Reviews: memoirs and biographies

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Joffrey's war : a Sherwood Forester in the Great War
by Geoffrey Ratcliff Husbands
edited and introduced by J. M. Bourne and Bob Bushaway
published by Salient Books, 2012
ISBN 978 0 9564439 8 4
cover price - not stated but £25 at www.salientbooks.co.uk
hardback, 576pp plus personalia and bibliography, not indexed
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Stand on a sunny day at the base of the memorial to the 18th (Eastern) Division at Thiepval and look across to the site of the Schwaben Redoubt, just to the right of the Ulster Memorial Tower. See the broad swathe of peaceful farmland, the dense green of Thiepval Wood and the white glint of the tower and the two cemeteries nearby; behind you the clipped lawns of the Thiepval Memorial and the few houses of this rebuilt Somme village. Listen to the skylarks and the sound of school parties on their way from bus to memorial to visitor centre. Then read aloud, while you are there, the chapter from "Joffrey's war" on the period which his unit, the Chatsworth Rifles, spent in this very landscape and mounted an attack against the redoubt in October 1916. It is simply horrifying: a dark and shattered place where even the usually chirpy Sherwood Foresters felt death at every turn, where the remains of men killed in previous months lay all about, and where in their attack many of Joffrey's pals met their end. The contrast between then and now could not be more stark, and I defy anyone to find a more graphic and honest description of the period and not to take a deep breath.

"Joffrey" was the nickname given to Geoffrey Husbands, a Derby lad who spoke with a marginally more polished accent than his battalion comrades who in the main came from the North Nottinghamshire coalfield and the industrial towns of Derbyshire. They had joined the "Chatties" - the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters - as volunteers. This is his memoir, taking us every step from his enlistment in May 1915 to his discharge after the war. He is "every man", a typical young citizen infantry soldier who was willing to do his bit. He is also typical in being in serious action only on two occasions, but spent many months in trench occupation, in patrols and under fire. His accounts of experiencing heavy and sustained bombardment are truly memorable and do much to explain how so many men died, and how many were never found again.

It is perhaps in his descriptions of the ordinary, day to day affairs of a battalion that are of most enduring interest: of endless marching, guard duties, minor matters of administration, inspections, and happy times in billets. As a junior NCO "Joffrey" also explains his duties as an orderly and having responsibility for a section of his beloved 11 Platoon. These matters are of genuine, invaluable historical interest as the memoir is among the very few published works that touch upon these mundane but vital matters and explain how the army actually worked.

But "Joffrey's war" is much more than a simple telling of a soldier's tale. It is a story of relationships, of friends being made and lost, of good and poor officers, of how a single NCO could make a soldier's life tolerable or a torture. Many dozens of individuals are named, and (thanks especially to the editor's notes) shown to be real people: this is no fiction. I found the passages describing action to be surprisingly unemotional, for even as good friends die Husbands expresses his horror and regret in quite measured terms. His writing is nonetheless wholly engaging and the reader almost feels he knows these people and is part of the platoon. Much of the book concerns his time with the "Chatties" until he was wounded at Thiepval, but Joffrey goes on to record his time recovering and being with the Training Reserve at home, then to the sister battalion the Welbeck Rangers and finally the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters in France and Flanders.

This is an extraordinary book and one that anyone with an interest in the soldier's experience on the Western Front should read. It goes a long way to explaining what they did, why they did it and how they saw it through despite everything that was thrown at them. I cannot rate it highly enough.

The book also includes a valuable introduction by Professor peter Simkins MBE and an excellent "personalia", a series of one paragraph biographies of many of the men who are named in the text.

The publisher's website says that "Joffrey's war" is not available on the High Street: they sell direct at their website www.salientbooks.co.uk

 

Last man standing
The memoirs, letters and photographs of a teenage officer

by Norman Collins, edited by Richard van Emden
republished by Pen & Sword Military, 2012 (original 2002)
ISBN 978 1 84884 865 8
cover price - £12.99
Paperback, 204pp plus index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Do not hesitate: if you have any interest in the Great War or a man's experiences at war, you will find no better work than "Last man standing". It is a genuine "cannot-put-down". Editor Richard van Emden has produced a really memorable account of Norman Collins' war, based on Norman's own letters, photographs and descriptive memoir. Norman reached the grand old age of one hundred years and passed away in 1998, but in his later years Richard got to know him well. The story, however, is of a boy who was just seventeen in 1914.

Norman Collins was perhaps typical in that he was keen to get to war, to the extent that he did not tell his parents and went as far from his home as possible to enlist, joining the Seaforth Highlanders as a ranker in mid 1915. He had already seen some of war's brutality, in the form of the German naval bombardment of his home town of Hartlepool. From the time he joined, Norman was very evidently proud to be a "kiltie". He was a good soldier, rapidly promoted through the ranks and commissioned after officer training at Lichfield. His descriptions of life there and previously at Seaforths barracks and camps at Fort George and Ripon paint a detailed and absorbing picture of the soldier's life in training.

Once in France he sees a great deal of action, serving with the 4th and 6th Battalions and going over the top at Beaumont Hamel (November 1916) and Arras (April 1917). His experiences inevitably include the deaths of close friends, comrades and even his young servant. Norman is also detailed to lead a burial party after the attack at Beaumont-Hamel, in which his men find around 1000 bodies including many skeletal remains from 1 July 1916. It is perhaps unsurprising that this episode gives him nightmares; but he also suffers a recurring dream which affected him for many years, of the marching boots of his comrades, leaving him behind as last man standing.

Although wounded and spending months in hospital and convalescence, Norman made a sufficient recovery to return to service and an eventual requested transfer to the Indian Army, with which he saw post-war service on the North West Frontier. He went on to a most interesting and illustrious career of which we see only a glimpse in the book but perhaps enough to demonstrate the character of the man. Norman only returned to the old battlefields in the 1990's, encouraged to do so by his son. It was a last chance to say goodbye to many of his chums, whose graves he visited. He is no doubt with them again, no longer the last.

 

The Platoon: an infantryman on the Western Front 1916-18
by Joseph Johns Steward edited by Andrew Robertshaw and Steve Roberts
published by Pen & SWord Military 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 361 5
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 188pp plus bibliograhy, references and index. Illustrated.
reviewed by Chris Baker.

The core of this book is an unpublished fictionalised account of life on the Western Front, written by Joseph Johns Steward. It appears to be closely based on his time with the 1/13th Battalion of the London Regiment (Kensington) from early July 1916 until September 1918. The account is vivid and written in a rather jaunty style. It is not great prose but makes for interesting and at times amusing reading.

The edition of Stewards work is however embellished by analysis and explanation provided by the two editors. This covers work undertaken to research Stewards military career and to match it against his writing; some background of what a platoon comprised; and the war history of the 1/13th Londons. Technical points and other matters of interest that appear in Stewards work are then explained in copious end notes that the editors have added to the original chapters.

For anyone unfamiliar with researching a soldier, what happened in the war and the technical details of the British Army, the additions will be helpful. On its own the original narrative does not add greatly to our knowledge of the war although it is always good to hear the story from one who lived through it and who could express his impressions of specific events. The fictionalisation of it renders it at once less valuable as a work of reference but for anyone interested in the 1/13th Londons or the 56th (London) Division it is obviously worth a look.

 

Tig's Boys: letters to Sir from the trenches
edited by David Hilliam
published by Spellmount (The History Press), 2011
ISBN 978 0 7524 6331 5
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 188pp plus index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is a very nicely compiled and presented collection of material relating to correspondence between the old boys of Bournemouth Grammar School and their headmaster, Edward "Tig" Fenwick. Founded in 1901, under Fenwick the school produced excellent academic results and it is clear from the letters that the boys held him in high regard. No fewer than 622 former pupils, 24 teachers and 5 caretakers served in the forces during the Great War: of these, 94 pupils and 4 teachers lost their lives and a further 95 were wounded, some more than once. A dreadful toll indeed but sadly typical.

David Hilliam provides us with an introductory background and a novel structure of presentation: selected letters are arranged into chapters, covering life in the trenches, the air war, the experience of men sent further afield and of the wounded. The final chapter is a collection of short obituaries, written by Fenwick himself. The author rounds off with tables, facts and figures, and we are left to draw our own conclusions with regard to the grief felt by the families and school; of the impact of the loss of so many well-educated men; and of the long-term effect on the survivors. The story is at once heartbreaking yet uplifting in the sense of pride and awe at the spirit, bravery and endurance of these men.

