I’m writing this in the last fortnight as we count down to the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. I’ve had the privilege not only of reading these 100 stories and centenas before they were published, but I’ve also had the pleasure of sharing them with the world as part of the project team.
It’s thrilling to see an idea become reality in relatively a short time. To hold a book in my hands that was a glint in the imagination this time last year is fantastic. And when you delve into it, the quality of the writing shines through, page after page.
As Katie Childs from IWM First World War Centenary Partnership said at the 26 Bloomsbury Festival event a few weeks back, everyone has a connection to the First World War. For some it’s a story repeated and passed down through the family. For others, it’s found in an inspirational figure or event that brings the whole thing sharply into focus. But I know this to be true – our writers come from all over the world and their stories are now our stories.
And what’s clear from them all is the effects of the war are still with us today, for better or worse. From the opening shots to the final victim, killed just 15 minutes before the bugle call signalling the Armistice, the stories here give us an insight into a world we barely recognise.
The familiarity over the distance of years, I believe, comes down to the simple fact that every person in these stories is made flesh again. From the mass graves and millions of deaths that we’ve grown up with as some abstract almost faceless fact, suddenly we are confronted by real people, with all the hopes and foibles we recognise in ourselves.
We hear their thoughts, suffer their fears, share their exultations, their defeats and deaths, even their afterlives. We hear stories of those left behind, those forced to run and hide or escape, those scarred and scared, wounded and broken, the canonised and the disgraced. They are all so vivid, you feel you can almost reach out and touch them.
For me personally, this project has made me look back to my family history and made me try to imagine what the war meant to the people who made me. I’ve seen great courage here, great loss and deep pain – something shared by anyone involved. I wonder what they would make of it all one hundred years after it was all over? I suspect they would be bemused that someone had bothered to remember them and tried to understand what they went through.
There is deep sorrow and many, many tears here, no doubt. But there is also deep love, pride, honour, respect, joy, celebration and commemoration.
To call this book a monument to the people between its pages may sound presumptive or pretentious. I know it’s not the Menin Gate or the Cenotaph. But I believe in the power of words to connect people across generations, across divides, across oceans and seas of time. And these words do all these things and so much more in so many ways.
To quote 26 founder John Simmons’ favourite from E.M. Forster, ‘Only connect’. This is why I write for a living, this is why I’m proud to be part of 26 and to have been involved in this project.
And when the Armistice commemorations are all over, when the wreaths are laid, the bells rung, the clappers silenced, the beacons burnt out and the paper poppies put away to fade in the back of a drawer – what then?
I believe these stories will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone who researched, wrote, read and responded to them. They will continue to live on in libraries and on people’s bookshelves long after 11th November.
One day, maybe in 100 years’ time, someone will pick up a copy and be touched by those stories all over again. And hopefully the spark it ignites will carry the connection and these precious memories on another 100 years into the future.