This book is built around a series of previously unpublished extracts from diaries, letters and oral testimoneys left behind by British soldiers of the First World War, recording their experiences on the Western Front. This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1978, at a time when the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ idea of the Western Front was still largely dominant (although not unchallenged). Although this wasn’t a deliberately revisionist work, Brown’s desire to reflect every side of the story meant that it inevitably became one, as so many of the original sources don’t reflect that rather later view.
We follow the Tommy through his entire experience of the war, from the initial urge to sign up, through training, into battle, and for those lucky enough to survive right to the end of the war and eventual victory. The experiences of battle covered here vary from the minor trench raids up to the battle of the Somme, and the attitude of the participants range from eager enthusiasm to a sense of dread (although with at least some enthusiasm far more common).
Some sections are especially moving, in particular the selection of letters and diary entries written just before the start of the battle of the Somme, largely by men who didn’t survive the battle. One of the sader things about this section is the level of enthusiasm for the upcoming ‘big push’, and the generally high expectations for what it may achieve, soon to be crushed on the most costly day in British military history.
This is an invaluable book, both for the insights it gives into the attitude and experiences of the British Tommy on the Western Front, and for the impact it had on later authors – this type of book is fairly common now, but not when this book was first published.
1 – A Call to Arms
2 – The Tents are Astir in the Valley
3 – Tickled to Death to Go
4 – Up the Line
5 – In the Trenches
6 – Rats as Big as Rabbits
7 – Keep the Hun on his Toes
8 – Out on Rest
9 – It’s Unlucky to be Killed on a Friday
10 – Just a Line to Say I Go ‘Over the Top’ Tomorrow
11 – Into Battle – A Great Thing to Be In
12 – Into Battle – The Most Horrible Invention that was Ever Known
13 – The Terrible Price
14 – Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightly
15 – Cheer O! It’s a Jolly Old War
16 – Guerre Finie! Boche Napoo!
Author: Malcolm Brown
Publisher: Greenhill Books