For anyone connected with the school or Bournemouth, this is certainly something you should see. But it also stands as a testimony for many other schools and places and I recommend it to all.

 

Blood and Iron: letters from the Western Front
by Hugh Montagu Butterworth, edited by Jon Cooksey
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2011
ISBN 978 1 84884 297 7
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 193pp plus appendices, notes, bibliography and index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

I have a personal connection with 25 September 1915 and the gentle slope from Railway Wood to Bellewaarde Farm, east of Ypres. For it was there on that day that my wife's 18 year old great uncle Gabriel was killed and his brother, grandfather William, severely wounded while going into an attack with the 5th (Service) Battalion of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. Poor Gabriel has no known grave. We have a number of his letters and cards home, but no photograph and certainly no diaries or anything of significance to anyone but our family. He is but one of the thousands of terribly "nameless names" listed on the Menin Gate. This book is the story at the other end of the scale, with letters and photographs galore upon which "Blood and Iron" is based. They tell of the war experienced by Hugh Montagu Butterworth, an officer of the 9th Rifle Brigade who went into action very close to the 5th KSLI, and of his death on that awful day.

Our relative was no one. He was an ordinary farm hand from a small village in Herefordshire. He could not have been more different to the connected, educated Butterworth if he had tried. Yet they met the same grisly ending in the same action: if truth be told, a pointless, ill-planned affair meant to act as a diversion to the opening of the Battle of Loos further south. It achieved little but the deaths of good men and the maiming of many others. Truly war is a leveller and in no way is this more graphically confirmed than Butterworth's name also appearing on the Menin Gate Memorial.

Jon Cooksey has produced a splendid work, blending Butterworth's letters with details from the regiment and war diaries, and indeed German sources, to produce a detailed account of the build up to the attack, the assault itself and the aftermath. The letters are insightful, giving us an impression of the man himself and of his times. The final one, written just before action, makes it quite clear that he was not sure how he would perform in entering the "delectable confusion of old trenches, crump holes, barbed wire", but that he knew his chances of survival were slim. From a military history viewpoint this is one of few works that cover the dreadful diversions of the day and is valuable for that; it also serves to remind us of how ill-prepared, poorly armed and naive was the British army of 1915. Well worth reading.

 

A Tommy at Ypres : Walter's war
The diary and letters of Walter Williamson

compiled by Doreen Priddey
published by Amberley Publishing, 2011
ISBN 978 1 4456 0213 4
cover price - £16.99
paperback, 351pp. No index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

The flow of publication of soldier's memoirs and diaries in recent years had been quite extraordinary. It appears that greatly increased interest in WW1 and family history and the passing of the last of the soldiers generation has inspired many of their descendants to dig out old papers, notebooks and letters from their attics and to commit the men's words to print. "A Tommy at war" is a compilation produced by Walter Williamson's granddaughter Doreen Priddey. She has done a splendid job of creating a highly readable and enjoyable account of a terrible time.

Walter, a married man from Cheadle Hulme, enlisted under the Derby Scheme and after being mobilised trained with the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment at Birkenhead. His story begins on being drafted to France in December 1916 and takes us through his exploits with the 1/6th Battalion until February 1919. A large chunk of his war was spent in the Ypres salient (hence the title) and the passages concerning the Third Battle there from late July to October 1917 are of especial historical interest. Walter comes across as a likeable chap, with his diaries being full of anecdotes, mentions of his comrades and observations on the war and his part in it.

I am not wholly convinced that this is a diary as such, for there is more past tense, reflection and knowing that I would expect in something that was written at the time. It appears to me to be more of something written some time after the events - certainly not many years after as the details are too vivid and dependable, but perhaps a few days or weeks later, giving the author time to express his considered thoughts. It does suffer from this: quite the opposite, the combination of day to day facts with some contemporary opinion is a powerful combination. The letters that appear from time to time are genuinely contemporary, using the present tense and (being sent in Green Envelopes and not subject to censorship) quite candid.

All in all a very welcome book and recommended, particularly to anyone with an interest in the battalion but also to everyone who wishes to understand the war as it was, and not as the post-war decades have interpreted it.

 

The reluctant Tommy
Ronald Skirth's extraordinary memoir of the First World War
edited by Duncan Barrett
published by Macmillan, 2010
ISBN 978 0 230 74673 2
cover price - £16.99
hardback, 354pp, no index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

One of the TV personalities roped in to add an endorsement to this book called it “Surprising … uncomfortable … very memorable”. It is: but for all the wrong reasons.

“The reluctant Tommy” is an edited version of a journal written by former artilleryman Ronald Skirth in the 1970s. The material was donated to the Imperial War Museum in 1999 by his daughter. Produced in the current book form and published in 2010, it has received an unusual degree of marketing support, being pushed by several leading booksellers. It is an exciting, emotional read that will have many readers in turn weeping and crying out in anger. Many will no doubt quote from it and the book will enter into the fabric of the mythology of the Great War. This is a pity for the book is, however well meant, deeply unreliable as an historical source.

The core of the book is Skirth’s relationship with his then young girlfriend Ellen, but largely through telling the tale of his time away from her while in training for military service and his experiences whilst at war in France and Italy.

We discover that Skirth, having set out enthusiastically for military service, is scarred by his exposure to the death, squalor and disregard for human life. He becomes damning of those in command, citing several specific events and moments in his life that changed his attitude forever. It is easy to have great sympathy for him. But it all breaks down at the slightest research into the facts of what happened. In particular, he draws our attention to a number of incidents that affected his outlook but in this review I shall examine just two of them: the first, during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in 1917, when his commanding officer put his gun section in a dreadfully exposed and dangerous position, then like a madman tore up orders that were sent up telling him to withdraw. So crazy is this that Skirth and his great pal Jock Shiels in effect desert, leaving the officer to himself in a dugout where he is sure to die. Shiels, inevitably, is killed in front of Skirth’s own eyes as they attempt to cross the shell-torn ground to get away. That is an experience that no man would forget; it is something that you would have nightmares about, remember every detail. The surprise which emerges from research is to find that Shiels actually died at a Casualty Clearing Station, months before the battle. Did Skirth just get this wrong? Did he confuse Shiels with another man or another time? Surely not. Shiels was his best pal, and their battery was at no other time even close to being physically in such a position to support this tale.

The second event worth examining is the fight in the mountains of Italy, in the Battle of the Asiago on 15 June 1918. Skirth has spotted that a gun has been sited badly and will bring a cliff face crashing down onto the men if it is fired. He reports this to an NCO and of course is brutally rebuffed. The gun fires, killing two men and wounding five more. And to add insult to injury, the commanding officer and others are decorated after he falsifies his report of the day. One of the dead is Skirth’s good pal Dick Waller who gets a posthumous DCM. Skirth gets inside knowledge of this as the friendly Lieutenant Salisbury shows him the concocted report. The trouble is, only one man of the battery died that day; no man named Waller ever died while serving with the battery; none of the decorations quoted were actually made, and the good Lieutenant, whose name was John Thelwall Salusbury, was according to his service record away on a course at the time. Is that not surprising? Not when it is in the same book that records that the battery did not have guns and transport for several months in Italy, yet its war diary reports the targets and number of rounds fired on a daily basis through this same interval. Are we really to believe that the medals records, officers service records and unit war diaries – over a period of many months - are all falsified, when they originate from different sources? No. The fact is, Skirth’s story of this event has no credibility.

It is this relentless failure to report stories that can be supported by well- and independently-recorded facts – indeed, that Skirth’s memory was either so badly wrong or that for his own reasons he was being, shall we say, creative - that undermines “The reluctant Tommy” as a credible source.

Skirth reserves his venom for stinging personal attacks on his commanding officer (who for some reason in a journal that was not meant for publication he calls Snow when his name was Snowdon) and an NCO by the name of Bromley. Is it easy to do so in a private journal: one wonders what the reaction of the two men would have been had they been alive to read what Skirth had written about them.

“The reluctant Tommy” will be loved by those who believe in the “lions led by donkeys” school of thought with regard to the British conduct of the First World War, for it reinforces every prejudice in this regard. Officers who are aloof, not above concocting false reports, uncaring and profligate with men’s lives – they are all here. Tommies who are bright, wise, experienced and whose counsel is never sought. Some are here, but this paragon is mostly represented by Skirth himself. The “fact” that Skirth turned from enthusiastic soldier to conscientious objector is also, perhaps, in tune with a modern readership. But we have to look beyond these things as to why a man, writing a private journal that was not meant for publication more than 50 years after the event, did so with such little care for facts and realities, and we have to decide whether we believe him. I am afraid that I do not.

