I asked to review this book because although it is one of many commemorating the Great War, it is a diary written by a father, edited by his son, and therefore a very personal memoir of great events. I was not disappointed. From the front cover, depicting a 16 year old soldier and friend of the author, to the quality paper, layout of the pages, with plenty of space at the top and around the paragraphs, the book has a personal feel. Many of the author’s sayings to his son are reported, and ring true of today’s soldiery, as do the reactions to death, destruction and general embuggerances by the Army.
- Richard Llewellyn Davies and Haydn Llewellyn Davies
I marked dozens of pages for inclusion in the review, which would make it inordinately long.
Highlights include the young soldier about to embark for France and wondering whether he would be up to the task, his reaction on heading into the line and description of an Irish battalion seen coming down for some R&R as the Monmouths arrived in France. I enjoyed the occasional quotes from the ‘Wipers Times’ and the references to daily life in and out of the line.
The writing style is very simple, almost childlike, which makes for easy reading, although the text deals with some very serious and complex matters. It’s hard to put oneself into the mindset of a young man wrenched from a tiny Welsh Village into the mincing machine of the Western Front, but the author’s language and writing style go a long way to engaging the reader. His description of being fed fish and chips from newspaper for the first time and the life behind the lines being described as ‘holidays’ are endearing. Throughout the book one feels very close to the writer as he describes the ‘small matters’ that history books ignore, such as meals, lice, laundry and the amount of drill, cleaning and boredom that are involved in training for deployment.
The author learned quickly from older soldiers who had been in the trenches already – for example if German machine guns are firing high it’s because they have a patrol out, so be extra wary when in your listening post to avoid capture. The descriptions of preparations for battle are interesting, and his description of breakfast – one egg, a bacon rasher and a rissole, with a slice of bread you could dip in the bacon fat if you were nice to the cook, puts some of PAYD’s offerings to shame.
Having fought at Second Ypres, the Monmouthshires moved on to the Somme in time for June 1916 and his description of the battle and more of how he felt physically and mentally afterwards, is very moving. I am in awe of his pride that they held on and never gave thought to not doing so, both then and throughout later battles. He reports those shot at dawn for ‘cowardice’ in an unsentimental and understanding way, but feels he couldn’t have let his mates down. This sentiment also occurs in ‘Somme Mud’ by EPF Lynch, another very personal memoir, by an Australian soldier. The British Army’s structure based around fighting for your mates, your company, battalion and regiment certainly works! Later in the book he explores his own feelings as he felt himself ‘on edge’ when on home leave, and how he dealt with the restless and angry feelings by long walks in the lovely countryside near his home.
I was saddened several times about the attrition rate. Although very familiar with the large numbers of casualties in this war, the loss of 110 from one Company, two thirds of a battalion and 8 of the 9 men who joined up from his home village, make for very sombre reading. He also shows sympathy for German soldiers, who he said were never heard singing in their trenches again after the Somme. At Passchendaele he wonders why they still marched forward in three rows, shoulder to shoulder, when the Allies had perfected the techniques of open order advance, creeping barrage and other ways to reduce casualties. After six weeks on the Somme his battalion was disbanded and he along with others transferred to the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was lucky enough to get leave at this point and describes the difficulties of travel, the constant checking of passes to be sure he was moving back legally, and the emotion of meeting with the mother of his best friend, who had been killed.
Other things don’t appear to have changed in the British Army – apparently when Mills Bombs were introduced, bombing squads were called ‘grenadiers’. The Guards Brigade pleaded with the King, their Colonel-in-Chief, and they were renamed ‘bombing squads’. The damned impertinence of infantry!
He touches on the Germans’ ‘scorched earth’ policy as they withdrew, and its effect on the civilian population as well as on the soldiery finding lethal booby traps. He points out that although absolutely desperate on withdrawal from Mons and in 1918, British Troops refrained from such underhand actions.
After the Somme, he returned to Ypres, and describes improved training and communications, proving that senior Officers were learning from experience and new techniques were being introduced to deal with modern warfare. He praises the Royal Engineers for the detail of their scale models.
Although prepared for the ignition of mines at Messines Ridge, his description of his feelings before the battle, of the mines exploding, and how they ran forward after the explosion to find frightened and shocked German soldiers show that nothing could have prepared them fully for what happened.
After Messines and another spot of home leave, he returned to France, where Army incompetence/ individual intransigence resulted in his being posted to the Royal Navy. Having wangled a way to return to his unit, he was put on a charge for being AWOL whilst being in the Navy! Even worse, colleagues addressed him as ‘Hello Sailor’!
I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Great War, particularly told from the soldier’s point of view. Historians give us the big picture, but the tiny minutiae of an infantryman’s life answer the questions of how men raised themselves to do extraordinary things during exceptional times. I thank Haydn Llewellyn Davies for his patience and love in producing such a wonderful memorial to his father.
Five mushroom heads, and a repetition of a poem quoted in the book.
Shall I see them coming, coming
In their ragged broken line
Walking wounded in the sunlight,
Clothed in majesty divine.
For the fairer of the lilies,
That God’s summer ever sees
Ne’er was clothed in royal beauty
such as decks the least of these.
Tattered, torn and bloody khaki,
Gleams of white flesh in the sun,
Raiment worthy of their beauty,
And the great things they have done.
Purple robes and snowy linen
Have for earthly kings sufficed,
But these bloody sweaty tatters
Were the robes of Jesus Christ
G A Studdert Kennedy
Aka ‘Woodbine Willie’