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Reviews: Memoirs and novels from the Great War

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Robert Graves

Goodbye to All That

First published in 1929, this is a classic book. It covers not just Graves experiences during the First World War, but is his autobiography from birth up until he quit England and went to live in Majorca around the time of publication, following his parting from Nancy Nicholson. It is a fascinating read, giving an insight into the lives of the upper classes in pre-war England. Graves attended Charterhouse school, and his account of his experiences there are eye-opening. In terms of the First World War, his description of how the army changed during the War is a valuable commentary on exactly how the War changed the British Empire, the Army and the world. Graves experiences particularly with the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1915 , where the regulars refuse to speak to the 'warts' (subalterns) and they have to attend a Riding School hark back to another era. The Second Battalion, having just returned from India, treat the French civilians as 'natives' and are in tropical gear.

Graves is wounded on several occasions, notably at High Wood on July 20th 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, and by the end of his War the nature of the senior officers and the battalions have changed, as the British Army adapted to modern mechanised warfare. Graves gives graphic accounts of the misery of the trenches, including a fascinating evaluation of the risks that men would take and for what reasons. The first edition contained a poem written to Graves in a letter by Siegfried Sassoon, which Graves used without permission, and the print run had to be stopped. First editions containing the poem are extremely rare and very valuable. One of the episodes Graves refers to, about visiting a fellow officer's home whilst on leave, and leaving as the mother was trying to contact her other dead son by spiritual means also refers to Sassoon, and the friendship between the two cooled after publication.

On a sombre note, on both his first and last day in the trenches during his service, he observes a man who has committed suicide rather than go on. Robert Graves is opinionated, stubborn and has his own strong views on the War and how it was waged (and on many other subjects) - but the book is a compelling read which I cannot recommend too highly.

John A. Lucy

There's A Devil In The Drum

This book must be one of the best covering the war experiences of an ordinary regular soldier - along with Frank Richard's Old Soldiers Never Die (see earlier review on this page). It is very readable, full of incident, and the narrative flows very well.

John Lucy was a member of the pre-war regular Army, as was Frank Richards; however the parallels cannot be carried too far, as Lucy joined the Royal Irish Rifles, along with his brother Denis, only in January 1912, but by the time the war broke out both he and his brother were NCOs. The account of life in the pre-war army is interesting in itself.

Lucy was involved, with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, in the very early stages of the War, the retreat from Mons (the chapter covering this is called 'Sleep Marching') and le Cateau amongst other actions. The quality of the writing shows in the descriptions of his battalions first encounters with the enemy; firstly a lone German aeroplane drones slowly above them high in the sky; next an encounter with some wounded British cavalry, and then the first sound of the 'booming of field-guns....a queer and menacing sound'. Reading this, you can almost feel the anticipation, nerves and excitement that the soldiers must have experienced.

On the 15th of September 1914, Lucy's brother Denis was killed. John Lucy's last view of him was as he led, with his officer, the men of his platoon forward to engage the enemy. 'Forward he went, and out of my sight forever'. Afterwards, John Lucy was at first told that his brother was only slightly wounded, but in fact he had been killed by shellfire. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial along with around 4,000 others who died in the early months of the War and have no known grave.

The majority of the book deals with 1914 and 1915, and there is a particularly good account of the 1914 actions at Neuve Chapelle (the 1st Royal Irish Rifles were also to fight there later, in the 1915 battle), and of trench life in general. Lucy also sees the Regular Army decimated and then diluted by the New Army, and like Richards he laments its passing.

Although promoted to Sergeant, by the end of 1915 Lucy was back home in Ireland suffering from neurasthenia. He had served almost continuously for 16 months. After returning to light duties in the second half of 1916, he applied for and was granted a commission. He wanted to return to the Royal Irish Rifles, and so he did, as a Second Lieutenant. However, he records that he was proudest to have served as a Regular Non Commissioned Officer with his peers.

A short Epilogue covers the remainder of the War: Lucy returned to the front in July 1917, and in December of that year he was severely wounded ('there were sixteen holes in me') by a German grenade, and by the time he recovered the War was over. As an account of the War as seen from the ranks, this is very highly recommended.