 

Haig: Master of the field
by Major General Sir John Davidson
republished by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978-1-84884-362-2
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 137pp plus appendices and maps, no index
reviewed by Chris Baker

This is an important book in the historiography of the Great War and well merits its selection as a Pen & Sword Military reprint. First published in 1953, it was written by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig's former Director of Operations Major General John "Tavish" Davidson as a corrective to what he saw as ill-judged criticism of the long-since dead Haig. Davidson had been in a position to observe much of what went on at GHQ in the years 1916 to 1918 and to form for himself a view of Haig's abilities and performance, as well as of those in British and Allied government and military circles with whom he came into contact.

The core of the work, although it also covers 1918, is concerned with the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. It is a counter-blast, unashamedly set out to restore Haig's reputation against much criticism. It is important to understand the timing of Davidson's book. The Passchendaele volume of the Official History had been published in 1948, generally supportive of Haig and the campaign but one of the weaker volumes and at a time when the world was rebuilding after WW2. The 1960's "Lions led by donkeys" and "Oh what a lovely war" were as yet far into the future, and there was as yet no sign of the current-day obsessions with the Somme. Passchendaele was seen, and had been seen since 1917, as the lowest ebb of the war: wrong-headed, futile, appalling, and leading to such statements as "Why has Haig not been recognised as one of England's greatest generals? Why, as a national figure, did he count far less than Lord Roberts, whose wars were picnics by comparison? The answer may be given in one word:- Passchendaele". (News Chronicle, 25 March 1935).

Davidson set out to defend Haig's position and reputation and as such the book contains few negative points. His prime theme is that under Haig there were four key military victories over the German Army that led to their ultimate defeat, with the battle of Broodseinde (4 October 1917 and a vital day in the Passchendaele campaign) being the first. (The others being the defeat of the Kaiserschlacht on 21 March 1918; Amiens on 8 August 1918, and the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in late September 1918). Passchendaele, of which Broodseinde was one of the more successful phases, was born from two key strategic goals: first, the clearance of the enemy from Flanders and the recapture of the Belgian coast but second to keep France in the war. Davidson explains in considerable detail just how fragile the French Army was by mid 1917 and to what lengths the news of its mutinous condition was kept from the public, the army and the enemy. He is under no illusion that Haig understood the implications clearly and that Passchendaele was fought principally to attract German attention. He defends Haig's strength in pressing for the offensive and his dogged determination to see it through. Davidson touches on but sweeps past some of the points for which Haig has been criticised. Most notably these are his choice of Gough to command the over ambitious opening assault and the latter's failure to aim to capture the Gheluvelt ridge, as well as Haig's fateful move of 7 October 1917 to keep the offensive going despite advice from Gough and Plumer that they would welcome a decision to close it down. It was surely that decision that committed hundreds of thousands to the misery of a battle in mud and to the deaths of many for a questionable tactical objective of slightly higher ground, and remains one of the primary points of criticism of Haig's command. Davidson argues that the army was buoyed by Plumer's recent successes in limited-objective "bite and hold" operations and that pressure from the French was persistent and urgent.

Davidson goes on to cover Haig's role during the political tussles of early 1918, of Lloyd George's undermining of his position and deliberate retention of reserves at home, of the relations with France as German offensive intentions become clear, and the changed position once Foch was installed as Generalissimo. His coverage of Amiens, the Hindenburg Line and the rest of the "hundred days" is absorbing if inevitably short in a work of only 137 pages.

"Haig: Master of the field" is a most interesting work and makes the pro-Haig case as well as any. For those who remain unconvinced, it is worth bearing in mind that his designation as master of the field was not by a loyal subordinate or the British press, but by his former enemy: it is a quote from "Heerfuehrer des Weltkrieges" in 1939.


Lady under fire on the Western Front : the Great War letters of Lady Dorothie Feilding MM
edited by Andrew and Nicola Hallam
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978 1 84884 322 6
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 223pp plus bibliography. No index. Illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

"I just threw myself heart & soul into the work out here & I got to love my soldiers like children. It was a positive need in me, to share the life and dangers of this war with them. ... but the sadness of it all worked its way into my very soul ... just a great ache and loneliness". Words from Lady Dorothie Feilding MM, written on 12 June 1917.

Born the second daughter of the 9th Earl of Denbigh, young Dorothie was among the privileged elite class, enjoying a sumptuous life at the family home at Newnham Paddox near Rugby. There was no call on her to volunteer at the very outset of the war, no need for her to train in a hospital and then go to Flanders as a driver with the Munro Motor Ambulance Corps. There was no need for her to stick it through months of terrible weather, harsh conditions and blood, always blood. Her letters, held at the Warwick County Record Office and ably gathered and edited by Andrew and Nicola Hallam, give us an insight into her ambitions, emotions and decisions, leaving this reviewer educated and admiring. I had heard of Dorothie before but she was always somehow a minor character compared to her better-publicised colleagues Elsie Knocker and Mairie Chisholm, the other "women of Pervyse". If I had tried to guess, I might have thought that she did a bit, safely behind the lines, wringing her hands and being invited to tea with the Guards. Not so: Dorothie Feilding describes, for the most part cheerfully if exhaustedly, her hard life ferrying Belgian wounded from the front line to the medical units around Furnes. It was a life of tedium, physical effort, lack of sleep and comforts and considerable danger at times. In her early days it was all exciting and a little bewildering; as the years went on and the sight and sound of so many wounded men drilled into her soul, she became far more reflective. She was, as we might say these days, a tough cookie.

"Lady under fire on the Western Front" begins in the earliest days of the war in Flanders and takes us to mid 1917 when she married. It draws on hundreds of Dorothie's letters home and refers in person to many of her friends and relatives at war. Officially, she was rewarded with the Military Medal, the Croix de Guerre and the Order of Leopold: more importantly, she records the reward of the touching gratitude of the soldiers she assisted. This is not simply the tale of an ambulance driver, it is a view into real courage and humanity.

A great book.

 

German soldiers in the Great War : letters and eyewitness accounts
edited by Bernd Ulrich and Benjamin Ziemann
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978 1 84884 141 3
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 183pp plus glossary, sources and suggested further reading. No index
reviewed by Chris Baker.

This is a selection of quotes from German soldiers, mainly from the Western Front, drawing on unpublished letters and memoirs, press and other articles, and held together with commentary and contextual explanation from the editors. I have rather mixed reactions to it.

On one hand, I always enjoy first-hand accounts of the war and it is refreshing to read accounts from the other side. "German soldiers in the Great War" goes a long way to confirming what the soldiers all knew: the experience of the front line soldier was similar no matter which side you were on. Life was hard, tedious, shocking at times, soul-destroying. It also had moments of humour and great comradeship. There are some very interesting aspects specific to the German armies: surprising references to brutal treatment of early-war volunteers by regular NCOs and officers; rivalries between Prussians and Bavarians; the effects of hardships at home; the confusions and tensions of 1918; and greater politicisation of the front line soldier than seems to have been the case in the BEF. (The latter point may be down to the editor's selection of material).

Yet somehow the book left me felling rather flat. The mix of the book includes rather a lot of official reports, decrees, press articles and other arms-length observations, which I found of value but are hardly eyewitness accounts. It is inevitable that such a work can only include a selection of the material that exists in archives and private collections, and contemporary material was constrained by censorship, but I found the soldier too often taking a back seat to the commentator and officialdom. There's rather too much, for me, of introducing quotes by explaining that the man was a Reichstag Deputy, a member of a political movement, a trade unionist and not enough of whether he was a gunner, an infantryman, a base wallah or a transport driver.

If you are interested in the German soldier's specific experience, I would rate any of Jack Sheldon's works of battle analysis ahead of "German soldiers in the Great War".

 

The distant drum : a memoir of a Guardsman in the Great War
by F. E Noakes, with new Foreword by Carole Noakes and introduction by Peter Simkins
published by Frontline Books (an imprint of Pen & Sword), 30 July 2010
ISBN 978-1-84832-563-0
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 241pp
reviewed by Chris Baker

Originally privately published in 1952, "The distant drum" is a superb memoir. Many will enjoy "Fen" Noakes' narrative of his time in the trenches and in the open warfare of late 1918, but I found it absorbing for a quite different reason: his coverage of his time in enlistment and training, and in hospitals and convalescence, which is the most detailed and insightful I have read.

