Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance for All

Today is the 11th of November, Remembrance Day here in Canada (the 14th in the UK). This is a day to think on the sacrifices of men and women in the armed forces now and in the past. Remembrance Day is not only about World War I and II but also Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, and Afghanistan. It is about remembering those who have served in any conflict of nations.

When I went to Remembrance Day ceremonies at Queen’s Park in Toronto this morning, I was happy to see so many people present. As ever, it was a solemn occasion blessed with sunlight and crisp autumn air. The bugle sang out sadly and when it stopped, four artillery cannons commenced firing. The sound of just one of those cannons going off was shocking to say the least and I tried to imagine, in vain, what it must have been like for any soldier when there were literally hundreds of those things going off. For troops to push on to the next trench, or take a hill, with cannons thundering all around, well, it must have taken a rare form of courage.

D-Day Invasion - Normandy

Warfare plays a prominent role in human history and is something that historical novelists write about a lot, something that readers are thrown into. I remember reading John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields in grade school and I still wear a poppy this time of year. Like so many others, my grandfathers served in both World Wars – one with British forces under General Allenby during WWI and the other with the Greek Merchant and U.S. Navies dodging German U-boats in WWII. I wish they had lived longer so that I might have learned more from them, and though most of their stories are lost to our family, I still remember. Just because a conflict fades farther into the past does not mean that its importance is diminished in any way. War is ugly, no doubt and despite the Homeric ideals that have lived on for thousands of years, there is nothing romantic about another soldier’s brains exploding next to you.

There are countless novels and films about the World Wars, Vietnam and other modern conflicts. But, as this is a blog about historical fiction in the ancient and medieval periods I have a few recommends about turning point conflicts in the more distant past.

As far as historical battles go, the Battle at Thermopylae (480 B.C.) stands out over the ages as the true measure courage and sacrifice. When the Persian king, Xerxes invaded Greece he was met at the narrow pass of Thermopylae by 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. The Greek forces delayed the Persians long enough for the rest of Greece to rally its forces – they all perished. For a good novel about this conflict, check out Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.

Monument to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae
When it comes to Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) opinion is divided and differing theories are rampant and hotly debated. Was he a hero or a butcher? Was he the greatest general in history or was it is his father, Philip who should lay claim to that title for having created the army Alexander used? The questions go on and on. One thing is certain, Alexander’s campaigns ushered in a new golden era in which not only warfare and siege craft flourished but also, art and learning and technological advancement. Alexandria became the greatest city of the ancient world where the brightest minds gathered at the greatest library ever known. Some say that Alexander’s goal was to spread Hellenic culture to the rest of the world and so unite it. This might seem impossible with the violent sieges of Tyre and Gaza but then, he was also welcomed as a liberator in Egypt and Ionia and when he went east, he adopted many of their customs and traditions as his own. Alexander is one of the most complicated personages in history and I doubt that anyone will ever nail down who the man was exactly. A good series of books on Alexander is Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s Alexander Trilogy which looks at Alexander’s life from childhood to his death in Babylon.
If you are looking for a pivotal war in the Roman period, there are several to choose from, but the one that stands out for me because of a trilogy of novels is the second Punic War against none other than Hannibal. Carthage was dealt a humiliating blow by Rome at the end of the first Punic War and there was much hatred on both sides. Hannibal met his match in the person of Scipio Africanus on the plain of Zama (206 B.C.), in modern day Tunisia. The trilogy of books (Hannibal; Scipio; and Carthage) by Ross Leckie is an excellent read that I highly recommend. He manages to make us sympathetic to both sides of the conflict and a most interesting way.

Those are just a few recommended reads from me. I don’t really have any that deal with the wars of our modern age to suggest. When it comes to reminding myself of the World Wars, for example, I turn to films like Patton, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line or The Guns of Navarone. Even Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, based on the book by Louis de Bernières is a great film that sheds light on a bit of little-known history of the war on the Greek island of Cephalonia. Everyone has their favourites.

So, today, I raise my cup to the fallen heroes of the past and present. To my grandfathers and grandmothers who suffered and fought through the World Wars, to my cousin who lost her brave husband so recently in Kandahar, one of the cities founded by Alexander himself.

To the glorious Dead, thank you, now and always….

Normandy Graveyard for American Troops

Memorial at Thermopylae