#FWW Review of Poppies From the Heart of Strathspey

Now being reprinted
Stuart
3/17/10
Review: Poppies from the Heart of Strathspey by Peter Anderson (2010),
The published histories of the First World War are plentiful, and for
many it seems that the same old ground has been ploughed again and
again. Some would even question whether there is anything new to
write, but in so doing miss an entire vacuum of knowledge that awaits
exploration – the effect the War had on the local communities who
provided the men to fight. Peter Anderson’s analysis of the men of
Strathspey – an area of Scotland in Morayshire – begins to fill this
hole.
The book opens with a scene of the town of Grantown-on-Spey in July
1914, before the cataclysm was to hit. We are introduced to local
shops, dignitaries, and the minor news incidents of the day. It was a
perfectly normal town, disturbed only by a thunder storm that
disrupted the local Scout Camp, until the real storm was to come. The
opening perfectly sets the scene for the frantic activity of August
1914, as troops are mobilized, and shops ready themselves for war.
The approach of the author is to present us with a journal of the war
and beyond (the final entry is, in effect, the 3rd February 1928 with
the funeral of Field Marshal Earl Haig demonstrating how the ripples
of war streamed outwards well beyond 1918). The entries centre on the
men of Strathspey, who saw action in all quarters of the war, and
presents their story. We are given their military details, their date
and place of death, and more often than not local details about their
life at home and that of their families. Interspersed throughout are
photographs of the soldiers, their graves, the houses in the local
area (if standing), memorials, inscriptions, newspaper clippings, and
more. The extent of the research is praiseworthy, and the book itself
(complete with index and bibliography) extends to nearly 300 pages.
In taking this approach, the author risks two criticisms. First, that
the book resembles a litany, where the reader is dulled into
submission with death after death being listed. This is fine for the
wall of a memorial, as the desired effect is to impress on the
observer the vastness of the slaughter, but not acceptable for a
printed book that seeks to tell a story. Second, that the information
is so localized it is only of interest to residents of that particular
community. However, Anderson manages a difficult task extremely well
and avoids both problems. Although we are presented with the
successive deaths of the men of Strathspey, the stories are told from
a human perspective. We get a glimpse into where they lived, worked,
their families, when they enlisted, and the memorials erected after
their deaths. It is such detail and insights that raise the book well
beyond a memorial scroll and grabs the reader’s attention. Secondly,
these men fought in all the major conflicts of the war so this is very
much a history of the entire conflict seen through the focus of the
men and women of one area of Scotland. Moreover, Anderson places the
events that affected Strathspey in the wider historical and social
context. The entries for 1917 open with the death of Harry lauder’s
son (December, 1916), the announced death of Private S/16634 John
Stuart Grant on the 24th April 1917, is part of the offensive at
Arras, and as already mentioned the book envelopes itself with entries
on the outbreak of war and the death of Haig.
This is a book written with a sense of dignity and respect (for both
the soldiers and the reader), and collects together an impressive
amount of research. As well as taking the reader on an emotional
journey, outlining the effects the war had on a single community which
is important in itself as we attempt to write the wider history of the
conflict – it surely acts as a fitting memorial to the men and women
of Strathspey who sacrificed so much.
Stuart Lee
Oxford

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