From the series “Star Shell Reflections” Volumes 1 to 3.
- Jim Maultsaid
This is the third and final volume of the illustrated diaries of a young Irish officer in WW1. Having signed up early in the war, quickly making it to Sergeant he was wounded so severely at the Somme that he was declared not fit for front line duties. He was commissioned and sent to the Chinese Labour Corps to command a platoon of Chinese Labourers of the Chinese Labour Corps. The CLC was a strange organisation brought together purely to supply labour for the movement of stores and equipment, in particular for this Platoon, petrol in ever increasing amounts due to the mechanisation of the army and the new air element of the RFC/RAF.
The diaries are not the usual, descriptions of the writer’s day etc with the odd battle map thrown in. No, these are observations of life as it went on around Maultsaid, mostly through sketches and some grainy photographs. They are accompanied by short paragraphs, almost captions, for the artwork. Some of it is as he saw it at the time, some is from stories told to him be men returning from the front, through his depot.
The Platoon consisted of one British officer, a British sergeant and some British corporals and about 200 Chinese labourers with a head ganger to lead them and translate. Unlike many of his fellow officers, Maultsaid actually learns a bit of the language of his labourers and tries to get to know them. From this he produces a very hard working and efficient squad of gangers able to take on any tasks thrown at them. He takes great pride in his Platoon and the work they do, often setting them against other platoons and building up a huge esprit de corps among his men. They in turn liked him and would take on any task he set them.
This book is mainly about 1918, the push back by the Germans followed by the 100 days battle which saw the end of the war with the Germans beaten. Each event gave different and difficult roles to the Platoon, coming under aerial attack during the German push then having to work even harder to keep up supplies as the front line moved back again. All very well documented, with illustrations.
At the war’s end, Maultsaid is elated then deflated because he is not sent home. Indeed he did not leave France until early 1920 with the CLC being retained to return stores, clean up battlefields and generally do the labouring work required to get life back to normal. Maultsaid’s own frustrations come across very well as he sees his fellow officers going back to be demobbed and he is stuck in France.
Eventually his turn comes around and he leaves his Platoon which was a very moving event, with special gifts from the Chinese being made to him. Maultsaid’s admiration for the Chinese and the work they did for little reward comers over throughout the book, he admires there ethos of hard work while at the same time recognising their faults – gambling being a huge one and one he fights to ensure that some of the money can go home to the Platoons’ families in China!
I reviewed Volume Two of this series of diaries for Arrse (War! Hellish War!) and will now look out Vol One to make the set as these are a very unusual look at an aspect of the Great War that is rarely touched on.
I gave Vol 2 four stars and see no reason to reduce that now.