Siegfried Sassoon

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer / Sherston's Progress

Siegfried Sassoon wrote his memoirs as a fictionalised semi-autobiographical account, calling himself George Sherston. There is an earlier volume that forms the first part of the trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, which evocatively re-creates the life that he lived before the Great War as a man of independent means and leisure. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man is superb, and I would recommend reading it although it does not deal with the First World War. For a link to a website with further reviews of this book and others, plus information on Sassoon, see here.

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer deals largely with Sassoon's experiences on the Western Front, including an account of Sassoon's view of the first day of the Somme battle (1st of July 1916). He was in reserve near Fricourt, and watched the 21st Division attack from an elevated point in a field nearby whilst he ate oranges. Whilst mainly with the First Royal Welch Fusiliers, Sassoon also served briefly with the Second Battalion, and had similar experiences to Robert Graves. He also describes his famous " Statement" against the prolonging of the War (see Graves Goodbye to All That for his account of these events), and it is partly this plus his " seeing corpses in Piccadilly" that leads him to Craiglockhart as a neurasthenia case, where he is treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and meets and encourages Wilfred Owen. The latter part of this is covered by Sherston's Progress. All three books are fine works of literature, describing the war through a poets eyes. In addition, the time at Craiglockhart and the interaction with Owen form the basis of Pat Barkers Regeneration trilogy, also made into a film.

Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front

Perhaps more a novel than a memoir, but of all the books of this genre I have read about the Great War, this is probably the most terrible - and by that term I mean that the picture it portrays is without exception that of fear, depression, a resigned awaiting of fate and death and total lack of hope. To read it is almost like looking at an accident whist you drive slowly by on the motorway ;something awful is happening, and you look, but you know you might not like what you see - and yet it is compelling to look. The book is compelling to read.

Published in 1929, the same year as Goodbye to All That, it deals with the War from a German infantry battalion's perspective. It covers their experiences in the line, out of the line, and on leave. The book is explicit about the horrors of war, with two passages particularly moving for me; firstly when the narrator goes home on leave and reaching home finds his mother ill and has to visit the mother of a comrade who has been killed. The second is when he is stranded in a shell-hole, and a French soldier stumbles into it. He stabs him, but the man takes some time to die, and he has to stay in the shellhole with him for the rest of the day.

Rightly acclaimed as a classic, this is a deeply moving but also depressing book. Read it, but be prepared to feel as though you are surfacing from a darker world when you finish it.

Frank Richards

Old Soldiers Never Die

Originally published in 1933, this is one of the few memoirs of the Great War to have been written by a regular soldier from the ranks. Frank Richards was a reservist when war was declared, having already completed eight years with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and then five more in private life. He returned to the Royal Welch on the 5th of August 1914 as a private, was involved in the retreat from Le Cateau, served throughout the whole War with the 2nd Battalion and was again near Le Cateau when the armistice was declared over four years later. Richards was demobilised in December 1918, still a private, although now decorated with both the DCM and the MM. In between he had been involved in the battles of Loos, the Somme and Third Ypres, plus the German offensive in March 1918 and the " final hundred days" advance to victory.

He had seen it all and done it all, and this down to earth account gives you a clear picture of what the war must have really been like for the majority of those who were involved as front line infantry soldiers. Richards describes scrounging, fist-fights between men, drunkenness and whoring - plus of course the actual grim business of trench warfare, attacking and defending. In the cold winter months, he describes how the soldiers burn the wooden crosses from graves to keep warm: " They were no good to the dead but they provided warmth for the living" .

The men offer up " prayers" for those officers who offend them, and in some cases these prayers are rapidly answered! Inevitably, given his length of service, Richards has a number of close shaves where his life is saved by leaving a certain spot a minute before his pal, or by where he decides to sleep, and it is clear that luck or fate has a large part to play in who survives and who does not.

Despite his cynicism at the end of the book, where he contrasts the post-war rewards for the front-line soldier with those who stayed safe behind the lines, you are left with the impression that Frank Richards almost enjoyed the War....but perhaps enjoyed is not quite the right word, because, as a regular soldier, after all it was just his job.

The book has been republished by The Naval and Military press and is thus still in print today.

