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Into The Silence

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Over the next few weeks, the Huffington Post will run excerpts from the five finalist books vying for the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Each of the authors has personally chosen the excerpt for our readers, and in his or her intro, explains the choice. After all the excerpts have run, Huffpost readers will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite book in advance of the announcement of the 2012 prize winner on March 5.

Intro from the author:

On June 8, 1924, George Mallory, aged 37, and his young companion, Sandy Irvine, just 22, crested the northeast ridge of Everest and were going strong for the summit when the mist rolled in and enveloped their memory in myth. Never were they seen alive again. Whether they reached the summit of the world before meeting their end has long haunted the mountaineering community.

But I was never really interested in that question. I wanted to know who these men were, and what was the spirit that carried them to Everest. I knew that most, if not all, had been exposed to the agony of the Great War. They were not cavalier, but death had no hold on them, and they were prepared to accept a degree of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war. They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.

I set out to determine where each man had been every day of the war, and to ascertain to the extent possible what each one had experienced. Twenty had seen the worst of the fighting. In 1924, Jack Hazard climbed to the North Col with blood soaking his undergarments from open wounds that would never heal. Howard Somervell, Mallory's closest friend on the mountain, had as a surgeon at the Somme found himself surrounded by six acres of dying boys, stacked like cordwood, as one recalled. He never returned from Everest, and as a medical missionary in India, dedicated his life to saving the living that he might sweep away all memories of the dead.

Among the most compelling figures was Geoffrey Young, Mallory's mentor and the finest climber of his era. Young might have been on the Everest expeditions, had he not lost his left leg to an Austrian shell while serving on the Isonzo Front in Italy. Before the war, Young had brought together each year the finest minds of a new generation at Pen y Pass in Wales. By day they would climb, and by night they would sing, recite poetry, debate, and argue. From the first gathering in 1903, he had recorded each in a photographic album. Of the honed and beautiful faces, no fewer than 23 of the men would be killed in the war; another 11 so severely wounded that to climb again they would have to overcome immense physical impediments, just as Young himself had done. In 1920 he dedicated a book to 50 friends who had died, some on mountains, but most in the trenches.

Young spent the first months of the war in Ypres, even as streams of human misery -- refugees fleeing the German terror -- flooded the roads of Belgium. In the remnants of the town wandered wounded and stunned British soldiers, caked in mud, crawling and choking through the shell-blistered streets. Beyond the front the leprous earth was scattered with the swollen and blackened corpses of hundreds of young men, and hovering over everything was the appalling stench of rotten carrion.

Young was there on April 22, 1915, when the Germans attacked using poison gas for the first time.

"The bombardment seemed heavier and more menacing...I walked uneasily through our wards and offices. A wounded soldier, in the half coma we knew later as shell shock, was being tended and was muttering continuously 'White faces...the moonlight...white faces'...I went out. I could see figures running back, the yellow pale of cloud was higher, and again dots of figures in khaki were hurrying forward across the fields out to the northeast of us...the wounded began to pour in...the first poison gas sufferers. This horror was too monstrous to believe at first...But when it came, far as we had traveled from our civilized world of a few months back, the savagery of it, of the sight of men choking to death with yellow froth, lying on the floor and out on the fields, made me rage with an anger which no later cruelty of man, not even the degradation of our kind by the hideous concentration camps in later Germany, ever quite rekindled; for then we still thought all men were human."

This book came about because of my reverence for these men. It is called Into the Silence because there are two forgotten aspects of the war. First, how putrid was the Front. The stench of rotten flesh mingled with the sweet scent of violets, which was a sign of poison gas and thus also a premonition of death. And then there was the incessant noise, a constant and physical assault on the senses. At Waterloo, 20,000 canon shots were fired. At Passchendaele 3,000 British guns fired more than four million shells, five tons of high explosive for every yard of German trench. In the mud of Flanders it created such a quagmire that attacking troops had to walk upon the dead, skipping over the remains of cadavers simply to advance. In three months, 400,000 would be lost to advance the line five miles. The corpses of some 90,000 were recovered too mutilated to be identified. Another 42,000 British boys simply disappeared without a trace.

