As the Great War marches out of living memory, it's almost a cliché to say that there has been a steady increase in interest in the experience of the passing generation, and a steady barrage of newly transcribed diaries, memoirs, and collections of letters.
The interest of these books often rests on the nature of the author's service, the theatre of war they served in, their rank and the nature of their service, not to mention their skill as a writer.
Sapper Jack Martin's Diary, ably edited by Richard van Emden, was presumably written in secret (diary keeping was banned at the front) or with the tacit approval of Martin's superiors. It is an outstanding example of an enlisted man's war: Martin's skill as a writer makes this an invaluable addition to the genre.
Martin served in the Royal Engineers, a volunteer from a stern no-conformist background. He served in the Brigade signals of the 122nd Infantry brigade, part of the 41st Division. (His brigade included the 12th East Surreys, 15th Hampshire's, 11th Royal West Kents, and the 18th Kings Royal Rifle Corps - research into these battalions will find this book of particular interest). The Division was deployed in France in May 1916, served o the Somme (where Martin's diary begins in September 1916); in the battle of Messines in summer 1917 and on the Flanders coast. In November 1918 they were sent to Italy to stem the Austro-Hungarian advance and Martin's description of Italy is especially striking. They returned to the Western front in February 1918, enduring the hammer blows of the German Spring Offensive, and after the Hundred Day's advance, finishing the war in occupation duties in Cologne.
Martin has a perceptive and sensitive insight into his condition, and as well as his philosophical insights, his war centres on food, sleep, and companionship, enduring shelling and generally weathering life just behind the front line. Of particular interest are his views of the war, and his anger at `shirkers' as home having a cushy war. It is also interesting to read of the relationship of a well-educated soldier with his officers - Martin's interaction with Lieutenant Buchanan is especially striking.
There is no index, which is a pity - don't miss Martin's account of being sent Sassoon's `Counter-attack' by his fiancé on pages 235-6.
It's worth remembering that these are transcribed diaries, written up by Martin in the 1920s. They are an invaluable part of a Great War library, and especially valuable to the history of the neglected 41st Division.