2014. The year seems familiar already as this date has been discussed so often. And whatever happens in the independence referendum, we know that 2014 will be a year we’ll always remember in Scotland.
Strange then, that it’s also a year which will itself see a great deal of remembering, as events take place to mark one hundred years since another unforgettable year, 1914. There will be debate about the nature, tone and purpose of such events. For me, there’s an interesting synchronicity in the fact that 2014 will see the publication of my great-aunt Christina Keith’s memoir of her time in France towards the end of the First World War, lecturing to the troops.
I hadn’t particularly planned it that way, but I’m glad now that Christina’s story will join all those others, as it explores a very different aspect of life on the Western Front from that which initially comes to mind.
When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, Christina was 25 years old and about to take up her first position as a lecturer at Armstrong College in Newcastle. Life in the College, as elsewhere, would soon be thrown into turmoil by the sheer scale of this conflict. As part of my research into Christina’s story I read the diaries of her Professor in Newcastle. On August 5 1914, while on holiday, he wrote:
We wake to find ourselves a nation at war with Germany. Germany would not agree to guarantee the inviolability of Belgium to which she is pledged by treaty like Britain; and so late last night Britain announced that a state of war existed between her and Germany. Arnold and I fished for a time in heavy rain.
Christina’s classes took place here in the Lit & Phil Society building as Armstrong College was requisitioned as a military hospital.
Christina’s memoir is not primarily a story of blood and guts and glory – but then, not everyone fought on the front line, but everyone was affected by the war. Christina’s memoirs tell a fascinating story of an extraordinary few months in her life which, while being laced with the sorrow and weariness of four years of conflict, were unexpectedly liberating.
War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front will be published on 3 March 2014. For me it’s another reason that this should be a memorable year!
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