BOOK OF THE WEEK
WAR AT THE WALKERS
by Annabel Venning (Hodder, £ 20, 336pp)
There are so many thousands of books written about the Second World War that you sometimes wonder if there is anything new or original to tell.
To War With The Walkers is Annabel Venning's report on the war experiences of her grandfather Walter and his five brothers and sisters. Although it is about flattened land – the Blitz, Dunkirk, the fighting in the Far East and the horrors of Japanese POW camps – the fortunes of this ordinary family are interwoven in a heartbreaking story that feels fresh.
The six Walker children had a cheerful, sporty middle-class education in Devon. Edward, the oldest, visited Sandhurst together with actor David Niven, remembered as & # 39; very naughty & # 39; before joining the 8th Punjab Regiment in India in 1929. Walter, the second oldest, also went to India, joined the 8th Gurkhas.
Peter, the most naughty of the brothers, became a tea planter in Assam. The fourth brother, Harold, was trained as a doctor, while his sister Ruth became a nurse. Beatrice, a beauty with famously shaped legs, worked in a clothing store and made some models for Norman Hartnell while she waited for the right husband to come.
To War With The Walkers is Annabel Venning's report about the war experiences of her grandfather Walter and his five brothers and sisters (photo)
When the war broke out, Ruth, the youngest of the Walkers, was in the middle of the battle against victims of Dunkirk and taking care of pilots who were terribly burned in the Battle of Great Britain. Ruth, who would have become a first-class doctor if she had been born in another era, was impressively sober.
She was alone in the ward one evening when a Dunkirk survivor, probably with flashbacks, threatened to cut her throat with a razor. Ruth pointed coolly that he was not wearing his slippers. & # 39; He looked down and said: & # 39; Oh baby & # 39 ;. And he put the murderous razor on the desk and went to get his slippers, & she recalled.
St Thomas & # 39; s Hospital in London, where both Harold and Ruth worked, was bombed a total of ten times during the war. In September 1940, Ruth, who was hiding in the basement, was trapped by falling brickwork. She has resigned herself to death, but has been rescued by a rescue party including her brother.
A week later, Harold had his own close escape when the hospital was hit again. He was unconscious for a week but recovered remarkably; he was convinced that the incident had saved his life for a reason.
On the other side of the world, Walter was one of the troops trying to stop the Japanese advance in Burma. This hopeless undertaking led to the withdrawal of the army to India, & # 39; the longest retreat in British military history, a gripping thousand-mile exodus through the jungle, over mountains and over rivers. & # 39;
When they reached India, hollowed out and exhausted, Walter and his comrades were treated with contempt, although their escape had been just as remarkable as Dunkirk. Walter, a born soldier, didn't let the experience crush him. He was given command of a Gurkha battalion as they fought to expel the Japanese from Burma. Venning, who remembers Walter as a two-eyed grandfather, was appalled to discover that some of his men considered him a bully and a tyrant. & # 39; He had that relatively rare characteristic that he didn't have to be nice & # 39 ;, she thinks.
The six Walker children had a cheerful, sporty middle-class education in Devon (pictured, Harold, 17, Walter, 20, Bee, 21, Edward, 23, Peter, 18, Arthur, Ruth, 14 and Dorothea in 1933)
Walter gradually won over his men and gained respect for his tactical cunning. After weeks of fierce fighting, his Gurkha & # 39; s took up more and more territory, until they finally realized that the only Japanese remaining in the village were twisted, torn bodies. Walter saw a large force of troops approaching them, Walter & # 39; s disciplined and well-drilled men held their fire and realized that the approaching soldiers were not Japanese but men of their own brigade.
Elder brother Edward also had a good war and, like Walter, got the DSO. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he commanded a battalion that fought through a wildly cold winter in Italy until the Germans surrendered in May 1945.
In one city that he and his men freed, he was greeted by the mayor with a white flag in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
The youngest Walker brother, Peter, who was not interested in becoming a soldier, nevertheless presented himself and left behind his poloponies, his dog and his pet otter. He was one of the 130,000 imprisoned men when Singapore fell.
Peter & # 39; s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, including working on the notorious Thai-Burma railway, provide debilitating reading.
Before the war an Indian fakir had told him that he would go through the darkest times, but would come through. This, along with the Walker family's motto of & # 39; Nil Desperandum & # 39 ;, never despair, somehow gave him the power to survive. As an officer, he tried to take care of his men in the camps. When one of them was beaten by a guard, Peter intervened. He was taken in turns and then tied to a pole with his head tilted up and looked at the sun.
As the sun moved in the sky, it was turned on the pole. & # 39; Commanded to keep his eyes open at all times, he could barely see by the time he was cut down, and his retina was permanently damaged.
WAR WITH THE WALKERS by Annabel Venning (Hodder, £ 20, 336pp)
When news finally came about the Japanese surrender and the guards laid their arms down – offering grotesque to shake hands because & # 39; now we are friends & # 39; – the prisoners broke into & # 39; Land of hope and glory & # 39 ;, & # 39; God Save The King & # 39; and & # 39; Jerusalem & # 39 ;. Amazingly, they did not retaliate against the sadistic guards. Peter finally returned home in October 1945.
Somehow all Walkers had survived the war. The only family member who died was the wealthy American husband of Beatrice, an Anglophile who had joined the RAF and died in a plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean in 1945.
Walter flourished during peacetime, his career ended in a high NATO role and he became a knight. Edward was less successful in his army career. Ruth married the family friend she had loved for years, but who was a widow in her forties.
Harold, determined to make good use of his wonderfully saved life, became a hospital consultant and a pioneer in the field of obstetrics.
Peter is, not surprisingly, never fully recovered from the horrors he had endured. He suffered terrible flashbacks and his children wondered why he was always angry. He eventually found happiness with his second wife and was reconciled with his children.
He was never jealous of his brothers: & # 39; Peter wore a sense of silent triumph and confidence; he had seen and suffered things that they could not even imagine. & # 39;
Venning, a journalist who contributes to the Daily Mail, easily juggles all these different stories and locations and turns it into a fascinating whole. In addition to a portrait of the world at war, this beautiful book also shows a world that would soon disappear.
By the time the war was over, the mighty British Empire was on its last legs. The views on class and race of the Walkers and of most other British were about to be wiped out, and a good thing too. But when you see the war through the eyes of the Walkers, you realize what a truly extraordinary generation it was and how much we owe them.
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