Book Review: Military Obituaries Book Two

The Daily Telegraph, Military Obituaries Book Two, Ed. David Twiston Davies (Grub Street, £17.99)

One of life’s many small sadnesses is that, over the next two decades, a form of journalism that has brought pleasure and enlightenment to hundreds of thousands must perforce die out. The Daily Telegraph’s obituaries of soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars are well researched, well written, occasionally very funny, and frequently intensely moving. Moreover, they are important to our appreciation of who we were as a nation. As the Cenotaph march-pasts shorten each November, so these wonderful obituaries must necessarily become fewer and fewer.

That is why books such as this second collection of military obituaries, expertly edited by The Telegraph’s chief obituary writer David Twiston Davies, are so attractive and valuable. By publishing the best 100 of the obituary notices of old soldiers who died between 2000 and 2006, Mr Twiston Davies is continuing in the inimitable tradition of the great Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, who revolutionised the writing of obituaries in Britain, making them more personal and accessible. The author has opened a window on a decent, honourable, courageous wartime Britain, a place that most of us only know through the prisms of books, films, and the memories of our parents and grandparents.

Here is Lt Jim Bradley, who escaped with nine comrades from a Japanese POW camp in 1943; five died on the run, the others were betrayed and recaptured after eight weeks in the jungle. Or Lt Lise Villameur, one of the first two female agents to be parachuted into the dangers of Occupied France by the Special Operations Executive, who set up her safe house in Poitiers in the same street as the Gestapo headquarters. (Her nerve-wracking experiences with the Resistance would make a fabulous film.)

There is also the obituary of a splendid old gentleman I once met, Staff Sergeant Albert Alexandre, who fought in the Guernsey Light Infantry at the battle of Passchendaele, and who became the last veteran of the First World War to reside at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.

‘In icy conditions and under constant bombardment, with men being blown to pieces around them,’ records Alexandre’s obituary, ‘his battalion lived in waterlogged trenches which regularly caved in, forcing them to take cover in mud-filled shell-holes which provided no cover at all. Respirators had to be worn for long periods against the persistent threat of gas attacks, whose effects Alexandre did not wholly escape.’

Although there is never any sense of warfare being anything other than an horrific and monstrous crime certainly anything but glorious the men and women who inhabit these pages were, indeed, glorious. They often volunteered before they were conscripted, led troops into battle confidently (although they were secretly as scared as the next man), and cheerfully accepted privations for years that we in our comfortable 21st-century lives simply cannot begin to imagine.

The phrase ‘He was noted for his legendary coolness under fire as well as for his maintenance of the well-being of his men’ was actually written about the Canadian Col Strome Galloway of the 2nd London Irish Rifles, but frankly it could have appeared in any one of dozens of these obituaries of officers who generally conducted themselves according to the most noble standards of the English-speaking peoples in times of struggle. I defy anyone to read this marvellous book and not feel both humble for ourselves and fantastically proud of those who went before.