ExeterAjax and Achilles (the last from the New Zealand Division), found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Uruguay in South America. In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Admiral Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical; her fuel system was crippled. Ajax and Achilles shadowed the German ship until she entered the port of Montevideo, the capital city of neutral Uruguay, to effect urgent repairs. After Graf Spee’s captain Hans Langsdorff was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure.

My patient was on HMS Ajax, I think. He recalls the early skirmishing and the battle, but his fondest memory was something different. When the ships got into neutral Montevideo – which then and now had various links with Britain, the sailors all piled into the bars to get hammered. The surviving crew of the Graf Spee did the same thing. After all, they had 72 hours to kill.  With the tension out of the situation he recalls just how jovial it was, and how well the Germans and the Brits got along. A sort of “Christmas in the trenches” in sunny South America. He told me all this about 70 years after the event, and the memory was still vivid.

hl1The Graf Spee is still there. Its captain, Hans Langdorff, a decent man in the way he treated prisoners, shot himself 6 days later, lying on his boat’s battle ensign in a Bueno Aires hotel room. The bronze eagle from its stern has been salvaged, and to my knowledge, no-one knows what to do with it.

Avoiding the End of Days

How easily we ignore this stuff

Two quotes, one old, one new, from smart experienced people. In fact, the very opposite of the mob of weekend warrior moral relativists currently besieging Twitter and various airports.

First up:

No party or ideological faction has The Solution because The Solution doesn’t exist. Much of the world beyond our shores is a wreck, and the best you can pull off right now is damage control.

Michael J Totten, The Tower, November 2016

Totten has been out there in the Middle East, at the sharp end. So have lots of people I realise, but whilst well travelled, I wouldn’t necessarily include various presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state etc in that category. The article is terrific.

Second up is an oldie. A very oldie, from Frederick William, The Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, in his fairly famous Political Testament, 19/05/1667. It is very relevant:

“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”

They didn’t have airports or ISIS back then, but the Thirty Years War was about as bad as it gets. We seem to have tried complacency on the domestic front in the last 10 years or so, and I don’t think it’s working out too well.

Frederick William. Tougher than he looks

Collateral damage is just fine?

It would be entirely reasonable to extrapolate from the Twitter and media hysteria of the last 24 hours, that the deaths of numerous civilians in Boston, Florida, California and elsewhere recently, notwithstanding the lineage that stretches back more than 15 years to 9/11, are only so much collateral damage.

That is to say that in some way, they are painful and regrettable, yes, but also acceptable. Acceptable if the alternative is taking some steps – which by necessity will have to be through a process of partially informed trial and error – which may curtail in varying degrees things that people have been taking for granted. In this case that means getting rid of a managed free-for-all in entering the United States, which is what we’ve had until yesterday, by and large.

It’s not an original observation, but everyone remembers and brandishes the names of Anders Breivik (massacre more than 5 years ago) and Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma bombing 22 years ago), yet who can name the Nice lorry mass murderer only 6 months ago? Who is sure about the names of the Berlin lorry attacker, or the murderers of Jacques Hamel? The truth is that as a society – in the US, Europe and the UK- we happily obsess about the evil people ‘like us’ perpetrate, and weirdly almost accept the regular violence of the ‘other’. We have become inured to the reality of Islamic fundamental terrorism – until it hits someone that we know.

As renowned sage Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online put it yesterday:


Particularly when there are all the usual clues – migrant background (often the parents), minor criminal record, affinity with violence, dubious web browsing etc etc. Well Trump is ‘doing something’. In fact, he’s doing slightly less than he said he’d do, but no-one could say they weren’t warned. That fact in itself might explain the suspiciously large and well organised mob that descended on JFK in a very short space of time. It’s not that easy to get to in a hurry.

Whether it will help I don’t know. It is after all trial and error , and might take a long time before any benefits – if there are any – will emerge. But to quote @KevinNR again:


People have occasionally lost sight of what an elected government’s primary duty is – the safety of its citizens. After that, other people’s citizens, if one can. They usually go together, but not always. Supranational bodies and the whole globalsim thing have blurred this essential definition.

That said, I can sympathise with people who argue their corner in disagreeing with this immigration policy, but I didn’t come across any such rationalists in the last 24 hours. In fact if you want rational (I do), then it’s back over to NRO, for two superb pieces dissecting the policy, the background and the government actions (1,2). Remember, NRO famously didn’t support Trump, and they still don’t, by and large.

The cynic in me says that this is just another bonanza for the Secretly Pleased Voters, for whom Trump remains the gift that keeps on giving. After all, talk is cheap.