After being rejected on a number of occasions as a willing and determined volunteer recruit (due to his asthma, which seemed to disappear once he was in service and with fresh air and exercise, only returning once to trouble him), Frederick Noakes was eventually conscripted and mobilised in June 1917. He was allotted to the Household Battalion, which he initially believed to be part of the Guards. A good chunk of the memoir describes his physically demanding but happy time with the battalion's reserve at the Windsor depot. The atmospheric minutiae of his training regime, social life, relationships with other men, officers and NCOs make these passages informative and enjoyable. He finally left for France with a draft on 22 October 1917; his descriptions of life at the squalid base camp and in Le Havre are splendid and add to our understanding of something most men in France experienced at some time.

The Household Battalion was in the Arras sector when he arrived, generally in the area of Fosse Farm and Monchy-le-Preux. He describes the front and Arras (notably Schramm Barracks) in detail. Noakes discovers the realities of life in the forward zone, at a relatively quiet time in this area, but in bitter weather and possibly the gloomiest time of the war for the British soldier. "Fen" remains at once stoical and enthusiastic, although his mood and motivations change over time, as he is exposed to the inevitable all-pervading smell of death, the rats and the lice, and the probabilities of his own survival. He left the battalion due to poisoning caused by an untreated cut to his finger, and spent weeks in hospitals and convalescent camps, the descriptions of which are once again most valuable not least because of their scarcity.

On returning to action, "Fen" finds that his battalion is no more for it has been disbanded. He is instead posted to the 2nd Coldstream Guards, with which he enjoys a happy association for the rest of his service. He takes part in the much-changed conditions of open warfare as the Guards Division plays an important part in the "Hundred Days" offensive in the Cambrai area and the Canal du Nord, until he sustains a wound to his left leg when hit by shell fragments while taking part in another attack. He was still in convalescence in France when the Armistice brought fighting to an end, and he experiences the wild excitements of celebrations of those who were not at the front.

The final passages describe his time with the battalion as part of the army of occupation at Cologne and later the return home via Mons and Arras. This too is of enduring interest and value, for it is another period that soldiers' memoirs rarely cover in depth.

Overall, a really good read and well worth buying.

The fighting Padre : letters from the trenches 1915-1918 of Pat Leonard DSO
edited by John Leonard and Philip Leonard-Johnson
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978 1 844884 159 8
cover price - £19.99
paperback, 241pp plus index, illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

The Rt Rev Martin Patrick Grainge Leonard, DSO (Pat Leonard) was born in the village of Torpenhow in Cumberland on 5 July 1889. He was educated at the Grammar School in Appleby before going on to Rossall School and Oriel College, Oxford (on a mathematics scholarship). He then embarked on an ecclesiastical career and prior to the Great War was a curate in Manchester. Among his post-war jobs he spent fourteen years with the Toc H organisation. He subsequently became Rector of Hatfield, Rural Dean of Hertford, Provost of St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow and finally Bishop of Thetford. While at Oxford he demonstrated prowess in rowing and boxing and it is from the latter, rather from military action, that he got the nickname "The fighting Padre".

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, gazetted 14 November 1916 for his work during the fighting on the Somme: "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during protracted operations. He was always moving about among the wounded giving them encouragement. He assisted the medical officer in tending the wounded under heavy shell-fire, and on one occasion carried a wounded man himself on a stretcher. His gallantry and devotion to duty has been beyond praise". Pat was also mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's Somme despatch, gazetted 4 January 1917.

The book is an edited collection of extracts Pat's letters arranged into chronological sequence. We do not find out who is he writing to nor when each letter was written. The narrative begins on 12 October 1915 when he has arrived in France, initially attached to 7th Field Ambulance RAMC but soon to be with the 8th (Service) Battalion of the King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment). Until mid 1916 the battalion remains in Flanders, taking Pat amongst other places to Ypres salient and the front line trenches of the Bluff as well as the rear areas of Bailleul, Poperinghe and the camps, headquarters and billets thereabouts.

Much of his reporting is of life behind the lines, giving us a glimpse of the concert parties and cinemas he helps to organise, visits to meet with Tubby Clayton at Talbot House (which would lead to his lifelong support of Toc H), as well as his ministry. I got the feeling that his descriptions of his front line activity and work with the wounded were self-censored, for it is generally of great cheer and avoids discussion of squalor and pain. But that is in itself the mark of a man who comes across throughout as positive and selfless.

His unit is moved into the key British offensives of the Somme in 1916 and Arras and Ypres in 1917. It was during the former that he won his DSO, but his action at that time appears typical of several occasions on which the same thing could have been said of him.

Pat's story takes an interesting twist in late 1917 when he his posted to an attachment with the Royal Flying Corps in Flanders. Initially acting as Chaplain for 7 and 9 Squadrons at Proven and 21 and 23 at La Lovie, he enjoys the rare experience of taking a flight. His ends the final weeks of the war in the advance across Flanders, entering Menin and occupying the former German airfield at Bisseghem.

Well worth reading.

A very good biography by John Leonard including some elements included in the book can be found free online here

 

War on two wheels
by Felicity Jane Laws
published by Lulu
ISBN - 978-1-4457-3273-2
Paperback, 144pp, illustrated.
cover price - £not stated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

I am indebted to the author, Felicity Jane Laws, for sending me a copy of one of the most interesting soldiers memoirs or diaries that I have read for a long time. The book is based on a well-observed diary kept by her uncle David Winder Small, illustrated by many documents and photographs from the family collection.

One of the factors that makes this diary stand out is that David Winder Small served as a motorcycle despatch rider of the Royal Engineers Signal Service, in the Signals Company of the 20th (Light) Division. As such, his war is not spent in the front line trenches but in the vital job of taking messages from Divisional HQ to the brigades and units of the Division, with occasional forays to Corps and other headquarters and units behind the lines. There are times when he is obliged to go to signals detachments in the front and support lines, too, and inevitably he loses comrades in action. David and the Division spent much time in the Flanders sector, taking him to Ypres, Poperinghe, Hazebrouck and many of the villages that will be well known to readers of this site. His diary offers a valuable insight not only into the working of the Signals Section and the "DR"s but of how a Division and all of its constituent parts actually functioned.

In 1916 he sustained a minor wound but problems developed leading to him being evacuated home for hospital treatment. On 1 August 1917 he was commissioned as an officer of the RE and returned to France in October 1917. He served thereafter with 12th and 24th Divisions, principally in the artillery signals, and on various other attachments. At busy times his diary reduces to notes, but for all that they retain a cheerful and fascinating character. As luck would have it he was evacuated home with blood poisoning just before the Armistice.

The author has illustrated the book with copies of many of David's war time documents (maps, orders, notes, and postcards) and ends with a series of photographs of his post war life. A very nicely produced and worthwhile work.

You can buy this book (printed on demand) from lulu.com but also direct from the author.

Send a cheque for £8.50 to her at 76 Commercial Road, Hayle, TR27 4DH

Some desperate glory: the diary of a young officer, 1917
by Edwin Campion Vaughan
reprinted by Pen & Sword Military, 2010
ISBN 978-1-84884-301-1
cover price - £ not stated
paperback, 232pp
reviewed by Chris Baker

This is another reprint of a Great War 'classic' by Pen & Sword. Among my favorite memoirs of the war, this version also includes an introduction by the late military historian John Terraine. Well, not really a memoir as it was posthumously published from the author's diary.

The author served with the 1/8th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and this work covers eight months of their war in 1917, beginning with the cautious pursuit of the enemy withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line and going on to the searing experience of the Battle of Langemarck in August. Beautifully written and memorable, it deservedly became a classic when it was originally published in 1981, fifty years after the authors death. One of the "must reads" but particularly if you are interested in the Warwicks, the South Midland Division or Langemarck.

A District at War: Irlam and Cadishead's part in the Great War 1914-1918
by Neil Drum and Pete Thomas
published in the Thomas-Drum Publications, May 2010
ISBN 978 0 9564489 0 3
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 623pp, profusely illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker.

Not a memoir but a collection of hundreds of mini-biographies.

This fine study of the 1081 men of two Lancashire villages and the surrounding area sets a new benchmark for depth of research, clarity of presentation and excellence of production of the finished article. At a whopping and dense 623 pages, the price of £12.99 is a steal.

