Year by year literature of and about the First World War mounts – books on its campaigns, causes, politics and economics; memoirs by politicians and generals; diaries and letters written by ordinary ‘Tommies’, by nurses in the front line and those involved on the Home Front, from the ‘Munitionettes’ who filled shells and assembled guns to the society ladies who rolled bandages and handed out tea and buns to departing soldiers. The catalogue of the London Library currently lists 1,475 titles on the First World War, and there will be many more to come during the remaining centenary years.
But it was not in a conventional library or even a secondhand bookshop that I came across a slightly mossy, slightly foxed and jacketless copy of Michael MacDonagh’s In London during the Great War (1935). It was in a decommissioned red telephone box in a Sussex village – the idea being that when you have no more use for a book you’ve enjoyed, you leave it in the phone box for someone else to take home to read. I liked the thought of people wresting open the heavy metal and glass door and choosing a book from the precarious, knocked-up temporary wooden shelves of this small ‘library’, while leaving another behind – in effect an anonymous barter system.
I had read a fair amount about the Home Front in the First World War when I was contemplating writing a book on the subject myself, but I had never heard of Michael MacDonagh and was delighted to come across a new addition to the relatively few accounts – compared to the embarrassment of riches about the Home Front in the Second World War – that I already knew.
I discovered that the benign-looking man with wire spectacles, toothbrush moustache and wing collar in the book’s frontispiece had, before the war, been a parliamentary correspondent for The Times, had written several books, and would write more during and after the war. Several were on Parliament and i
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