George Coppard

With A Machine Gun to Cambrai

George Coppard could be seen as the other end of the spectrum of those who fought in the First World War when compared to Frank Richards (see above). Coppard was no old soldier. He lied about his age and enlisted following the outbreak of War on the 27th of August 1914 aged just sixteen years and seven months. He was just a boy, but when in February 1916 his mother tried to have him discharged on the grounds on his age, the War Office reply was that as his attested age was 19 and a half years, that was his official age and in the Army he stayed!

Coppard trained as an infantryman with the Royal West Surrey Regiment, and was in the trenches by June 1915. He served in various parts of the line, including the notorious Hohenzollern Redoubt. Unlike Richards, Coppard was well aware of the danger, and freely admits to being terrified. He describes the mining activities, the fear as one of a machine gun outpost in the edge of one of the craters, and the general misery of trench warfare.

Coppard's experience with the Vickers led to him being transferred to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps on February 1916. At some points he also served as an officer's batman. During the remainder of the War, Coppard saw action at the Somme, Arras and Cambrai battles, and was injured twice. The first time he was shot accidentally in the foot by his pal, and for a while in hospital was suspected of having inflicted the wound himself to escape the trenches. The second time was more serious, when he was hit by a machine gun bullet in the thigh at Cambrai. That was the end of his War, although he was not demobbed until just after he turned 21. What Coppard describes is truly the experience I think many would have had of the Great War, and tells how the ordinary men (and boys) fought and died.

Coppard did not write his memoirs until the 1960s after he retired. In the Epilogue, he describes his first trip back to the battlefields, which he made when he was in his early seventies. He revisits some of the areas he served in, the graves of his step-father and some of his comrades, and most amazingly meets up with a lady he was billeted with for a while in May 1916. Many of the sites he visits are ones that those interested in the Western Front know well, but an old soldier returning view them in a different light. For me, this was the most interesting and moving part of the book.

Frederic Manning

Her Privates We

This fine novel of the experiences of a private soldier during the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme has been published in two versions. Originally published privately as The Middle Parts of Fortune in 1929 it gave a shocking, warts and all view of the lot of the private soldier, complete with profanity. It was then republished in an expurgated version with the tile Her Privates We. Both titles come from Shakespeare, and indeed a Shakespearian quotation begins every chapter in the book. The unexpurgated version was republished around thirty years ago, and is still in print.

When compared to many other memoirs and novels written by those who fought in the Great War, this book stands out in two ways. Firstly, it is written from the point of view of the private soldier, rather than an officer: even though Manning was hardly a typical private, he vividly conveys the misery of the infantry's lot during the Somme offensive. There are fatigues, drunken "sprees" and almost constant danger even when behind the lines. The second notable variation is that the majority of the book does not deal with battle itself, but with the activities when out of the line. Manning has the ability to clearly paint the picture of the War, and as others have concentrated (not unexpectedly) on their experiences in action, this book deals with the whole experience - much of which was not in the front line.

The principal character, Bourne, like Manning himself, stands out from his peers. He is encouraged to go for a commission. He would rather stay with his pals, but during an attack a young soldier named Martlow, who Bourne has messed with, is killed and his other main pal is wounded. Earlier, there is a graphic description of the danger the three share when they man a runners relay-post in a village which is shelled intensely so that they have to retreat to a cellar.

There is a sequence where the men discuss the reasons for their being in the war, complete with the swearing one might reasonably expect to have happened on such an occasion - then or now. Hemingway called this "the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read". The book draws to its conclusion with the awful inevitability that many must have experienced. If you want to know what war for the infantry was like, then this book will tell you.

Ernest Junger

The Storm of Steel

This book is a fine record of Ernest Junger's experiences with the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers. His war commenced late in 1914, and although wounded several times, he fought on until nearly the end of the war, being wounded for the last time in August 1918.

I am not aware of many Great War memoirs by German men or officers freely available in English, and the account of this fine soldier serves to remind one that all sides in the War fought convinced that their cause was right. One interesting common theme, found here and also in most of the other memoirs reviewed on this page, is the respect that the authors had for their enemies as soldiers, and often as men too.

Junger was at the Battle of the Somme, and suffered the intense bombardment that the British rained on their trenches. He memorably described this experience as "being as if one were tied tight to a post and threatened by a fellow swinging a sledge-hammer. Now the hammer is swung back for the blow, now it whirls forward, till, just missing your skull, it sends the splinters flying from the post once more."