Irlam and Cadishead, long since subsumed into Greater Manchester, were Lancashire villages that expanded greatly through industrialisation in the 1800's. Even so by 1914 the population was still only some 8000, with industry being dominated by the Co-operative Wholesale Society soap works and the Partington steelworks. This book presents as complete a story of the men who went to war and the 209 who did not return as is possible to produce (although hopefully the book will tease out from readers other snippets of information about local men).

Structured in chronological sequence, "A District at War" takes us through the experience of the villages during the conflict, setting Irlam and Cadishead against the backdrop of political, economic and social shifts. Some of the men were already serving when war began:indeed the first casualty was as early as 27 August 1914 when former regular George Vinton, recalled from reserve, died serving with the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers in the famous rearguard action at Etreux. Some were Territorials, many were among those who responded to Lord Kitchener's appeal. And so it goes, grinding stoically on through the long casualty lists of 1915 and 1916 into conscription and increasing difficulties at home in the latter years of the war. The story of every man is unfolded, many illustrated by photographs that help bring this study to life, forming the main body of the work. Some 430 pages are of the men's individual stories, for which the authors have drawn upon military service and operational records, local press and other Lancashire sources, family memories and documents. Men continued to die of causes attributable to their war service up to 1922, where "A District at War" ends other than to bring things right up to date with the most interesting story of the replaced village war memorial and the activities of remembrance that continue and will continue. How could it be otherwise?

A really splendid work that is a credit to the authors, the Hamilton Davies Trust that funded the work, and to Irlam and Cadishead themselves.


Please note that as a

ll proceeds go to charity, I recommend you do not buy via Amazon but go direct. Email

info
@
hamiltondavies.org.uk

Private Beatson's war : life, death and hope on the Western Front
edited by Shaun Springer and Stuart Humphreys
published Pen & Sword Military, October 2009
ISBN - 9781848840829
cover price - £19.99
Hardback, 147pp plus bibliography and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

This is a work that will appeal to those who enjoy First World war memoirs of the men in the trenches and is of special interest to anyone connected with the 1/9th (Highlanders) Battalion, the Royal Scots (the "Dandy Ninth").

At the core of the book - 78 pages - is an edited version of the diary of James Beatson, bought at auction by one of the editors. It covers his war from the first entry, when Beatson crossed the Channel with the battalion, up to December 1915 when he returned home on leave and got married. The editors' introduction explains much of his background, the early months of warfare and the battalion's history and movements. It provides a useful context in which the diary would make more sense to the reader. There is too, a dreadful epilogue, for Beatson was killed in action at High Wood in 1916.

In many ways the diary is unremarkable in that the experiences recorded are typical. Beatson and the Dandy Ninth enjoy at first the unfamiliar sights and experiences of France and Flanders, before the boredom and drudgery of uneventful trench occupation. There are moments of action (particularly in late April and August 1915) and inevitably there is the harrowing loss of comrades, which Beatson records in an understated and caring way. It is in his style that the diary becomes worthwhile; it is well observed and factual, but sensitive and sympathetic. There is no sign of disenchantment or criticism; none of the "lions led by donkeys" conceits of generations that followed. Beatson knows he is there to do a job, and goes through it with strength and good humour. The diary mentions relatively few individuals by name but places and events are frequently noted.The condition and atmosphere of early times at Ypres, Armentieres and Bois Grenier are of particular interest, knowing as we do of what happened to them later on.

One aspect of the diary is unusual and gives an insight into Beatson and perhaps into the British soldier of the time. He comments in depth on the diary of a Prussian officer, "Heinrich", which had been published in a magazine and does so in the second person, talking to Heinrich as "you". Beatson's commentary is reflective, respectful; it is easy to see that Beatson recognises himself and his situation in the German diary. The end note to this passage could not capture better the mood of men stuck in these dreadful, inhuman conditions, "The suspense in Purgatory is a real terror if it resembles in any measure this eternal waiting, waiting".

The book includes a selection of photographs, some of them stock images seen many times before but most are unusual, rare examples of the battalion and early trench warfare. It also benefits from photos of James Beatson himself and his family.

Of additional interest is a short foreword written by the late Henry Allingham, who achieved fame as one of Britain's longest surviving veterans of the war and for a while became the country's oldest man. Given that he wrote the piece at the age of 112 it is remarkably lucid.

All royalties raised by sale of the book are going to charity.

We hope to get word tomorrow: the Garvin family letters 1914-1916
edited by Mark Pottle and John G. G. Ledingham
published Frontline Books, 2009
ISBN 9781848325456
cover price - £25
hardback, 240pp plus notes and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker

This book presents a collection of correspondence between Roland Gerard 'Ged' Garvin and his parents. Ged was the archetypal public schoolboy officer, having been educated at Westminster School and about to go up to Christ Church, Oxford, when he volunteered in 1914. He came from a well-to-do and connected family, for his father James (a self-made man, having risen from a poor background) was editor of the Observer newspaper. The trio of correspondents is completed by Ged's mother Catherine.

Ged was immediately commissioned into the 7th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. He had no prior military experience and like many of his brother officers had to learn his trade.

The letters flowed frequently, even during his time in France once the battalion had gone there in 1915. There were, however, severe constraints imposed by military censorship and Ged has to be very careful in what he says. In consequence places, events and individuals are rarely named. His correspondence remains cheerful, although at times he is clearly dog-tired, and usually ends with a request that his parents send something that he needs: it is in this minutiae that hints of the life of a subaltern can be discerned. Tiptree's jam, medicines and remedies, new boots, a replacement revolver for one lost on a muddy patrol. The parents letters are inevitably more forthcoming in detail, and James' letters are especially interesting as he comes into contact with the great and good of the day.

Ged's war was typically at once tedious and fatiguing, with occasional moments of real hardship, fear and danger. He finds solace in his companions, the comradeship of the battalion and the odd trip to a restaurant when the opportunity arises. We learn very little of his activities in detail, but it is clear that he is regularly out in no man's land and, during winter, in flooded and muddy posts. He was most fortunate to be away from his battalion for the early days of the Somme offensive, which he spent on attachment at 19th Divisional HQ. Soon afterward, with the battalion having suffered casualties, he was recalled, only to be killed in action on the Bazentin Ridge 22-23 July 1916. Naturally the correspondence ceases just before this action: the book includes a useful epilogue, describing the situation with some good maps and quotes. We can only imagine how his loving and devoted parents felt, especially as it seems that the first news they received was an envelope returned and marked "killed in action".

There is a good selection of black and white photographs. Extensive end notes complete the book.

I can not imagine that "We hope to get word tomorrow" will be a best-seller or become a Great War classic. There is just too little by way of detail in terms of military actions and events for it to be so; but it is a genuine addition to our knowledge and an insight into the strain on the emotional bonds of family at the time of the greatest uncertainty, stress and loss.

Shot in the Tower
by Leonard Sellers
published Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781848840263
cover price - £12.99
paperback, 179pp plus notes, bibliography and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker

Originally published in 1997, "Shot in the Tower" covers the fascinating stories of eleven men executed at the Tower of London, having been convicted of spying for Germany during the Great War. Drawing mainly on records of the trials, which are held at the National Archives, Len Sellers paints a picture of a bygone era. Communications between spies and spy masters are by letter or telegram, and are found by an alert British postal and secret service. The letters use simple codes, with writing in invisible ink: the evidence of most of the cases includes pen nibs that have been in contact with lemon juice, a component of invisible writing at that time. The spies stay at hotels or guest houses: not terribly incognito. They travel to and from neutral Holland, often on forged or dubious passports.

The stories of each are at once compelling yet somehow quite pathetic. Most are not German but have some German element in their background. Most are not Germans. They are Latin America, Swedish, Russian and with curious motivations to get involved. Not down at heel but in some cases influenced by pay, they pose as commercial travellers and are on missions to spot Royal Naval ships in harbour, identify army units from men near bases or on leave. The messages they send to the spymasters in Rotterdam are of very limited military value and in some cases largely fabricated. All are apprehended quite quickly by what is apparently an efficient, no-nonsense internal security service. All are tried, convicted of the death penalty and executed at dawn.

The book concludes with an interesting chapter on the burial of the spies, not as rumoured within the Tower itself but at the public East London cemetery. One grave, that of the first to be executed and the only German national, Carl Hans Lody, was tended over the years and by the time the book was first published in 1997 had a splendid black headstone. There had apparently been wrangling, unresolved, about a German desire to move the graves to the war cemetery at Cannock Chase.

