Saturday 14 February 2015

When the guns fall silent by James Riordan

When the guns fall silent by James Riordan (OUP, 2000)

ISBN 978-0-19-273570-6

25 chapters; 157 pages

Subjects: World War One, France, football, Christmas, truce, trenches, deserters, young adult fiction (Year 9-11)

Jack and Harry, friends and keen footballers, go off to fight in WW1. The football game played in the Christmas truce of 1914 (the time “when the guns fall silent”, in the title) only takes up two or three chapters at the end, although there is more about football at the beginning as well. This main narrative is framed by the story of 12-year-old Perry, visiting the WW1 graves in France in 1964 with his grandfather (the older Jack.)

I don’t think I would give this to a child as their first book about WW1. The descriptions of death and battle are very graphic, possibly nightmare-inducing; they include references to firing squads, suicide, mercy killings, rumoured German atrocities and horrible injuries.
Parts of the dialogue are written in dialect, which can be hard to read aloud. The depiction of the officers is almost invariably critical. They are all “chinless wonders from Winchester”, apart from one poet-officer who is killed leading his men into battle; the rest of them are chateau generals who enjoy fancy food behind the lines and face no personal danger.

Some of the story is told in letters which would have been unlikely to get past the censors, but no reference is made to the issue of censorship (which is part of the war story, after all).  However I did like the inclusion of the poems, chants and songs at the start of many of the chapters, especially one I didn’t know before called “Achtung! Achtung!” by Mary Hacker.

The book was first published in 2000 but has been recently re-released for the centenary of the beginning of WW1 in 2014.

The Bookbag calls it “a moving story which fully captures the horrors of war, and doesn't shy away from being fairly graphic in its telling of them.” Their reviewer also notes the puzzle of which age group to recommend it to: "I think thoughtful younger readers will get a huge amount out of it, but I know many parents and guardians will want to be warned of those things. Teens may initially be surprised by its short length, but it packs a lot into its relatively few pages."

Scribbles book review makes the same point (“A hard-hitting, graphic and, at times, upsetting account of soldiers on the front line during the First World War”), and draws an interesting comparison about the difference between graphic violence in fantasy or sci fi and in war books.

And finally, there's one more review here in Thoughts about Books

Author’s website
James Riordan died in 2012, aged 75, and you can read an obituary for him in the Guardian.  He certainly led an interesting life, which included joining the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1959 and going to live in Russia for many years; he was a keen footballer and football supporter and became the only foreigner to play in the Soviet football league.  

Jim Riordan was the only westerner to play in the Soviet football league
James Riordan (Photograph: BBC)
About the illustrator
Caroline Tomlinson did the cover and typography and you can read about her method of working here.

Other books you might like:
War game by Michael Foreman tells the story of a football game played between opposing sides during a temporary truce. Look at my blog posting on that book for more details about Christmas and other truces that took place during the First World War. 

Truce : the day the soldiers stopped fighting by Jim Murphy is a non fiction book on the same topic.

Or you can read more about the Christmas truce on the BBC Sport website here.

Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens also uses the device of a child visiting the war graves with a grandfather to frame the story.  

Things I didn’t know:
  • That the English national anthem God save the King (back then) was based on a German tune, and the Germans sang a hymn Heil Dir im Siegesktanz to the same tune in the trenches.
  • That the English Government banned all “alien” music, which included Mendelsohn’s Wedding march. (So I suppose you couldn't have it played at your wedding!) 
  • That in England during WW1, German shepherd dogs were renamed Alsatians.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

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