Review: Bully Beef & Biscuits (Hartley)

Bully Beef & Biscuits: Food in the Great War.

“Iron rations” don’t sound especially appetizing, but you might just work up an appetite while reading this book.

Lavishly illustrated with period photos (all unique, as far as I can tell) and reproductions of advertisements, the author guides us through the entire period of the war from the gastronomic perspective. The book covers all of the theaters for which army feeding information exists, although most of the illustrations portray the soldiers of the BEF, with just a sprinkling of pictures of the French, Germans and others.

The author quotes extensively from unit and individuals’ diaries and from soldier letters sent home. He spends a chapter on home front issues in the UK, such as conscription of agricultural workers, the recruitment of females for agricultural work, and rationing. Also examined are the logistics of supply, as well as a comparison between officer and enlisted men’s diets. An interesting contribution to this history is the addition of one or more period recipes at the ends of all the chapters.

Significant points in the fighting histories of the units and individual soldiers who are quoted flesh out the text. Some of this background information seems only marginally relevant to the topic of the book, but I suppose the idea is to include some “human interest” material with the collections of menus and descriptions of meals that often don’t vary much. The rehash of some of the battles does pad the book, as do the huge number of photos and even the relatively thick paper stock on which the book is printed. If not published this way, the book may have ended up being a thinner and much lighter-weight volume.

The numbered end notes immediately precede an adequate index. It’s a hefty hardbound book that presents well, although it began to show a quality issue with the gluing of the signatures into the binding, such that in time, some pages could come loose.

A well written specialty study that supplies necessary information for the Great War novelist, and would make several good “aperitifs” (or supply a number of between-meal “snacks”) for an armchair general. Recommended.

NB: I bought this copy new (although at a significant reduction from the list price) from A Major Online Retailer, and was impressed by the care that was taken to ship it: tightly encased in bubble wrap, with the dust jacket enveloped in a Mylar cover such as may be found on library books (although the clear plastic was unevenly folded around the jacket, resulting in one short edge that kept coming loose as the slippery plastic worked its way upwards over the boards of the book during reading – not a big issue, and easily remedied with the application of a little tape). I don’t think the careful wrapping was the doing of the Major Online Retailer’s fulfillment center, because a new DVD and a new paperback book I’d also ordered were shipped loose and unprotected in the same box.


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Review: The Red Baron (film)

The Red Baron.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the death of Manfred von Richthofen, so I re-visited this film, preparatory to writing this post. It was as disappointing the second time around as it was the first.

The movie just flirts with history, which is understandable: von Richthofen was only 25 years old when he died, so he wasn’t around long enough to do much more than to become famous as Germany’s flying ace with the most kills during the First World War. He is credited with having written a brief memoir (Der rote Kampfflieger), but considering how young he was, what his connections were, and his celebrity status in Germany, it was probably ghost-written for him.

But from the first scene on, the script of this movie is almost laughably fictitious. To begin with, boys of his time, especially those with von Richthofen’s background (Prussian petite noblesse), never would have behaved as he was portrayed at the beginning of the film. No boy who was old enough to be out hunting with a gun would have been so stupid as to have taken to the woods with a noisily panting pet dog, instead of a trained hunting dog. Furthermore, boys were raised with a healthy respect for firearms and their value, so Manfred never would have abandoned a gun in the forest, just to go rubbernecking at an airplane from the back of a horse.

For much of the rest of the movie, what time is not spent tossing a little history around in dialogue between talking heads is devoted to shoehorning a patently fictional love interest into the story, and displaying vertiginously filmed dogfights that feature hokey closeups showing the pilots doing ridiculous things, such as looking over their shoulders directly into the sun, to locate enemy aircraft.

The film closes with no effort made to postulate who really shot down the Red Baron, although it seems to give the nod to Roy Brown, whose claim to have done so has been discredited, based on the evidence of von Richthofen’s sole wound: through the thorax at an angle impossible for Brown to have shot him, even if Brown had still been pursuing him at the time.

If the makers of the movie had put as much time into writing a better script as they must have done to find an actor who so strongly resembles von Richthofen, the story might have been of more substance than just light entertainment with a historical figure attached.


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Review: Trenches: Battleground WWI (video)

Trenches: Battleground WWI.

This box set emerges from its decorative tin container (which opens both front and back) to provide a 5-disc overview of the First World War.

Its greatest value is as a kind of audiobook, because as many documentaries do, this one suffers from repetition of the film clips, especially those of explosions. Use is made of staged footage from the famous British Somme production of the period, which having been restored is of good quality, but other sequences are in such poor condition as to almost defeat the purpose of their inclusion. In general, discussion of each belligerent’s historical contribution to the fight is accompanied by footage that depicts its soldiers in action, but few scenes can can be positively identified as to exactly where and when they were photographed. Each disc also features stills taken from the footage featured on that disc.

The main soundtrack is narrated by speakers with British accents, punctuated by quotes read by American, and purportedly French- and German-accented voices. Unfortunately, the fine narrator of the first 3 discs disappears for the 4th disc, and the substitution of another voice is a little jarring.

As is often the case with Great War documentaries, the war footage is accompanied by dubbed sound effects (crowds shouting, explosions, mechanical noises for tanks, and even jingling harness bells) which are really unnecessary, and because they’re also repetitious, they can become annoying. In addition to the period war footage, there are excerpts included of interviews with Great War veterans who, to judge from their appearance, were filmed sometime in the mid-20th Century. These men are not personally identified, and one wonders which of them, if any, later ended up among the surviving nonagenarians who appear in other documentaries.

The soundtrack is also accompanied by a pleasant selection of familiar classical music selections, but they are repeated in an almost stereotypical manner; moreover, the clarity and volume of the musical selections can be uneven, and in a few cases they nearly overwhelm the narration. The end credits of each episode are serenaded by the same recording of John McCormack singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which gets a bit tiresome.

The 5th disc of the set consists of 2 documentaries which focus on the American perspective in the war (a biography of Pershing and a feature about the “Stars and Stripes” official “trench newspaper” – which I remember reading when I was in the U. S. Navy, stationed in Europe in the 1970s), and a film about modern commemoration ceremonies held at several Western Front sites, made when there were still a few veterans left alive who could attend them. A 24-page booklet printed on heavy, glossy paper rounds out the collection with more photo stills and a brief (and sometimes inaccurate) summary of the causes of the war, a few significant wartime events, the Treaty of Versailles, and trench life.

Not a very enlightening film presentation, but overall, the narrated history is worth having, and despite its other flaws, it would be a usable resource for homeschoolers beginning their studies of the Great War.

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