GEOFFREY WINTHROP YOUNG had been at Zermatt climbing with Herford during the soft summer of 1914, when all of Europe glowed with weather so beautiful and fine that it would be remembered for a generation, invoked by all those who sought to recall a time before the world became a place of mud and sky, with only the zenith sun to remind the living that they had not already been buried and left for dead. Stunned by a mix of emotions, horror, incredulity, morbid anticipation, fear, and confusion, Young returned from Switzerland to London to find "the writing of madmen already on the wall. I attended the peace meeting in Trafalgar Square, the last protest of those who had grown up in the age of civilized peace: and then the dogs of war were off in full cry." Forty years later, near the end of his days, he would write, "After the hardening effects of two wars it is difficult to recall the devastating collapse of the structure of life, and all its standards, which the recrudescence of barbarous warfare denoted for our generation."

He had been born to a privileged life, the third son of Sir George Young of Formosa Place, a stately 18th-century house of gardens and roses perched as a flagship on the banks of the River Thames. His mother was Irish, a splendid storyteller and a great hostess, and their home regularly welcomed such luminaries as Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and the hero of Mafeking, the poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson, and Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist and enigmatic champion of human rights who would be knighted in 1911 for exposing the atrocities in the Belgium Congo only to be hanged for treason in 1916. Of his three siblings, he was closest to his younger brother Hilton, who would lose an arm in the war. His childhood was one of action and fantasy, endless days outside in all weather and all seasons amongst the bitter cherries and silver beeches, the weeping willows and ancient yews of a country setting that inspired within him a love of colour and nature, rivers and the wind, mountains, water, and rain. He never practiced religion in an orthodox sense, but all of his life was infused with a celebratory quest for the wonder of life and friendship, the sheer vitality of being human and alive.

At Marlborough, a school that would send 733 boys to die in the trenches, he was known for his good looks, his poetry, and remarkable athletic abilities. At Cambridge he became a climber, both of mountains and the gothic rooftops of the university colleges. His impish side penned anonymously the Roof Climber's Guide to Trinity, thus beginning a long tradition of illicit midnight scrambles over slate and lead and gargoyles. Following graduation in 1898 he went abroad, living for three years in France and Germany, becoming fluent in both languages. His true affection was for Germany; he translated into English the ballads of Schiller, the devotional poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1902 he returned to England to take a teaching position at Eton, where he met a young John Maynard Keynes, who would later join him on climbing trips the Alps.

Young first encountered George Mallory in 1909 at a Cambridge dinner. At Easter he invited Mallory to Pen y Pass, and the following summer the two went off at Young's expense to the Alps where they were joined by Donald Robertson, a close friend and peer of Geoffrey's brother Hilton. They climbed a number of peaks, none more dramatic than the South East Ridge of the Nesthorn, where Mallory nearly died. He was leading at the time, inching his way across fluted ice, seeking a route around the third of the four great towers that blocked the way up the ridge. Young would later recall his sudden astonishment: "I saw the boots flash from the wall without even a scrape; and, equally soundlessly, a grey streak flickered downward, and past me, and out of sight. So much did the wall, to which he had clung so long, overhang that from the instant he lost hold he touched nothing until the rope stopped him in mid-air over the glacier. I had had time to think, as I flung my body forward on to the belayed rope, grinding it and my hands against the slab, that no rope could stand such a jerk; and even to think out what our next action must be -- so instantaneous is thought." Miraculously the rope held and Mallory was uninjured.

In another book, On High Hills, Young would remember and praise his companions on that dramatic climb. "To both of them life was a treasure of value; but it was also a talent to be reinvested for the profit of others. Neither hesitated to risk the loss of his share in it, if by doing so he could help to keep the great spirit of human adventure alive in the world." Robertson would die a year later on a rock face in Wales. A chapel would be built in his memory, and a monument erected within sight of the cliffs where he fell, and a trust established to bring English youth to the hills. Such were the sensibilities in the years immediately before the war, a time when powerful and virile men could speak of love and beauty without shame, and sunsets and sunrises had yet to become, as the painter Paul Nash would write, "mockeries to man," blasphemous moments, preludes to death.

The next excerpt, from JJ Lee's The Measure of a Man, will be posted on Monday.

Keep watching this spot for news of the others, and information on when it's time to vote!

Learn about the other nominees:

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