My Grandfather and Mr Standfast

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The way things are going, we shall spend the next four years in tears. The commemorations of the First World War centenary depict the trenches on the Western Front as appalling places where young, promising men died in unimaginable horror, possibly for no, or the wrong, purpose: all was sorrow, regret and pointlessness.

In the hope that there might be other, more nuanced narratives, I have set myself the goal of reading widely about the war: recent histories, of course, but also those books written during it or soon after its end, since they more truly encapsulate the thoughts of those who went through it all. This naturally means the war poetry as well as the prose works of Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, but also Mr Standfast, my grandfather John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay story, and his four-volume History of the Great War.

In 1914, John Buchan was 39 and an established publisher, writer and Parliamentary candidate. That summer, plagued by duodenal ulcers, he went with his family to Broadstairs to convalesce by the sea. There he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in October 1915, when it was an immediate success. In the autumn of 1914 his application to join the Army was turned down, so he suggested to Thomas Nelson, the Edinburgh publishing company of which he was a partner, that it issue a history of the war in monthly parts. Hilaire Belloc agreed to write it but then dropped out, so Buchan was forced to undertake the work himself. The result was Nelson’s History of the War, published in 24 volumes, the first appearing in February 1915. The royalties he gave to the families of the firm’s employees away at the war.

In early 1915, The Times employed him as a war correspondent, and he reported on the second Battle of Ypres. That autumn, he was sent by the Foreign Office to observe the Battle of Loos. The next year, he was seconded to General Haig’s headquarters in France to draft communiqués

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About the contributor

Ursula Buchan can, sadly, discern few common characteristics with her grandfather – except a weakness for tobacco (sternly suppressed), a troublesome digestion and a deep love of upland places.

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