There is a wealth (some might say an overburden) of information available on the First World War, and of the conditions under which men lived and fought. This book is a selection of quotations from a series of interviews with veterans of that war, a project supervised by the author, Peter Hart, on behalf of the Imperial War Museum. It is worth reading because it is the story of ordinary men.
- Peter Hart
Because the surviving more senior officers and NCOs had died by the 1980s and 1990s means that the accounts are by junior soldiers, NCOs and officers. This does not detract from the power of their reminiscences. The constant presence of impending death or wounding together with the initial fear, which often became a stoic indifference is well brought out. Less often humour rises to the surface, but it is a black humour for the most part.
Almost everywhere that soldiers went in that terrible war meant that they were in the presence of the dead - corpses that stank, erupted, rotted, burst - and they could not risk their own lives to bury the remains. They lived in mud or sand, the endured conditions that were simply beyond comprehension to today's reader - even to today's soldier.
The book contains many accounts of the theatres of war - not just the Western Front. Gallipoli was a particularly ill-managed and badly fought campaign and brought the horrors of heat, the Gaza campaign was similar; on the Western Front rain and mud, machine-guns and wire, artillery and mines (the subterranean type) all combined to create a warfare which was medieval, barbaric and deadly.
On top of all these terrors there was disease, accidental death (particularly in flooded shell holes) and little or no relief for the men from the constant pressure. Imposed on all British and Commonwealth soldiers were the problems relating to the ground - for many years the Germans (and the Turks) held the high ground. Frontal attacks were the norm - outflanking movements were impossible due to the continuous trench lines.
Any reader of this book can only wonder whether the men that fought in the so-called Great War were of a different stamp to today's soldier. The class system of that period was a burden which produced an unthinking obedience, and an acceptance of awful conditions. Today's soldier, thanks to improved protection, firepower and mobility does not have to endure the siege warfare of the western front, but he is no less the soldier for that - and he is encouraged to use his own intelligence and initiative. This could not have happened between 19124 and 1918 - the most experienced were already dead.
But it must be said that this book leaves a distaste in this reader that men should be sacrificed in their millions for the sake of national posturing, and made to attack unbroken wire and machine guns with little more that a bayonet.
Read it and weep.