Wounded spectators lie injured following an explosion at the Boston Marathon
Not quite 4 years – memories are short

Great landscapes: Paul Nash

Romney Marshes in 1719
All Saints, in the Romney Marsh

Nash is primarily famous for his brutal war art, such as The Menin Road, strangely elegant though that painting is. He was actually out there in Ypres, amidst the bombs, mud and carnage, ending up with an official war artist role. He became disillusioned quickly: “It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

I think the advertising industry lacks a bit of class these days…

He died in 1946. After WW1 he got into illustrating, often with a surreal, abstract or expressionist edge, and painted plenty of rural scenes, of which this is one. In WW2 he was back as an official artist for a while, and all of his work is of great quality. As you can see, Shell liked it so much (they commissioned it) that they continued to use it for a funky travel advert 37 years later. Anyway, the great man is currently the beneficiary of Tate Britain exhibition.

Worth seeing.


Paul Nash, The Rye Marshes, 1932. Tate Gallery

Heraclitus meets Donald Trump

From one of the awesome Victor Davis Hanson‘s outstanding and very readable history meisterwerks,   Ripples of Battle. Trump gets this, Hillary doesn’t, and nor does the UN. I think the US electorate are with Trump (and Heraclitus) on this, one of the reasons for my prediction of 6 months ago. Hanson, I should add, published it in 2003, two years after 9/11, and long before the Daeshbags of ISIS. A prophetic piece of work


Spain, cultura and me


If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.

The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.

1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists  set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel  Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (12 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a  clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.

…in Valencia

That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversial  HV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.

Roy’s autograph from 1930

Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again.  So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.

There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend  the stairway  to the royal tombs  and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:

In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.




**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great  Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)

Blair: batten down the hatches

My thanks to the wonderful @smithsky1979 for her #blairroll

The spectacle of Tony Blair as an apparently sincere penitent – albeit one still laden with his predictable list of hubristic justifications –  doesn’t surprise me at all, at this stage. The very first post on this blog, back in 2010 was about Blair’s apparent search for atonement in the truest sense. At that time I was confidently expecting Chilcot to report within the next year. It does surprise even me though, that Blair has ended up in quite such an abject state, when seen from the perspective of 1997.

A little context. Back in the time of  John Major’s government in the early 90’s, the UK was doing quite well. After Major’s appallingly selfish and ideological pursuit of the deutschmark (a folly which doubled my mortgage briefly, in 48 hours, not that JM cared about such things), the economy was booming, relatively. It was to be a golden inheritance for Labour, the exact opposite of the scorched earth bequeathed by Brown in 2010.

In about 1993 I began to notice Blair as an unctuous and slightly cocky Shadow Home Secretary, popping up on the TV. I’d seen Gordon Brown in action at the Commons as Shadow Chancellor under John Smith, and for all his faults, he seemed then a far more substantial figure than the glib Blair. After Smith’s death it became rapidly apparent that, under the youthful Blair, Labour were going to win the next election, irrespective of the economy.  I remember on election day in 1997 sitting in the operating theatre coffee room saying that Blair appeared to me to be a flighty and unserious chancer, albeit an ambitious one. The uniform response was “you can’t possibly want the Tories back in”. Nobody except me seemed to have any concerns about Blair**.

That election night I stayed up till two watching it unfold,  and by then the enormity of Blair’s majority was already apparent. He would clearly be in power for years. The phrase that kept going through my head was “batten down the hatches, this will take a long time to get through”. The next day at work everyone was delighted that the groovy young Tony was in and everything would be fine.

My concerns, which were pretty much completely borne out, related to the very clear message that this administration would intentionally change the social, cultural and moral fabric of the country, and eventually, through the timeless expedient of spending money they didn’t have, they would wreck the economy too.

I  usually date the completed initial phase of the first of these malign objectives to the release of the worst film ever made, Love Actually ( I’m serious), in 2003, which was basically a New Labour 90’s zeitgeist epic of the worst kind. The second objective was apparent by the financial crisis of 2008. It took them 11 years to destroy a booming economy, but they managed it. In case anyone is still spinning the line that it was all secondary to American subprime mortgage lending (Brown’s favourite excuse), then I would direct you to a prophetic book by two British hacks – the esteemed Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson – called Fantasy Island, which was published in 2007. If you don’t believe me, read the synopses (1, 2 and 3). Truly the Blair/Brown government was a disaster on a huge scale, despite their aggressive and largely successful debasement of the government spin apparatus under the enduringly loathsome Alastair Campbell, which subjugated an already enthralled media.