Great for those interested in spying or the early days of the MI5.

The best of Fragments from France
by Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, compiled and edited by Tonie & Valmai Holt
published Pen & Sword Military, 2009
ISBN 9781848841697
cover price - £14.99
paperback, 160pp
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

A compilation of 154 of the best of the well-known series of cartoons by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, originally published during the war as "Fragments from France" in the weekly magazine, "The Bystander". Each of Bairnsfather's wonderful, wry, observations on the lot of the British Tommy in the trenches carries a short explanatory comment from the authors. The book closes with a short selection of cartoons by others, most of whom have drawn upon Bairnsfather's most famous of oft-seen work, "If you knows of a better 'ole".

Royalties from sales of this edition will go to the charity Help for Heroes. If you have not seen Bairnsfather's cartoons before, you are missing a treat and "The best of Fragments from France" offers a fine way to obtain a good collection and assist the charity at the same time.


Meet at dawn, unarmed: Captain Robert Hamilton's account of trench warfare and the Christmas Truce in 1914
by Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed
published Dene House Publishing, 2009
ISBN 9780956182005
cover price - 16.99
softback, 177pp plus acknowledgements, sources and index. Profusely illustrated
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

The flow of publication of memoirs, diaries and letters of the Great War period seems unending - but here is one that stands out not only for the content but for a tremendously high standard of production. "Meet at dawn, unarmed" is based on the diaries and letters of Robert Caradoc Hamilton, who served with the Norfolk Regiment during the Boer War and was mobilised from the Special Reserve of Officers for service with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in August 1914.

Hamilton's tale of his time on the Western Front was short, for he returned to England in January 1915. During these few months, however, he experienced near-surrender by his commanding officer in the retreat and a good deal of fighting in the area of Meteren and Ploegsteert Wood during First Ypres. He is a fellow officer of, among others, Bruce Bairnsfather and Bernard Montgomery. In April 1915 he was made commandant of the Military Detention Barracks at Hereford, which from mid 1916 held conscientious objectors. This part of the diary is much shortened with only key points being picked out.

The highlight of the book, chosen by the authors as its central theme, is the involvement of Hamilton and the 1st Warwicks in the extraordinary unofficial truce at Christmas 1914.This is a genuine addition to our understanding of these events.

It is the treatment of the story that makes this book stand out. Illustrations, many being Bairnsfather cartoons that relate directly to incidents mentioned in the diary, together with clear maps, make the story vivid and understandable. There is useful, idiots-guide coverage of British army structures, the regiment and the early events of the war. Drawing too upon official records, postcards and "then and now" photographs, it makes for easy and highly entertaining reading. The book is beautiful from a graphical viewpoint, having been laid out professionally with an eye to design.

The authors also chose to avoid the standard route of approaching the known military pubishers and to set up their own channel of distribution. The book is only available via their website (shown right). Whether this will prove to be the best choice remains to be seen, but certainly "Meet at dawn, unarmed" deserves to be read and I wish them every success.

Cover

Meet at dawn, unarmed is only available via
this website

Captured at Kut, prisoner of the Turks: the Great War diaries of Colonel W. C. Spackman
edited by Tony Spackman
published Pen & Sword Military, 2008
ISBN 9781844158737
cover price - 19.99
hardback, 190pp plus appendices and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

I am really pleased so see another work covering the trials of the British and Indian troops in action and subsequent captivity in Mesopotamia. It has been a terribly neglected campaign and "Captured at Kut" is a fine addition to our understanding of the conflict.

William "Bill" Collis Spackman was the RAMC Medical Officer attached to the 48th Pioneers of the Indian Army. He saw service at Basra, in the extraordinary water crossings and battles at Qurna and Shaiba, and followed General Charles Townshend up the Tigris to Amara, Kut and the very gates of Baghdad itself. His testimony, based on diaries, is one of the few that provides personal insight into the dreadful defeat of Townshend's force at Ctesiphon and the harum-scarum withdrawal back to Kut-al-Amara and many months of siege.

While Spackman's coverage of the military actions is perceptive and sympathetic, his diaries are perhaps most compelling when it comes to describing the conditions at Kut during the siege and in captivity once it falls. Many readers may be unaware of the appalling treatment of the thousands of men captured once Townshend surrendered, British attempts to break the siege having failed with heavy losses. A very great proportion of the captives perished on a forced march of many hundreds of miles across northern Iraq and into Anatolian Turkey. Spackman was most fortunate to avoid this; his role as a British MO led to special circumstances allowing him not to accompany the marches, but to be held in one or two locations where he - with few facilities, medicines or equipment - treated the sick and the lame before they were sent on. Gradually as the final troops are marched north, he is left behind and spends many months almost isolated, seemingly the only British officer left in the area. His own treatment is thankfully not of the brutal kind administered to so many of the Kut captives, but of sheer neglect and incompetence by the Turks. Increasingly lonely, he has a quite fascinating and atomospheric tale to tell. There are wonderful stories of times in the markets and villages, mixing with all manner of odd and sometimes shifty characters. His own personality and humanity mark these diaries as something special, and they are well selected and edited by his nephew, Tony.

A remarkable work and one that I heartily recommend.

Haig's Generals
edited by Ian F. W. Beckett and Steven J. Corvi
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2009 (original 2006)
ISBN 9781844158928
cover price - £12.99
hardback, 207pp plus two short appendices and index
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

By mid 1916 the British forces in France and Flanders were so large that they had been subdivided into five Armies, each larger than the original BEF that had sailed in August 1914. It curious that the men who led these Armies, and their chiefs of staff, have been rather neglected when it comes to scholarly biographies and analyses. Although several of them wrote autobiographies or memoirs, few have received more than a passing interest. Horne, commander of First Army, had nothing at all about him until quite recently; Byng and Plumer were subjects of single good modern biographies only in the last two decades; Monro and Birdwood get hardly a mention; only Rawlinson and Gough have received significant attention and one suspects that has been more driven by their failures than by their successes.

Rather like "Haig: a reappraisal 80 years on" that I recently reviewed, this is a collection of papers, one covering each General in turn, by leading contemporary historians including Gary Sheffield, Simon Robbins, John Bourne and Peter Simpkins. The various studies examine the background and temperament of the man, his relationships with Haig, his peers, staffs and subordinates.

Some themes will serve to frustrate the "lions led by donkeys" school. These men were experienced soldiers, who rose to their command through demonstration of capability. Their backgrounds and personalities varied greatly, with inevitable consequences for their relationships and actions. Two were sacked (Gough perhaps unfairly in 1918, although there is a case that he should have gone much earlier; Allenby in 1917, sidelined to Palestine where he turned out rather well), one more at least (Plumer) came close to the same fate. Rawlinson's development from a less than wonderful 1915 and a disastrous 1 July 1916 to a capable, flexible, wise, leader in 1918 is covered well: as indeed are all of the stories.

I was intrigued by a surprising weight given to secondary sources in some of the papers, but this may have been due to tight writing timetables or small research budgets. I would not rely on this book as my single source of information about a General, but as a taster and a guide to where to look more deeply, it can not really be faulted. All papers are scrupulous in their citation of sources, as you might expect from professional academic historians.

There is a small collection of photographs, none of which you will not have seen before, and insertion of a few largely irrelevant maps. This book is not about trenches and battle timelines. It is about men and their struggle to overcome the unprecedented challenges of technology, communications and huge organisational scale and in that most stressful and unforgiving period in our history.

Shrapnel and whizzbangs
by Jeremy Mitchell
published The Memoir Club, 2008
ISBN 9781841041926
cover price - 12.95
hardback, 98pp including acknowledgments
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Joining the ranks of memoirs that have emerged in recent years, "Shrapnel and whizzbangs" is based on the trench diaries and notes kept by George Oswald Mitchell, who served as a Private with the 1/6th West Yorkshire Regiment before being transferred to the Special (poison gas) Companies of the Royal Engineers.

George's story takes us through his infantry training at home and the early days of the West Yorks war in the sodden trenches of Fleurbaix, before he was selected to join the elite group of men who were Britain's first "chemical soldiers". The passages concerning the first use of gas by the British, at Loos in September 1915, are a valuable addition to our understanding of that action. The detailed diary stops at that point and from there on, son Jeremy Mitchell inevitably has less by way of in-depth commentary.

