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Lyn Macdonald, acclaimed chronicler of World War I, dies at 91

Lyn Macdonald, a self-schooled British historian who interviewed thousands of World War I veterans and trekked across the battlefields where they had fought, collecting her findings in celebrated books that chronicled the Great War from the perspective of the common man and woman, died March 1 at her home in the village of Bottisham, near Cambridge, England. She was 91.

She had cancer, said her son Alastair McNeilage.

In an era when the most popular works of military history consisted largely of “big books by blokes about battles” — as the British classicist Mary Beard once put it — Ms. Macdonald was a notable exception: a woman who delved into the lives of the individuals behind the offensives to become, in a description from the Times of London, “the recording angel of the common soldier.”

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A former radio and television producer, Ms. Macdonald became interested in the First World War in 1973, when she accompanied the aging veterans of a British rifle brigade to a commemoration on the battlefields of Flanders. What began as research for a half-hour BBC documentary became her life’s work.

For the next 25 years, Ms. Macdonald devoted herself with seemingly single-minded passion to recording the experiences of the participants in World War I — not high officers and statesmen, but rather the soldiers, nurses and other ordinary people who went off to war in many cases with stars in their eyes but none on their shoulders. Their long-overlooked stories, she once told the Guardian, had left a “great, unhewn seam of memory and information on the war.”

In hundreds of hours of interviews, which filled hundreds of pages in her books, Ms. Macdonald demonstrated a journalistic ability to earn the trust of her sources, and the reportorial virtue of patiently listening until they revealed the one pulsing detail that gave life to their story.

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“What I was after was experience,” Ms. Macdonald said in an interview about her book “Somme” (1983), an account of the 1916 British and French offensive that became one of the deadliest battles in military history.

“The Americans have this phrase of ‘telling it like it was,’ " she continued. “It’s when [the veterans] start telling you how your head itched after having had a tin hat on for ten days practically all the time.”

One former gunner, recalling a bombardment during the Battle of Guillemont, described to her the “ping” of the vibrations on his helmet.

“It rang like a tuning fork,” Ms. Macdonald said, recalling his words to her, “and after a bit it went right down into your nerves, this constant ping, ping, ping . . . "

Ms. Macdonald made her literary debut in 1978 with “They Called It Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres and of the Men who Fought in It.” Other volumes, taken together, produced a chronological history of the war: “1914: The Days of Hope” (1987), “1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War” (1988), “1915: The Death of Innocence” (1993) and “To the Last Man: Spring 1918” (1998).

Ms. Macdonald challenged students of history to reach beyond the poetry, however affecting, that had mythologized the “Flanders fields [where] poppies blow” and to give World War I veterans the “courtesy . . .of trying to understand their world” in all its particularities.

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“What she did was engage with veterans when they were still alive and compos mentis,” Hew Strachan, a noted British military historian, said in an interview. “She heard their stories directly. She befriended them.” Ms. Macdonald was among the first historians to consider war “from the bottom up,” he added, and was one of few women of her era working in military history at all.

Her book “The Roses of No Man’s Land” (1980) described the experiences of the young women who, she wrote, “walked straight out of Edwardian drawing rooms into the manifold horrors of the First World War” as nurses, as well as those of the wounded men to whom they tended.

Writer Wendy Kaminer, reviewing the book for the New York Times, described the volume as “a remarkable collection of the wartime letters, journals and reminiscences of nurses, doctors and their patients, framed wisely in an unobtrusive narrative of events.”

In all, Ms. Macdonald was said to have interviewed 3,000 veterans of World War I and consulted the letters and diaries of many more. In the end, “Lyn MacDonald’s books on the First World War set the standard for a generation,” historian Antony Beevor wrote in the Guardian in 2016, when the newspaper published a series of commentaries on the dearth of female authors in military history. At the root of her talents, he observed, was “empathy and understanding.”

“Military history was always a boring subject when written by former generals trying to impose order on a battlefield as if it were a chess game,” Beevor wrote in an email.

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“Lyn showed that you did not need to be a former soldier or even a man to write well about war,” he continued. “And she was one of the first who showed, as the great Sir Michael Howard argued, that we should not be military historians in the old sense, but historians of war, by which he meant that we should not just be writing about soldiers and tactics, but about everyone caught up in war, including of course women and children. I think it was this change in the subject which encouraged other women to venture into the field and open it up, as was so badly needed.”

Evelyn Mary Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 31, 1929. Her mother was a homemaker. Her father, an engineer, served in an auxiliary to the Royal Air Force during World War II, landing in Normandy shortly after the D-Day invasion.

Ms. Macdonald later studied as an exchange student in France, where she lived with the family that had quartered her father during the war, according to an obituary published in the Guardian. To the best of her family’s knowledge, her son said, she had no relatives who served in World War I.

Ms. Macdonald did not attend college, her son said, and worked for Scottish Television and ITV before joining BBC, where she worked on shows including BBC Radio 4′s “Woman’s Hour.” She left the broadcast field in 1973 to pursue her books full time.

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Ms. Macdonald was married in 1964 to Ian Ross McNeilage. Besides her husband, of Bottisham, survivors include three children, Alastair McNeilage of the town of Saffron Walden, near Cambridge, Aline McNeilage of London and Michael McNeilage of Marlborough, Wiltshire; five grandsons; and nine great-grandchildren.

By the end of her writing career, Ms. Macdonald had witnessed a renewed fascination among Britons in World War I. People increasingly made pilgrimages to battlefields in France and Belgium, seeking information or insight about the fate of family members who had served in the conflict.

Their enduring curiosity revealed the truth of the words uttered by an anguished nurse when the armistice was declared in November 1918, amid an influenza pandemic that left her with no spirit to celebrate.

“Here we are at the end of the war,” she said, in an observation that Ms. Macdonald committed to history, “but we’re not at the end of the grief.”