Review of “Stars in a dark night”

Stars in a dark night: Hornsea and the Great War
by Barrie S. Barnes
published by Helion & Company in 2019
paperback ISBN 978 1 912174 99 7
162 pages plus sources, bibliography, index. Illustrated.

This is a study of the effect of the war on the pleasant little East Yorkshire seaside town of Hornsea, half way between Hull and Bridlington. I have two memories of the last time I was there, just a couple of years ago: despite it being summer time, I was caught in a howling gale with rain which soaked to my bones; and I saw the newish and large town war memorial, erected in 2008, for the first time. A nice and fitting piece of work. The first 66 pages of the book provide an overview of the history of the town, while the rest of the book is a compilation of biographies of Hornsea’s dead.

It is apparent that Hornsea’s war was typical in most regards: the strain and deprivations of war, with many shortages and increasing loss of normal liberties; rumours, anxiety and fear of “aliens”; the pain of loss of family and friends; the changes in society and norms. But it was also atypical, in that some of the North Sea towns came under enemy fire and there was a seaward threat; that it was also on the inbound route for Zeppelin bombers; and that the area around about the town become part of a vast army training base. The history as written takes us through the chronology, dipping into local newspapers, diaries, letters and other sources for a taste of individual experience.  I would have liked to see more about the army camps nearby and the effect of the presence of so many young men on the town, its womenfolk and economy, but perhaps that is for another day. The story would perhaps have benefited from suggestions by someone who could pick out the small details of military history, for there are a few things that made me raise an eyebrow or two in this regard (such as the Hulls Pals being in town before they were actually raised), but overall this does not diminish the work.

The biographical section is arranged alphabetically by surname. Each provides details of the man, his story and as far as possible an identification of the  battle or action in which he died. The war memorials on which the man is named are also listed, and I found this rather repetitive: I think I would have preferred a single list of the memorials and cross-referencing to them. Apart from anything else it would have reduced the book by a few pages in length! But that is simply a matter of style and personal preference.

As with many similar local studies, by the end I was wanting to know much more about those who did not die. Yes, certainly, studies of those lost are important, educational and proper, but they represent a minority and in some ways do not represent the experience of a town at war. What of Hornsea’s employers, the traders, the local workers, the itinerants and the displaced? The soldiers sent to train here? The nurses, the local volunteers. The soldiers and sailors who came home, many maimed or mentally scarred? They deserve a study too. Perhaps one day someone will write their story, but for now “Stars in a dark night” is worth reading.

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