What I found novel about this book is Jeremy's weaving of his own thoughts and learning experiences when studying the war and trying to understand the context, with his father's own material. The opening chapter describes how the tales were passed down; the last is a descriptive bibliography. In itself this makes the book an interesting commentary on the shaping of modern-day views about the war. Jeremy's approach makes it very accessible for anyone who has not studied in the Great War in any depth, and it is sure to inspire others to look deeper into a subject that is still, after all these years and much modern research and the refuting of myth, seen by some as simply a muddy bloodbath with lions leading donkeys. "Shrapnel and whizzbangs" underscores the complexities of the war and the innovations, many costly in terms of lives, that were required in order for it to be won.

There are a number of photographs from family archives and the Imperial War Museum collection.

Stanley Spencer's Great War Diary 1915-1918
edited by Tony Spencer
published by Pen & Sword Military, 2008
ISBN 9781844157785
cover price - £19.99
hardback, 176pp
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

Great! A diary of Stanley Spencer, one of the greatest of war artists! Erm, no ... a Sheffield lad whose name was actually Charles William Stanley Spencer, a ranker who rose to a commission and an MC, who has left one of the finest of war diaries, describing his time on the Western Front.

Stanley Spencer served as Private 2682 in the 24th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, with which he saw action in the Loos area, on the Somme, in the pursuit of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line and at Arras. He was commissioned into the West Yorkshire Regiment in late October 1917 and served with the 10th (Service) Battalion. Stanley's descriptions of many incidents large and small are very fine, but perhaps none more so than his tale of chaotic retreat in March 1918. This part of his story is a genuine addition to our knowledge of that terrible time. He went on to win the Military Cross for his leading part in a raid near Bouzincourt, which he modestly describes in the diary as "a walkover". His MC was gazetted in October 1918, by which time he was back in England having fallen ill. He did not return to France.

The writing is frank and mentions many individuals, not all in glowing terms. Place and battle descriptions are vivid if surprisingly unemotional, particularly as Spencer's friends and comrades fall. He is a keen soldier, selected at times for unusual tasks such as an attachment to Divisional Intelligence, but we get little real insight into his motivations and feelings. As a chronicle of the times, though, it would be hard to better.

There are some weaknesses. The lack of an index is a pity, as is the consistent misspelling of three placenames. For Corbie we have Corbic, Couin becomes Conin and Loupart Wood is Lonpart Wood. It is hard to believe that Stanley spelled them this way.

One of the best Great War books of recent times.

[I note that Amazon calls it Stanley's "Diaries". It isn't. The copy in my hands is "Diary"]

Famous 1914-1918
by Richard von Emden and Victor Piuk, and
The greater game: sporting icons who fell in the Great War
by Clive Harris and Julian Whippy

both published by Pen & Sword Military, 2008
ISBN 9781844156427 and 9781844156428
cover price - 25.00 and £19.99 respectively
hardback, 346pp and 192pp plus selected acknowldegments, bibliography etc
reviewed by owner of The Long, Long Trail, Chris Baker.

This is a joint review of two very similar works, both published in late 2008 by Pen & Sword Military. "Famous" and "The greater game" both contain a set of mini-biographies of men who served in the British forces in 1914-1918. The first examines the lives of twenty one who went on to win fame after the war (although Winston Churchill is counted among them and had already achieved fame), while "The greater game" looks at eleven sporting individuals in detail and at some units or groups that were initially largely composed of sportsmen. Inevitably, to the modern reader the names of "Famous" will be more familiar and perhaps make this book of wider appeal.

The two sets of authors have taken advantage of the much improved access to information that the release of soldiers documents and the internet have provided in recent years, to compile authoritative, absorbing stories that are full of interest.

"Famous" includes the examination of the military careers of men as diverse as the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, serial murderer John Christie (of 10 Rillington Place) and actor Basil Rathbone. We learn that they were an officer of the Royal Garrison Artillery, a conscript who served with the Sherwood Foresters and battalion Intelligence Officer with the Liverpool Scottish respectively. Von Emden and Piuk prove themselves adept at telling the military stories with clarity and feeling, as well as finding links from the war to the character's later lives and careers. It is an absorbing book; even my wife could not put it down!

To the Great War or sports history buff, the names of Ronald Poulton Palmer (rugby), Edgar Mobbs (rugby) and Colin Blythe (cricket) may be well known. In some cases the stories of these and the other sportsmen covered in "The greater game" have been told (in less detail) elsewhere. Nonetheless, as with the famous their stories are comprehensive and related with an eye for military detail. The chapters on the footballer's and sportsmen's "pals" battalions bring some of Britian's best known clubs into play: West Ham, Charlton, Heart of Midlothian and others were all the basis of significant recruitment in 1914; we also learn of players from other clubs who fought and fell. These are of course stories of men who had a degree of fame by 1914. Who knows what they might have accomplished had they not died in the war? Perhaps some would have had lives that would have quite properly placed them into "Famous".

Personally, while I found both books to be as thorough and as professional as you would expect, I enjoyed "Famous" a little more simply because the war was but a chapter - if an unforgettable one - that influenced these men's lives. Both repay reading and are good value for money.

 

Jack Garbutt: the Bilsdale Bombardier
by Susan N. Laffey
published by Waltersgill, 2008
ISBN 9780955645419
cover price - £9.99
softback, 259pp.
This book is clearly the result of a labour of love. For anyone with a family story to research or tell, it is a model of its kind and Susan Laffey is to be congratulated for producing a fine memorial to her great uncle Jack Garbutt and his generation.

Drawing upon family, local and military resources, the author tells the story of Jack Garbutt from childhood to his death in the German spring offensive of 1918. The first 48 pages cover Jack's family background and schooldays in rural North Yorkshire. He enlists in 1914 and joins 96th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, one of the gun units under command of 21st Division. Jack's time in France is explored through letters and postcards, laced into extracts from the brigade war diary, official history and other sources. While the movements and actions are covered in detail, the book remains readable through a skilful light touch. His story will be as absorbing to a family historian as it is to a military buff: no mean feat. Jacks' story is in many ways completely typical and undistinguished, but absolutely representative of the life and times of most men of the artillery. It will remain on my own shelf as much for it containing good chunks of the war diary as for it reminding me how well these things can be done.

The book is published by Waltersgill Photography and Publishing of Otley in West Yorkshire. It is in a 6 by 8.5 inch format, nicely laid out and at cover price of 9.99 very good value. I am very pleased to say that the Long, Long Trail is quoted as a source and that the author was kind enough to send me an autographed copy, used for this review.

 

Evelyn Wood VC: pillar of Empire
by Stephen Manning
published by Pen & Sword, 2008
ISBN 1844156540
cover price - £25.00
hardback, 240pp.

It is quite extraordinary that no serious study of Evelyn Wood has been made since his own autobiography published over a century ago. As one of the senior military figures of the Victorian age, his story is one of great adventure and derring-do, tremendous personal courage, military and personal controversy. This, all wrapped up in an odd personality, makes for a splendid story and, in the hands of Stephen Manning, a darned good read.

For students of the Great War, it is the latter part of Wood's career that will be of most interest. He was a great trainer of men, and both before and after the war in South Africa (1899-1902) was deeply involved in the reform of the British Army's approach to training and logistics. The performance of the "Old Contemptibles" at Mons and on the retreat has distinct roots in Wood's work. His sponsorship of Douglas Haig, the latter's potential spotted as a young cavalry officer, is also clearly of significance. But for sheer human interest, it is Wood's involvement in the Indian Mutiny, Zulu and Boer wars that grips the reader. Wounded and near to death on numerous occasions, he always pulls through and in so doing, hauls himself up the military ladder despite the undoubted constraint of not been well to do and with personal and family complexities with which to contend. Calamity at Majuba Hill and at Hlobane, enough to consign an ordinary man to the darker pages of history, were almost shrugged off by Wood. He appears to have been something of a politician (with a small p) as well as a fine if rather unpredictable soldier. The author has delved deeply into archival sources to bring alive the story of the man.

Overall, well worth reading and a fine addition to your military library.

 


The Unwanted
Great War letters from the Field
by John McKendrick Hughes, edited by John R. Hughes
published by The University of Alberta Press, 2005
ISBN 0 88864 436 1
cover price $32 in Canada
softback, 376pp plus bibliography, appendices and index, illustrated

My favourite type of Great War book is the personal memoir. Whether they are contemporary or written well after the time, they help reduce the immensity and facelessness of a modern global conflict to the narrow and detailed - sometimes - erroneous - view of the individual concerned. It is perhaps not surprising that most memoirs are written by those at the sharp end: the men and officers who went over the top or fed the guns. There are relatively few that deal with life in "the logistic tail", and that in itself would serve to make this tale interesting. As it is, there is much more to justify your time in reading it.

