Thursday, August 18, 2011

"We Were There" Edited by Robert Fox

This is a perfect book for summer reading. It is a diverse collection of some of the best, and most famous, of eyewitness accounts from the 20th Century. Comprised, as it is, of a variety of historical events, some related, some not, allows the reader to pick the book up, or put it down, at will. You can start anywhere you want to in this book and still not disrupt the flavor.

I dove in on the accounts of the famous Christmas Eve Truce during the First World War. And I got a surprise - there were two such Christmas Eves, one in 1914 and again in 1915. These are eyewitness accountings of the earliest days of the war, when many of the soldiers did not want to be there. Fraternization with the enemy was forbidden, but when the British saw the lights from the candles on the German Christmas trees, all rules went by the wayside. The result was that the two armies, who only hours before had been trying hard to kill one another, gathered in "no man's land" for an impromptu celebration of a common holiday. The Germans provided the beer, the English brought the football.

Equally of interest to me was the account of Harold Bride, the wireless operator aboard the HMS Titanic the night she hit an iceberg and sank, with the loss of over 1,700 lives. Though I have read it before, and even own a copy of it, has never diminished the awe which this piece inspires in me.

The world of science is also represented here, with accounts from the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, as well as Madame Curie and her discovery of radium, which would rock the field of medical science for decades to come.

Social Revolution was very much in the air in the years leading up to the First World War, and that subject is covered with accounts of the pre-war protests which shook England at the time. I was blissfully unaware of just how many people did not want to go to war for the "glory" of the empire. Whole families were involved in this endeavor, and many were jailed for their beliefs.

The birth of the Soviet Union, and the fall of Tsar Nicholas, which would come to color the entire 20th century, is a primer in the rise and fall of Communism. The effect that the Soviet Union had upon the world, for better or worse, cannot be discounted as it continues to color the events of today.

Women's Suffrage is given it's due, as women in the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, struggled to gain equality under the law. One woman, Emily Wilding Davison, actually died for the cause when she ran on to the track during the Epsom Derby in 1913. Hoping to disrupt the race just as the King's horse was due to fly by, she was struck and killed by the horse.

The book chronicles the 20th century from it's opening days until the dawn of the 21st century. A perfect example is Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance and the gripping account of her misadventure in the early days of Artic exploration.

The high flying days of the 1920's, when prosperity seemed to be on a never ending upswing, is explored through the stories of the people who first rose, and then fell, on the roller coaster ride of economics. The parallels of this era with our own current financial woes, is a blueprint of history repeating itself in a never ending cycle.

The bombing of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War, and the affect it had on Kurt Vonnegut and his future writings, notably "Slaughterhouse 5", is gripping. It actually makes me want to re-read that book.

The world of entertainment is given some space here as well, as this was the century which ushered in mass communications such as radio and television. The power that entertainment, and entertainers, would come to hold over public opinion, and it's roots, are examined through the words of those who lived it.

Through the Depression and the resultant Second World War and beyond, this book is a pleasure to pick up and just jump right in. The "Sources and Acknowledgements" section is a treasure trove of things to be read in the future.

History is a living thing, and contains lessons to be learned. You just have to pay attention, lest we make the same mistakes over and over again.

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