The Great War

THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION … An introduction

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“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Reflective essays on Fully Booked don’t usually begin with a quotation from the nearest thing to a monster that the 20th Century produced, but in the case of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, we make an exception. I suppose that when someone is the runner-up to Mao Zedong in the mass-murderer hit parade, you might hope that your words outlive your mortal life.

With Stalin’s cynical but perceptive maxim in mind, it would be excusable if a few criminal murders here or there were to be largely ignored in the maelstrom of shot and shell which was The Great War, but both in real life and in the minds of crime fiction writers, a death is a death, particularly if it occurs for reasons other than the victim being too near to the detonation of a minenwerfer or a Stokes Mortar round.

It could be said that novels set in the various theatres of WWII resonate with greater intensity to readers since 1945. In more recent times, and with pure crime fiction in mind, we have the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, the masterly Fred Troy novels by John Lawton, and the hugely underrated John Madden books by Rennie Airth. Further back, further afield, and further from the crime genre we should not forget the contribution made by American writers such as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.



In a purely literary sense, the standout novels which have the The Great War as their backbone have to include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and a novel which, in my view, trumps them all – Covenant With Death, by John Harris. Harris also wrote one of the iconic novels of WWII, which was a huge success both as a book and a film – The Sea Shall Not Have Them. None of these books could in any way be called a crime novel, and so they must stay outside of our collection.

DonkeysWhat needs to be held up like a bright lantern in our search for good WWI crime fiction, is the fact that those six years are like no other in British history. They have produced a mythology which is unique in modern memory, and with it a collection of tropes, images, phrases and conventions, all of which find their way into the consciousness of writers and readers. Military historians tell only part of the story: the Alan Clark theory of The Donkeys and the anti-war polemic of the the 1960s and 70s has one version of events; more recent accounts of the war by revisionist historians such as John Terrain and Gary Sheffield tell another tale altogether. In considering books and writers for this feature I have used two criteria. Firstly, there must be crime involved that is distinct from the licensed slaughter of wartime and, secondly, the events of the war must cast their shadows over the narrative either in a contemporary sense or in the form of a social or political legacy.


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The Britain of summer 1922 was, in some ways, similar to the island in The Tempest:

“the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears..”

abbsThe sounds and sweet airs might have been provided by Haydn Woods’ A Brown Bird Singing or, if you were more disposed towards the art of Edith Sitwell, William Walton’s setting of her poetry – Façade. The discordant sounds of the thousand twangling instruments could have come from several sources; possibly the thousands of impoverished ex-servicemen sold short by the country they had fought for; perhaps, however, the isle which was most full of noises was that of Ireland, and in particular the newly formed Irish Republic.

wilsonSir Henry Wilson was a former General in the British Army, and his contribution to events in The Great War divides opinion. Some have him firmly in the ‘Butchers and Bunglers’ camp, a stereotypical Brass Hat who send brave men off into battle to meet red hot shards of flying steel with their own mortal flesh. Others will say that he was part of the combined military effort which defeated Germany in the field, and led to the surrender in the railway carriage at Compiègne in 1918. Whatever the truth, Wilson was never a field commander. He was much more at home well behind the front line, hobnobbing with politicians and strategists.

When the war ended, he was promoted to Field Marshall, and made a baronet. With Ireland beset by all manner of plots and factional fighting, he resigned his army post and was elected as MP for the Ulster constituency of North Down. He had made it very clear that he despised the Irish Republican movement, and had written in June 1919 that “Ireland goes from bad to worse” and that “a little bloodletting” was needed. His view of the British government’s attempts to deal peaceably with the Irish Problem is summed up by his belief that such peace moves were a “shameful & cowardly surrender to the pistol” by a “Cabinet of Cowards”. Ironically, his own demise was brought about by the pistols of two IRA killers.

In the early 1920s, there was one common activity which retired army generals shared, and it was to travel far and wide across the country, sanctifying by their presence the hundreds of war memorials bearing the names of the 704,803 men who had perished while under their command in the recent conflict. Thus, on the morning of Thursday 22nd June, 1922, Wilson had traveled by cab to Liverpool Street Station, where he had been invited to unveil the memorial to the men of The Great Eastern Railway who had died in the war. Having done his duty, and addressed the crowd of relatives and well-wishers, he returned to his house in Eaton Place in London’s Belgravia.


As the taxi pulled away, Sir Henry was attacked by two men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. He was shot nine times, and the killers made their escape, only to be arrested shortly after. Newspapers made much of the possibility that Sir Henry had drawn his ceremonial sword in his own defence, and had cried, “You cowardly swine!” as he was attacked, but only he and his assailants could verify that, and they are long gone from us.


 Wilson’s murder outraged popular opinion in England, and polarised views on the situation in Ireland. It was a widely held belief that the murder had been carried out on the orders of the Republican firebrand Michael Collins. Collins himself, incidentally, had only a few more weeks to live, as in the August of 1922, he was murdered, probably by rival Irish factions. Wilson’s funeral was a public affair attended by Lloyd George and the cabinet. French Generals Foch, Nivelle and Weygand came to pay their last respects, as well as many of his former British army colleagues including French, Macready, Haig and Robertson. The Field Marshal was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

 And Sir Henry’s killers? They were duly tried and convicted of his death and hanged at Wandsworth prison on 10th August 1922, and buried in the prison grounds. As befits the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, the remains of both Dunne and O’Sullivan were repatriated to the Irish Republic and given a heroes’ burial in 1967. A final irony in a case that is positively dripping with it, is that both men had fought for King and Country, with great gallantry in the war that had made Sir Henry Wilson such a prominent public figure.






We were all brought up to revere the war poets such as Owen and Sassoon. Quite rightly so, for their message still has an undying resonance. If I had to choose one poem, however, to sum up the devastation and waste of The Great War, I would turn to a man who never fought in the conflict, but whose perception and vision have made this a classic. Like Betjeman’s work, it is direct, accessible and heartbreaking. Philip Larkin’s poem captures the last August of an England that had already begun to change. It would never, ever, be the same again.


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