Review of “In which they served”

In which they served: the stories of five men and women of the Great War as told by their medals
by Richard Cullen
Published by Unicorn Publishing in 2020
Hardback ISBN 978 1 913 491 031
315 pages including chapter end notes, plus references and end notes
Reviewed by Chris Baker
With thanks to Unicorn for sending me a copy to see.

Take a set of medals, not even the full-size ones but the dress miniatures. You do not necessarily even know the original recipient, for miniatures do not have the inscribed details of names and regiments. But based on the particular combination of awards that they represent, and through painstaking research, not only identify the individual but unfold their life story. That is the premise of “In which they served”, and a jolly good read it is, soo.

Richard Cullen tells the story of just five individuals in the book, and at first glance I did wonder how it would be possible for that to spin out to a book amounting to just over 300 pages. I need not have been concerned, for the biographies are engaging and well told, with the exploits of the individuals being placed into sound historical context. The author’s research was assisted by access to private papers, some from family and others from the archive of the Imperial War Museum, as well as service and other records.

We first meet with Richard Trevethan MC, an officer originally of the 6th South Lancashire Regiment who saw service at Gallipoli, went on to the Somme, transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, and flying service with 20 Squadron. He later went with Syren Force to North Russia in 1919, moved on to Iraq and spent the rest of a long and interesting life in Falmouth. Now you can see why, given that this is all unfolded with good explanation including maps, how it can easily take some 70-odd pages.

The other stories are equally fascinating. From Lucie Toller MM, a sister of the Queen Alexandria’s Imperial Military Nursing Service who spent four years in France working at hospitals on on an ambulance train, earning the Military Medal for her bravery in an air raid on Etaples in 1918, we go through to the others including my favourite of the stories in Emily Kemp. Born in 1860 and an Oxford scholar and student of the Slade School of art, she had travelled unusually widely by the time of the Great War. Educated at home and in Germany, Emily had spent much time in China and had been to India at least twice, involved in missionary work. When war came, she recruited nurses and soon became deeply involved for the next four years with the French military hospital at Arc-en-Barrois. These are stories worth telling.

A book from which I learned much, and one I can certainly recommend to anyone and not just those with an interest in the war. It provides a context, albeit an important one, to stories that are fundamentally about people, family, spirit, fortitude, opportunity and relationships.