Also involved in the great Spring Offensive of 1918, Junger has left what must be one of the finest accounts of the sheer excitement of a successful attack. Even before it began, his company was decimated by a shell which burst amongst them, but Junger and his men carried on, and the pages which describe this come close to giving an idea of the madness and almost ecstasy of success plus the bloodlust that accompanies it.

Clearly an honourable man, and one who took to soldiering, and, you feel, enjoyed his War, his fierce patriotism for his country shines through this thoughtful account.

Captain J.C. Dunn

The War The Infantry Knew

Originally published in a private edition of just 500 copies, this is a comprehensive account of the Great War from the perspective of the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Now available again, it is a fascinating read for those with a keen interest in the First World War.

Largely written by Dunn himself, who is mentioned by both Graves and Sassoon (see above), it also contains contributions from many others, including Sassoon, but not Graves. Interestingly, Graves offered to contribute, but Dunn had a low regard for Goodbye to All That, and did not take up the offer. In fact, although Graves is mentioned only a few times in nearly 600 pages, it is generally in disparaging terms!

Virtually a day by day account, the book covers the whole war for the 2nd RWF, who were involved from part way through the retreat from Mons right through until the end of the War (the book in fact covers right up until June 1919). It is eye-opening to compare how much time they spent in the line, particularly in dangerous sectors or during offensives, with the time out of the line. The battalion was involved in several key battles, including Loos (September 1915), the Somme (High Wood on 20th July 1916), and Third Ypres in 1917. Each of these is described in some detail, and what comes across most is the confusion, the rapidly changing situation and the danger that attended such battles.

The book is written in a quite unemotional way (casualties are mostly recorded dispassionately almost as a footnote), but there are many elements of considerable human interest. More than official regimental histories (which again Dunn felt did not wholly portray the War he and the battalion had experienced), this is an account of the men and particularly the officers who fought in it, warts and all.

Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden was a poet who enlisted in the Royal Sussex regiment in 1915. He is not as well known as Owen, Graves or Sassoon, but like the latter two he published his experiences of the Great War some 12 years aftewr the war had ended (in his case in 1930). The volume was printed complete with an Appendix containing 32 of his war poems, which are also present in modern editions).

Blunden's war experiences led him initially to Festubert, and he also served near Cuinchy (well known to Robert Graves). He was involved in a diversionary attack during the early sdtages of the Somme, and subsequently in Septmber 1916 his battalion was moved to the Somme and saw action near the river Ancre. Later, Blunden also served in the Ypres salient, and finished the war with a Military Cross won on the Somme.

For me, the book was an interesting read, but not as immediate as Goodbye to All That (perhaps as a result of the latter having been written in something of a rush by Graves), or as atmospheric as the Sassoon's George Sherston trilogy. However, Undertones of War is still a worthwhile read for those interested in accounts of those who seerved in the Great War.

H. S. Clapham

Mud and Khaki

Originally published in the 1930s and now reprinted by Naval & Military Press, this is a good account of the realities of trench warfare.

The book is not filled with momentous incidents, and perhaps Clapham is not as accomplished an author as some of those who published accounts of their experiences, but this book for me had something some others have not.

What it does extremely well is to describe the mixture of the monotony for the ordinary soldier - in and out of the trenches, working parties, sentry duty and so on - and the extreme danger that they often faced. It must have been hard to continually perform these mundane duties whilst also remembering that a wrong move or carelessness could mean a wound or death.

Clapham was a soldier in the 1st Honourable Artillery Company, and his account begins in January 1915 at Kemmel. The narrative is in the form of a diary of events, with dates recorded and several days activities described under each date.

Clapham spent the majority of his time in the Ypres Salient, and his record of the conditions at Hooge, St. Eloi, Sanctuary Wood and the devastation of Ypres itself are fascinating reading. His battalion was actually based in dugouts within the ramparts of Ypres on occasion, and although the exact location is not clear, those who have visited the city and walked around the ramparts between the Menin and Lille Gates must have passed the location of these dugouts.

The book covers only until October 1915, but is a detailed account of the experiences of one man and his fellow soldiers during those ten months, and I think a valuable book for those interested in the real day to day experiences of the 'Other Ranks' in the Great War.