It's a collection of 100 obituaries of soldiers, sailors and airmen, published between 1987 and 2002. They are printed in order of publication, which is understandable but also a little confusing - it would actually have made a more interesting read to put them in chronological order of birth, to tell the story of the wars of the last century in sequence. (I am intrigued by the occasional mentions of the Waziristan campaign, for instance, but never found out when or why it was fought.) As it is, the last two entries in the book were born in 1920 (claim to fame: parachuting mules behind enemy lines in Burma in 1944) and 1896 (claim to fame: taking command of his company in 1915 after all the officers were killed).
There are some very interesting stories here: Colonel Merrylees and his successful dowsing for water; Major Pringle, who escaped six times from POW camps; Sir Walter Walker, who attempted to organise against civil disorder in the 1970s. There are also a couple of authors whose books I have at least leafed through, General Sir John Hackett and Lord Carver. But the overall impression I was left with was quite a different one: how easy it is for one's whole life to be defined (and afterwards remembered) by a crucial period of a day, an hour, or even five minutes in which you are put to the test. Thank God, I am unlikely to have to make decisions in a situation where lives depend on my choice.
Of course, even for us lefty liberal types, the military are not very far away. My father, born in 1928, was just old enough to have done National Service, though he rarely talked about it; his father, born in 1880, was a younger son of faded gentry stock, and had "no option" but to join the army. He fought in the Boer War, survived Gallipoli in 1915, won a medal from the Serbs for the Macedonia campaign later that year, moved to Malaya to try (and fail) to make a living as a rubber planter, and finally dropped dead beside my father in church one day in 1949. Reading this book has made me feel closer to the man I never knew, who gave me a quarter of my genes and my surname. But I must finish up now, as his great-grandson wants another turn at the computer.