- Jacqueline Wadsworth
- ARRSE Rating
- 2 Mushroom Heads
The author is not a military specialist and sometimes omits to include sufficient detail of location and context of a letter. She appears to view the casualty rates as far higher than they actually were and has chosen to omit any reference to gallantry awards received by any of the correspondents because “there must have been an enormous number who deserved recognition but went unnoticed.” The book’s structure means that most pages contain more of her words than extracts from letters.
The extracts from the trenches are fairly dry and matter of fact about fighting, if it is mentioned at all. Commentary on the weather, quality of billets and the other myriad factors of life in the field abound. A few extracts convey a deeper sense – a (public school educated) officer writing to thank his family for a hamper but directing them to send gifts to soldiers, not him. The author seizes on a protracted correspondence from a cavalry sergeant who was court martialled, convicted and pardoned of drunkenness. He writes well but his experience is hardly typical.
The wider context of the book includes letters from soldiers in home based units, both training and garrison artillery as well as letters from Empire servicemen commenting on England. There are also letters from wives and sweethearts to soldiers. The extracts are generally printed verbatim, as they should be. The author has chosen to then highlight grammatical errors with [sic] every time they happen. Why she does this I do not know; they impede the flow and give the impression that the author is sneering at some of her selected correspondent’s literary levels. It is infuriating. She also places explanatory notes in square brackets in the text, rather than covering it in her prose or foot notes. Most extracts are separately indented; some are not which is tiresome.
This book seeks to portray almost the entire war from extracts of letters of fewer than one hundred correspondents. At least a quarter of the letters are not from the trenches at all. It does give a general feeling of what the war felt like to some of the protagonists, who may or may not have been typical, and it is easy enough to read. But having read it the average reader will not have gained much knowledge or understanding of the First World War. It is disappointing.