If poetry was the literary form of the First World War, it was fiction that best expressed the reality of the Second
by William Boyd
My next-door neighbour for many years, Colonel Peter Peyman, was a veteran of Dunkirk. As a young subaltern he’d fought in the rearguard and had been lucky to be evacuated. After his death his widow bequeathed me his small
library of books on Dunkirk, all works of reputable military history. They are thick with marginalia: “Rubbish!”, “Never happened”, “Wrong! I was there” and so forth.
One can read a sentence like, “The 3rd battalion advanced under an artillery barrage and suffered many casualties” and, while acknowledging that the 3rd Battalion must have indeed advanced, have no sense at all of what it was to undergo the actual experience of being part of that fatal manoeuvre.
In writing about war and warfare, the subjective view always wins over the objective when it comes to answering the fundamental question: What Was It Really Like? And this is where the novel comes into its own.
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