So I wasn’t remotely surprised by all this, it was obvious to me when I first set eyes on Blair, and I took a lot of shit for it. The endless supply of people all willing to slag Blair off now, and over the last few years, are mainly the people who voted for him in three general election victories, a point made eloquently by James Kirkup. What a bunch of hypocrites.

That said, I never thought he’d become the crazy and infantile warmonger, which role has now, finally, skewered him.

Which is why I have to laugh at the endless bleatings (eg: 1, 2, 3) from Guardian writers and others now, post-Chilcot, who spent the period from 1997 to 2008 drooling over Blair and Brown. I don’t remember too much genuine opposition from them to the Iraq debacle back then. Jeremy Corbyn, Ming Campbell, the late Charlie Kennedy and Robin Cook all take credit for their stance at the time. A special mention goes to the routinely reviled George Galloway (see below), the only person who predicted in detail the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Their  reasons for opposition varied, but they have the moral high ground today.

Max Hastings neatly outlines the stage on which Blair played out his monumental and ego driven disaster: “What took place was only possible because in 2002-3 Blair was an immensely popular Prime Minister with a personal dominance that enabled him to persuade or conscript the rest of Westminster and Whitehall to support an Iraqi adventure overwhelmingly driven by his own hubris and moral fervour.”

I doubt that there will be any article written in the aftermath of Chilcot that expresses the tortuous hypocrisy  of the British public and media in all this, than Brendan O’Neill’s, in Spiked. As he rightly puts it:

The important, humane task of understanding the history and politics of that calamity in 2003 has been sacrificed at the altar of allowing a needy elite the space in which to say: ‘Blair is evil, and I am good.’

I can already sense a neat dividing line developing when considering Blair’s legacy: Iraq bad/all else good. For the purpose of clarity – and going back to where I began this post – I would refine that to: Iraq bad (Blair sort of penitent)/most of his other stuff also bad (Blair unrepentant).

The criticism rightly heaped on him for Iraq, and on his many, many aiders and abetters  should be spread around on most of his other endeavours too. A messiah complex unburdened by caution and intelligent reflection is unlikely to come good at any point. This was a truly awful government, lead by a figure who since then has become more and more unhinged.

I should leave the last word to the hated yet prescient George Galloway, confirming what Chilcot meant when he pointedly said “We do not agree that hindsight is required.


** as Stephen Glover puts it ” Only a hard core of widely disbelieved critics saw him as an untrustworthy fraud”



In a week when Barack Obama is conducting a farewell tour in the Far East, and commendably visiting Hiroshima whilst thus far avoiding the outright apology urged on him by Guardianistas (though not this one)and their US equivalents, it’s worth contemplating what an astonishing achievement the US Pacific campaign was.

This very brief introduction by the finest of popular historians, Victor Davis Hanson, gives a flavour of the challenge, unprecedented then and now.

The Knife has a particular fascination with the unbelievably intense combat of the battle on Tarawa, but really that gruelling pattern of fighting was repeated countless times in tiny islands over a mindbogglingly huge area of ocean, punctuated by occasional colossal naval and air battles. The ‘Greatest Generation‘ epithet is not remotely overstating it. They’re still out there, people like Buck Miller.

Who was responsible for the victory? Lots of people, but in terms of the actual strategy and combat, the admirals cited by Hanson take most of the credit. The more you read about them, the more in awe one becomes of their legacy. One might expect admirals, like many surgeons (this one included), to have occasional ego issues.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey was an unpredictable hot headed man with a very pointed degree of aggression and an ability to rub everyone up the wrong way.  As his communique said at the conclusion of hostilities “Cessation of hostilities. War is over. If any Japanese airplanes appear, shoot them down in a friendly way”. However, when asked years later about the campaign he disarmingly stated:

There are no great men, just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet.

Not bad, for someone who had a lot to boast about.

His colleague, Admiral Raymond Spruance took it further, possibly claiming a title as the first ‘slacker’ admiral in the process, despite being a superb and calm leader in times of crisis:

“When I look at myself objectively, I think that what success I may have achieved through life is largely due to the fact that I am a good judge of men. I am lazy, and I never have done things myself that I could get someone to do for me. I can thank heredity for a sound constitution, and myself for taking care of that constitution….Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.

Wonderful, on many levels.




