Blood & Iron: Letters from the Western Front, Hugh Montagu Butterworth, ed. Jon Cooksey

Blood & Iron: Letters from the Western Front, Hugh Montagu Butterworth, ed. Jon Cooksey

This book is built around a series of letters written by Hugh Montagu Butterworth during his short time in France, which lasted from late May 1915 until his death in the Ypres salient on 25 September 1915. These letters were originally published in New Zealand early in 1916. Butterworth was the cousin of the famous composer George Butterworth and his earlier life had been typical of many young men of his generation - a sports mad school career followed by an equally sports dominated period at Oxford. Things changed just before he would have graduated - his father lost his money and decided to emigrate to New Zealand. Hugh abandoned his studies and followed his father around the world, becoming a teacher at Wanganui School. After the outbreak of the First World War he decided to volunteer for the British Army and returned to the United Kingdom.

The letters make up about a quarter of the book. The first three quarters are a biography of Hugh, tracing his life from his sport's mad childhood, through an apparently sport dominated education (which ended just before he would have taken his final exams at Oxford). The family then emigrated to New Zealand where Hugh became a teacher at Wanganui. This part of his life takes up about a third of the biography. We then move onto his military career, starting with his decision to volunteer and his service in the Rifle Brigade, then follow him to the Ypres salient before finally examining the attack in which he died in some detail. The biographical section provides and interesting picture of a much loved teacher.

We then move onto the letters themselves. These are the true purpose of the book, and they don’t disappoint. Butterworth is a thoughtful companion, and we can clearly see the impact of the fighting on his attitudes and on the general tone of his writing. We start with his first letter after reaching the vicinity of the front, at a famous town he can't name (Ypres). We end with a short letter that he wrote just before his final attack, only to be delivered in the event of his death. This was one of a series of late letters written with this battle in mind, all of which suggest that Butterworth didn't think he had a very high chance of surviving intact. Given the obvious difficulties of his task that isn't entirely surprising and the matter-of-fact tone of this final letter is thus particularly impressive. The entire collection of letters is fascinating and gives a good idea of how the brutality of trench warfare impacted on Butterworth.

1 - Born into Sport
2 - 'Fairly Useful' - School Days
3 - 'Univ' and New Zealand - A New Start
4 - The Rifle Brigade
5 - Into the Salient
6 - 'Such a Scene of Blood and Iron' - The Attack
7 - In Memoriam

Appendix 1: 9th (Service) Battalion the Rifle Brigade Killed in Action or Died of Wounds, 25 September-12 October 1915
Appendix 2: German Reserve Infantry Regiment 248 Verlustlisten No.289, 25 October 1915

Author: Hugh Montagu Butterworth, ed. Jon Cooksey
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2011

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