War Memorial by Clive Aslet is a fascinating take on the war-torn history of the last 100 years. He makes history incredibly personal with a surprisingly simple, but novel, approach. He selected fairly randomly an English village, and through the names on its war memorial traced the conflicts and their effects on a small Devon village.

From the men lost in the First World War, through the pilots of the Second, to Goose Green in the Falklands, and the war in Iraq. It's brilliantly simple and yet incredibly effective, as through these individual lives you see every man and woman caught up in the conflict. Aslet draws on letters and diaries from the people they served with to show what life was like at the front. 

The story is often surprising. Until well into the twentieth century more soldiers died of disease than of battle wounds. This continued to be true in some of the names etched into Lydford's war memorial with one young soldier never making it out of the UK and dying of flu in an army training camp, while others met their deaths through dysentery or (possibly the most bizarre death) reputedly by eating a diseased camel's liver. Some died long after the conflict, haunted by their experiences, some undoubtedly had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some died by accident, some through sheer bad luck. All were extremely brave. And all had lives and families and people that loved them, whose lives were also ripped apart by the conflicts that claimed their loved ones.

The notion of the "world wars" was made very clear here. Lydford might be a small village, but some of the names recorded on its memorial had travelled a long way to die in the fields of northern France. Many of Lydford's sons and daughters had emigrated to Canada in a bid to find a better life away from the agricultural depression that had hit Devon. When the First World War broke out they returned home before being shipped to France. 

Some of the names on the memorial were newcomers, middle-class families drawn to the holiday atmosphere of Devon. One family, the Herberts, would be completely wiped out by the Second World War. All three sons flew - one was shot down, one crash landed, another was killed because of mechanical failure. With their parents having predeceased them, the whole family disappeared.

It's a poignant read, made all the more so because it takes those rather remote names etched in concrete or metal, and restores their humanity. At this time of the year, and with recent events, this book is a must-read. It is the story of ordinary people, of extraordinary courage, and of the true cost of war.

The names on Lydford's war memorial
Charles Henry Berry, aged 30
Mancel Clark, 24
Frank Wilfred Fry, 18
Richard Henry Hobbs, 27
Archibald Roger Huggins, 29
George Henry Taylor Lake, 21
George Metters, 46
Richard John Petherick, 21
Richard Radford Turner, 20
Samuel Voyzey (or Voysey), 44
Edward John Whitford, 38
James Stephens, 45
William Henry Daw, 53

Leslie Arthur John Bickle, 18
Richard Hamilton Gillett, 24
Philip William Herbert, 26
Sylvia Evalina Mary Bickle, 19
Richard Vivian Herbert, 21
Gerald Bevill Herbert, 20
Alfred Stanbury, 17
Peter Clarence Bowles, 22

The Falklands war
Nicholas Taylor, 32

The Iraq war
Andrew Kelly, 18


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