John R. Hughes has compiled and edited the book from his grandfather's many letters. The book is very nicely produced and John has managed an excellence balance of providing background information and comment, threading throughout the story as told by John McKendrick Hughes.The letter-writer was a farmer, a family man who had been involved in the militia in Canada for years before the war. In common with many others he was persuaded in 1915 to enlist and became an officer, notably of 151st Battalion with which he moved to England. So far, so good. Immediately on arrival, the troops were despatched as much needed reserves to the Canadian units already on active service. The officers - the Unwanted of the book's title - were left to kick their heels in England, clearly with little of any merit to do. Hughes and the thousands of others were incandescent with rage. He is scathing of the ill-thought system that built so many complete battalions in Canada without thought to the method by which losses would be dealt with - a system that created a large officer surplus. The Canadian Minister Sam Hughes comes in for particular criticism, over that and his sponsorship of the Ross rifle. The idle officers were eventually given the choice: go home or be demoted to Lieutenant. Colonels, Majors and Captains who had seen volunteer service in the Boer War, led militia units for years and then brought a battalion they had often personally recruited and trained, were to be dumped - and they did not like it one bit. Hughes stuck with it, despite the obvious hurt.

I must say that this officer surplus and the way they were dealt with is something completely new to me. Fascinating. Then all at once, someone has a bright idea that many officers are needed for the sprawling lines of communication units: companies of the Labour Corps, railway troops, POW guard units, and so on. John McKendrick Hughes became an Agricultural Officer, first at Corps and then at Army level. He was in the area of Fletre - Caestre, before moving to Second Army HQ at Cassel. His job was to be a farmer: organise agriculture in the area by providing military skills and labour to either assist local farmers who had stayed, or cultivate ground where they had not. His mess at Army HQ was for "Spuds, Suds and Other Duds": agriculture, laundry, requisitions and courts martial officers.

All in all, a very interesting, unusual and insightful work. I could not put it down.


Under fire in the Dardanelles
The Great War diaries and photographs of Major Edward Cadogan
edited by Kira Charatan and Camilla Cecil
published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2006
ISBN 1 84415 374 6
cover price £19.99
review copy in hardback, 158pp, no index, B&W illustrated

It never ceases to surprise me how many "new" memoirs, diaries and the like are still coming to light and being published. This is a delight: papers discovered in two tin boxes during a house move and unlikely to have been opened since 1934, containing documents going back as far as 1708. (Why do I never find anything like this?) Among the papers, an extensive diary, letters and photographs from the period of the war, belonging to the Hon. Edward Cadogan.Born in 1880, the son of the 5th Earl of Cadogan, he was the Secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons in 1914 and among Britain's elite.

He was an officer with the Suffolk Yeomanry and saw service with the regiment at Gallipoli and in Palestine. The diary is detailed and fascinating, very well edited by the authors, neither of whom I have heard of before - but am forced to wonder whether Camilla Cecil is of the well-known family of that name.
I was particularly impressed by the photographs - many individuals named - none of which, I believe, have been published elsewhere. There are many reproductions too of documents, from mobilisation orders to signals and orders and mentions in despatches.

Obviously appealing to the student of Gallipoli, Palestine or the Yeomanry but a valuable addition to any collection.


Twelve days on the Somme
A memoir of the trenches, 1916
written by Sidney Rogerson
published by Greenhill Books, 2006
ISBN 13 978 1 85367 680 2 and 10 1 85367 680 2
cover price £not given
review copy in hardback, 172pp

It was, I suppose, inevitable that the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Somme offensive of 1916 would encourage a considerable volume of new and reprinted work about the campaign. My guess is that, as usual, much of it will equally inevitably focus on the horror of the first day of the infantry attack, 1 July. The latter phases of drudgery, tedium and constant danger in the muddy wildernessof Lesboeufs or Le Transloy will barely receive a mention, yet it is the mud and grinding to and fro of attack and counter attack in these months that defines the Somme much more than the bloody mess of 1 July in the sunshine. Here is a book that puts the totality of the Somme into a more realistic context, despite it being only a snapshot of a typical twelve day stint for a weary infantry battalion, and it is therefore welcome.

It is not only the subject matter that appeals to me: the narrative is honest, gripping, emotional. Sidney Rogerson was a subaltern with the 2nd Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, a regular army unit that still possessed a few old soldiers - with their use of Hindi and Indian Army vernacular - despite having seen much action and loss by late 1916. We may be thankful for his clear memory, ability to recall and record, and his humanity. He takes us through the move from rest camp into a wasteland front where there is no discernable front line and to get there meant passing through a deep shell-swept zone with no landmarks; the tense days of front line duty and patrol without anything really unusual happening except the inexplicable disappearance of a brother officer; the agony of footslogging for miles to a flooded tented camp; the resentment at having to provide working parties within hours of coming out ; and eventually out to rest once more. There are no heroes here, no VCs; no "lions led by donkeys"; no glittering brass hats: the tale of ordinariness in these squalid, bitter conditions tells it own story of heroism. "Twelve days on the Somme" is deservedly a classic memoir, originally published in 1933.

The Greenhill version of the book includes a thorough introduction by author and historian, Malcolm Brown. This is itself a most interesting essay and a worthwhile scene-setter for Rogerson's powerful work.


It made you think of home
The haunting journal of Deward Barnes, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1916-1919
edited by Bruce Cane
published by The Dundurn Group, 2004
ISBN 1 55002 512 0
cover price $35 Can, $27 US, currently £18 on Amazon.co.uk
hardback, 294pp plus index an bibliography, illustrated

It is quite extraordinary how many memoirs of the Great War are still being published, especially when they are based on the long-lost diaries kept by the soldiers at the time. This is surely among the best and I heartily recommend reading it.

Deward Barnes was born in Toronto in 1888. He enlisted in the army in 1916 and carried out his training with 180th Battalion. After arrival in England he was posted and fought as a Lewis gunner with 19th Battalion of the CEF at - among others - Hill 70, Passchendaele and Amiens, before being wounded in October 1918 during the great advance near Iwuy. Deward kept a diary in a series of notebooks, which he transcribed in 1926 into a single volume, which appears to have been written for his own purposes rather than publication. Deward's diaries and sketches have been edited and interpreted by Bruce Cane, formerly a curatorial assistant at Historic Fort York in Toronto. He has done an excellent job too. The passages direct from Deward's diaries are broken by lucid and accurate explanations of the terms being used, and commentary on the incidents and people mentioned. This helps bring the whole thing alive, placing Deward's own comments and thoughts in the wider perspective. The memoir is full of interest and detail, with many places and men being mentioned.

Of particular interest perhaps is the experience of being ordered to take part in a firing squad, and knowing afterward that you did not have the blank round. I found Deward's gradual change from a being a lively, positive young man into weariness and bitterness at the continual loss of his close comrades particularly vivid and a strong reminder of what his generation endured.

The title "It made you think of home" comes from a phrase that appears in the diaries on several occasions. Deward used it whenever he was experiencing something particularly nasty or boring, from camp fatigues to the hell of the front trenches and bombardments. The book is nicely produced, and represents good value. Overall, a strongly recommended addition to your Great War library.


Stand To: a diary of the trenches
by Captain F.C. Hitchcock MC
reprinted by The Naval & Military Press
ISBN 1843421607.

Definitely a 'must read', for both beginner and experienced Great war buff alike. Hitchcock joined the 2nd Leinsters at L'Epinette in May 1915, and served with the battalion through much fighting at Ypres, the Somme, and on Vimy Ridge. He describes actions and places in detail and names many individuals including many rankers. There are 26 useful sketches and maps too.

The nature of the war experienced by junior officers of a regular battalion comes across strongly and we can only wonder at the determination and sheer physical courage of these men. Hitchcock calculates that the average life expectancy of a subaltern in 1916 and 1917 was just 6 weeks.There is also a short but useful summary of the history of the now-disbanded Irish regiments.

The original of 1937 is long out of print and difficult to find on the used market, so it is a very welcome move by The Naval & Military Press to have reprinted this valuable work. I have just one small gripe. The paperback version that N&M have produced comes in a cream-coloured cover, which is not standing handling very well. My copy has been carefully handled while reading and even so is getting grubby and a bit bashed about. Fine as a reading copy, not fine if you want a book to grace a shelf.