Lyn Macdonald, the pioneering military historian, has died

The author of They Called It Passchendaele, who "set the standard for a generation" of writers, has died age 91.

A photograph of Yaa Gyasi surrounded by the flowers and patterns of her book cover
Yaa Gyasi. Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

The historian Lyn Macdonald died on Monday 1 March. She was 91 years old, and is survived by her husband Ian, and children Aline, Alastair and Michael.

After leaving her job as a BBC Radio producer in 1973, Macdonald established a reputation as one of the most highly regarded historians of the First World War. In a largely male-dominated field, then as now, she stood out as a pioneering and distinctive female voice; in 2016, Antony Beevor said of her that “Lyn Macdonald’s books on the First World War set the standard for a generation”. Her superb chronicles of popular history were notable for their extensive use of eyewitness and survivor accounts, and she drew on oceans of contemporary letters and diaries as well as capturing the memories of a dwindling supply of veterans. In doing so, she cast a unique light on the experiences of the ordinary ‘Tommy’ in the wider context of the First World War, documenting the innocence of a lost generation and bringing to life the disillusionment, the questioning and the heroism of the men of the British Army. “My intention,” she said, “has been to tune in to the heartbeat of the experience of the people who lived through it.”

Her first book, They Called It Passchendaele, was an oral history of the 1917 Passchendaele campaign that gathered testimonies from over 600 participants to portray the human realities behind one of the most disastrous events in the history of warfare. She then wrote The Roses of No Man’s Land, a chronicle of the war from the neglected viewpoint of the casualties and the medical teams who struggled to save them. It later served as the inspiration for the memorable BBC drama, The Crimson Field; the director, Sarah Phelps, spoke of how the book “opened a door on to both the military nurses and also these girls who came from these Edwardian drawing rooms and were thrown into this extraordinary explosive and horrifying and exhilarating world.”

These books were followed by Somme, a history of the legendary and horrifying battle that has haunted the minds of succeeding generations; 1914, a vivid account of the first months of the war and winner of the 1987 Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award; 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War, an illuminating account of the many different aspects of the war; and 1915: The Death of Innocence, a brilliant evocation of the year that saw the terrible losses of Aubers Ridge, Loos, Neuve Chapelle, Ypres and Gallipoli. Her last book was To the Last Man: Spring 1918.

Building on more than two decades of research, Macdonald had the rare talent of conveying the poignancy and heroism of front-line soldiers’ experiences and describing what it was that enabled those who survived to get through it. Her stories were vivid, harrowing, sometimes terrifying – yet shot through with humour, immense courage, comradeship, high spirits and an astonishing spirit of resilience and hope.

Eleo Gordon, who was Macdonald’s editor at Viking for over two decades, said, “Lyn Macdonald was one of the best – a great BBC Radio presenter and interviewer of countless Old Soldiers (as she called them), whose remarkable memories grew into her books on the First World War. Her care and close attention drew out the innermost thoughts and memories of those soldiers’ experiences and influenced so many of today’s historians.

“For her last book, To the Last Man: Spring 1918 we decided to set off in a minibus for the Front, staying in local hotels, days out in the fields, finding old redoubts, overgrown trenches, you name it, with the evenings spent in a large huddle around Lyn as she recounted her wonderful stories of the old boys she had interviewed and a portrait of the past long gone. I will miss her but maybe now she will meet up with all her Old Soldiers.”

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