'The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.'
Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary, 3 August 1914
When The Lamps Went Out tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of the journalists who reported on it, providing us with a glimpse into how the war effort was presented to the people back home. As the various dispatches and editorials are published in the Manchester Guardian, we are afforded a rare look at a society in the grip of a true cataclysm, one that changes everything from the role of women to the political currents that held sway. Through the eyes of those who wrote about it, we see history unfold and gain insight into how Britain changed before, during and after the Great War...
One of my goals this year is to read a few non-fiction books set during the pivotal war years 1914-1918. Since we are now a full century away from these events and will be celebrating the centennial of the beginning of the war, it seemed like a good idea. So when When The Lamps Went Out came up on Netgalley I requested it immediately and was happy to receive it from the publisher. The book met two of my requirements, in fact: a non-fiction book about the First World War, but also a book that takes a well-known historical period and gives it a twist.
The twist in the case of When The Lamps Went Out is that rather than be a standard exploration of the years 1914-1919, the editor has spun together a view of the war based entirely on fragments and snippets from newspaper reports of the time. These are taken exclusively from the Manchester Guardian, but their import is nationwide, giving a glimpse into what the British public was reading and thinking while the war raged. As such, it gives a nice overview of the events leading up to, during and immediately after the war, but in a way that makes it stand out from other books about the period. We see the way the tenor of articles and editorials change as the fear of war turns into its reality and the belief in a quick resolution gives way to the drudgery of the trenches and the horror of chemical warfare.
The very twist that makes the book stand out, though, is also its greatest weakness. Since the narrative is made up entirely of fragments, there is a lack of cohesion and quality. Some fragments are more interesting than others, while some articles caught my attention where others were quickly skimmed over. Nigel Fountain, who is accurately credited as editor rather than author, does do a good job of keeping the narrative balanced between the various strands he chooses to explore. These include the warfront, the moral back home, but also the change in government, the rise of the women's suffrage movement and the effects of the Soviet revolution. This makes for a more rounded story, but again there are certain strands that kept me reading more than others.
The first hand accounts of the battles, told by the journalists who have been allowed access to the front, are especially gripping. It is interesting to see what they are allowed to say and what was presented to the people back home. One article in particular, about the soldiers in the mountains of Italy and Austria, breathes life, painting a deft picture of the beautiful scenery that is marred by the constant risk from enemy soldiers. Another touching strand takes us into the trenches during the "miraculous" Christmas celebrations that for a single day or handful of days brought Germans and French and English and Scots together between the trenches. It is much more difficult when reading about the First World War than the Second to see the "Good Guys" and the "Bad Guys" - a book that explores similar terrain from the viewpoint of the Germans could make for just as compelling reading.
One gets the impression that every single soldier on the front is simply trapped by the short sightedness of the politicians and leaders behind the scenes and there is much more of a sense of a camaraderie between the soldiers that would ever exist later on when faced with the Nazis. As such, the Aftermath chapter becomes especially chilling, especially as we see - from afar and through the objective lense of the journalist - the beginning of the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Although the core of the book is the extracts from the newspapers, I would have enjoyed a little more interpretation and discussion from Fountain. While each article or fragment is introduced by a small paragraph explaining what is being discussed, these are extremely short. Of course, your own mileage may vary on this point depending on your prior knowledge of WW1 and the events surrounding it.
Not always an easy read, with a lack of cohesion that is unavoidable due to the very nature of the work, When The Lamps Went Out provides an interesting twist to the World War One book. Told through the eyes of journalists and editorials, the book gives a rounded view of the events while never forgetting the people who were reading about them back home. Although I would have preferred slightly more interpretation and explanation from the editor, the words of the journalists speak for themselves, especially when dealing with the horrors of the trenches and the humanity that continued despite them. I gave When The Lamps Went Out 3 Christmas ceasefires out of 5.
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