Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Extinguished Flame: Olympians Killed in the Great War by Nigel McCrery

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 5, 2016

In August 2016 the world will be spellbound by the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as 10,500 athletes from 206 countries compete in 306 events. Tracing their origins back to the Greeks in 776 BC, the history of the Olympics is a glorious one but it has had its darker moments.During the First World War no fewer than 135 Olympians perished. Many had won Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. They came not just from the UK, Germany, France, USA but from all over the globe.Wyndham Halswelle, killed in action on 31 March 1915, won a Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in both field and track events. The Frenchman Leon Flameng, the fastest cyclist ever, died on 2 January 1917, having won Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in the 1896 Olympics. The German Fritz Bartholomae, killed in action 12 September 1915, won a Bronze in the rowing eights during the 1912 Olympics. The list of these heroes goes on and on. Each Olympian, who made the supreme sacrifice, is honored in this magnificent book by a summary of their life, sporting achievement and manner of their death.

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George Eric Fairbairn
I jumped when I stumbled over Nigel McCrery’s The Extinguished Flame: Olympians Killed in the Great War. It sounds disrespectful considering the subject matter, but I enjoy stories of those who served on the front lines and I especially like those volumes that treat them as individuals rather than military units.

McCrery uncovered a lot of forgotten stories in this volume. I can’t imagine the level of research that went into it, but I think the author’s dedication quite obvious. The book is section by year – 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918 – with each Olympian chronicled in order by their date of death. The bios include general details about each athlete with specific information about their service and the Games and events in which they competed. Where possible the author also included photos of each Olympian.

Personally, I quite liked the volume and think it offers an interesting snapshot of lives cut short by the Great War. That said, I found the presentation a little dry and unbalanced. Some of the bios are a few pages long while others are only a few paragraphs. One can’t blame the author for this, there simply a lot of information out there on some of these individuals, but as a reader I was frustrated that some stories are very well-documented while other lives boiled down to only a few lines.

I found the writing itself a little bland and didn’t appreciate how the flow felt punctuated as if the author were hitting bullet points with each statement, but I think the book rather insightful just the same and I would definitely recommend it as resource to anyone interested in the men who gave their lives to the Great War.

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People are not numbers on some casualty list, so many lost on this day, so many on that, they are people who had jobs and lives, and who loved and were loved.
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