The Quick and the Dead

When I finished ‘11th Durham Light Infantry: In Their Own Names’ back in 2011, I swore I would never buy another book on the First World War. Indeed I sold two thirds of my collection. I broke that vow a few weeks ago when I spotted a bargain book: ‘The Quick and the Dead’ by Richard van Emden. It was the sub-title that caught my attention: ‘Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War’. When I looked inside I found he had published it almost at the same time as my own book, which did almost the same thing but concentrated on one battalion.

As with anything by Richard van Emden, it is a thoroughly good read – well researched, well written and humane. He takes the reader through each stage of the War, using family stories and memories to illustrate how the various key events impacted on how people thought and, more importantly, how people felt and reacted. In principle he has done precisely what I did, but not restricted so tightly to the resources at my disposal for one battalion out of hundreds. Able to call on a wider selection of sources, especially interviews with surviving family members, he has been able to cover more ground and provide greater depth than I could possibly have done. But everything he describes confirms and provides context to what I wrote and to what I have found out since from new family stories that have come my way.

If you enjoyed what I tried to do in my book (or even if you didn’t), I unreservedly recommend ‘The Quick and the Dead’. It underlines in so many ways what I was trying to convey about the importance of understanding the impact on families across the generations and how that was the case. Especially during the long series of centenary commemorations, when much of the focus will once again turn to the events and the battles, this is the reminder you need as to why it is important to understand the Great War in its totality. It still haunts families today. It still haunts global events. It is still in the consciousness of the fourth and fifth generations.

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