The Platoon: An Infantryman on the Western Front 1916-1918, Joseph Johns Steward

The Platoon: An Infantryman on the Western Front 1916-1918, Joseph Johns Steward

This book is based around a previously unpublished novel written by a veteran of the Western Front, and set between the battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Allied advance of 1918. The manuscript was only known to the author's family until 2009 when one of his descendents mentioned it to one of the editors. It soon became clear that the text was only loosely fictional, and that the events within the book closely followed the author's own experiences. The editors decided to use the text to illustrate the sources for family history, providing references to sources that would document parts of the story. 

The format is quite straightforward. The author's text is presented in chapters, with the historical notes in chapter endnotes. I would have preferred page footnotes here as much of the value comes from linking events in the text to real historical events, and footnotes would have made this more immediate.

For me the main value of the book is the view it provides of life on the Western Front from the point of view of a normal soldier. The most obvious feature is the ever-present threat of death, with countless characters disappearing very suddenly. The historical notes are also useful, often proving the accuracy of the account (although most if not all names had been changed). The frustrations of military life and in particular the danger posed by new officers arriving at the front with little or no combat experience also come across very well.

This is best seen as a fictionalised autobiography rather than a novel - as a novel it lacks any particular story line or character development but as an autobiography it provides a new window into life and death on the Western Front.

Chapters
1 - The Bull Ring
2 - Into Action
3 - The Somme
4 - Leuze Wood
5 - The Battle of Attrition
6 - In Rest
7 - Neuve Chapelle and Winter 1917
8 - The Battle of Arras
9 - Out of the Line
10 - Training for the Next Stunt
11 - The Ypres Salient
12 - The Battle of Cambrai
13 - Vimy and Oppy Wood
14 - The Kaiser's Battle
15 - The Last Hundred Days
16 - Rest Eternal

Author: Joseph Johns Steward
Editors: Andrew Robertshaw & Steve Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2011


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