William Boyd, the English author, explains why the First World War "continues to preoccupy us. It was a conflict between 19th - century armies equipped with 20th-century weapons - hence the unprecedented carnage." (The cavalry charge in the movie War Horse provides a vivid demonstration of his point..) Boyd made the statement to explain why he felt called upon to write "Waiting for Sunrise" his soon to be published novel, his third centered on the First World War. (For the full text of his piece, see the Opinion Section of the New York Times, for January 22, 2012).
Guy Chapman, then a young British officer in the Royal Fusiliers, the London regiment, served on the Western Front from July, 1915, to the end of the war. His was a new battalion, "almost entirely amateur." By the Armistice in November, 1918, just under eight hundred men including thirty-two officers had been killed, "almost the exact combat strength of an infantry battalion." In addition, 1500 were wounded. At the time Chapman wrote the book (in the early 1930's), there were only 150 survivors.
Chapman's clear-headed and even-handed (but not impassionate) eye witness accounts of battle after battle are based on the journal he kept from the beginning. He was no ordinary observer. His rank and duties allowed him to see far more than most and his pre-war university education empowered him to see the war through a literate prism that enriches his work on page after page. The account describes the battles fought by his battalion in sobering detail and provides a thorough account of the never ending horror of trench warfare. Here's a sample:
"The enemy shelled the ridge without relief. Day and night, hour after hour, heavy explosions rocked our neighborhood. Northward ran a trench. It was choked with dead. From the marks on the shoulders and collars, three divisions at least must have been here. They lay slung carelessly on top of each other, sprawled in obscene attitudes . . . . my eye caught something white and shining. I stooped. It was the last five joints of a spine. There was nothing else, no body, no flesh. . . . . Indeed the place overawed one. We descended to primal man. No washing or shaving here; and the demands of nature answered as quickly as possible in the handiest and deepest shell-hole." Fawcett Crest edition, 1967. p. 152.
In the preface, Chapman describes the approach he took to writing the book as one "with myself both as protagonist and chorus." Chapman goes on to say "I was preoccupied with an attachment, the sentiment of belonging to a living entity and, of course, its death." He also states "that I have tried to illuminate . . . the enormous fascination of war, the repulsion and attraction, the sharpening of awareness..."
Remarkably, Chapman waited until the early 1930's to write the book. In typical British manner, Chapman understates his own role; he is a soft-spoken protagonist, but he is an eloquent chorus, etching for the reader the courage, the fortitude, the gallows humor and the pluck of the men of the Royal Fusiliers. Any soldier of any army would be fortunate to have such an able and sympathetic memoirist. Their prodigality has been richly marked.
End Note. "A Passionate Prodigality" has long been out of print. But it is easy enough to track down. addall.com lists a dozen or more acceptable used copies for under $5.00 (plus shipping. One caveat. Chapman wrote this book with a knowledgeable English readership in mind. His extensive use of military abbreviations for battalion officers left me baffled. I tried and failed to locate a table setting them out. Perhaps you'll have better luck.