A polymath’s* notes on War and Peace

In a huff: Napoleon on the Borodino Heights. Vereshchagin, 1897. State Borodino War and History Museum, Moscow

When renaissance men of the stature of Simon Schama (who is also an idiot), Clive James and Philip Hensher (1, 2) have recently opined on the topic, it seemed only appropriate for me to add my bit. These are some of my thoughts on the book, I haven’t yet seen any of the TV or film adaptations.

1.Stick with it, the first 50 pages or so are the hardest. Use the footnotes etc if your translation has them

2. Large parts of it are essentially an upmarket soap opera. This is not intended to demean it, or the reader. It makes it a very compelling tale.

3. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina trick of being able to inhabit the female mind is a wonder.

4. I read the superb Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, but it’s generally held that none are bad as such, though Maude and Briggs are probably the next in line. Comparing them all is a sport in itself.

5. It can be difficult to read in the bath, especially in hardback.

6. Having recourse to a map and  historical summaries (eg. for Austerlitz and Borodino) is a smart idea. Various paintings (eg, by the mighty Vereshchagin, are remarkably vivid)

7. My translation kept the French bits (a lot), which is fine if there are footnotes on the same page. It’s actually a neat way of reutilising your school French again.

8. Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy knows how to avoid fatiguing the reader. His chapter lengths are perfect, like Dickens. Compare that with alleged masterpieces of European literature which are exhaustingly indigestible like Broch’s The Death of Virgil. To quote DJ Enright:     Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability?

9. The two consecutive chapters ( Vol IV, Part 1, ch XV; XVI  ) on the effects of impending death on the dying person are quite phenomenal. I have seen variations on this many times in my career. It is simply brilliant, Tolstoy’s insight and powers of expression are so far ahead of nearly every other writer.

10. What has been described as Tolstoy’s take on ‘historical determinism’ was an unexpected feast, for me, of clear eyed thinking. The great man rips apart the idea that individuals create history according to any sort of plan, and he does it with the driest and wittiest of prose, even in translation (see 4).

Here’s a typical example (Epilogue Part 2, ch VII):

For reasons known or unknown to us the French began to drown and kill one another. And corresponding to the event its justification appears in people’s belief that this was necessary for the welfare of France, for liberty, and for equality. People ceased to kill one another, and this event was accompanied by its justification in the necessity for a centralization of power, resistance to Europe, and so on. Men went from the west to the east killing their fellow men, and the event was accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the events have no common sense and are all contradictory, as in the case of killing a man as the result of recognizing his rights, and the killing of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England. But these justifications have a very necessary significance in their own day.

You’ll find it at various points:

Vol III  Part 1  ch I

Vol III  Part 2  ch I; XIX; XXVIII, Part  3  ch I; II; V

Vol  IV  Part 1  ch IV; V; VI, Part 2  ch I; II; XVIII; XIX  Part 3  ch I; XVIII; XIX

Epilogue – all of Part 2 (ch I-XII). If I had to select the single most telling and representative  part of this dense and closely argued polemic, I would say it’s ch III of this absorbing afterword

You have to interpret historical writing, however brilliantly done,  with a degree of skepticism after Tolstoy, it’s always “too early to say”.

Tolstoy continues this reflection in his honest and occasionally amusing appendix to the whole novel, drawing on his own military experience (which shows throughout the book) in the Crimean War.

11. Napoleon does not come out of it too well, whatever his abilities to galvanise and lead. To quote: ..that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity, whereas General Kutuzov is an inscrutable,unfussy Russian hero with a magisterial historical insight

12. It’s probably wise to take claims of finishing it quickly, or reading it umpteen times, with a bucket of salt (see below, from comments after a Guardian article)

13. Tolstoy is a master psychologist. Not a speculative ‘filling in the plot with the character’s thoughts’ writer: his understanding of his characters, and of humanity in general, is pretty awesome.

14. Tolstoy is not overtly interested in erotic love per se. His numerous insights into love relate to the meeting of minds and a supernatural, religious bonding with a nod to physical attraction. The most bodacious female character Princess Helene does not get a good rep. The book is not a bodice ripper, though I imagine the TV people feel they have to push that line a bit.

15. When people complain about the ending, I’m not sure what they mean. The fictional narrative ends earlier than the whole novel, but Tolstoy’s occasionally complicated discussion of necessity v freedom in defining history and historical thought is really pretty good, and relates beautifully to all that has gone before. The very last two paragraphs are truly magnificent.

16. It’s not just hype. This might well be the best novel that you’ll ever read.



Schama, in the FT “the next time will be my ninth” etc

…and back to the Guardian….



*…this is not necessarily true