on 29 October 2014
At the time of writing, Amazon wants to know if reviews are based upon “verified purchases”. I shall show I have read the book by making reference to it.
Why should you read / buy this book ?
Far too many people think they know WW1, whereas all they really know is the highly selective view they have been taught (indoctrinated with ?). There is far, far more to WW1 than “mud, blood, mechanised slaughter”, Sassoon and Owen, and in this invaluable book we find the proof.
As the author points out in Chapter 1, p21 et seq, much anti-war poetry and literature was written in the 1930’s, when it was fashionable to think like that, and actually the poetry written at the time covered far more topics, and was far coarser, than is commonly presented to us (by those with a distaste for the nationalistic, jingoistic, scatological and earthy). Again, in contrast to the caricatured stereotype, on p210 Holmes reminds us that shells accounted for more damage than machine guns. But the concept of soldiers walking slowly into machine gun fire seems a very difficult to remove idea.
The book is themed, rather than in chronological order, so it is not until p71 do we get to the indiction process. Here too is little known information, eg p72 and fig 42, that the British Army uniform was of better quality than most working men’s everyday clothes.
And so the ignored, over-looked, mind-expanding, and above all real, keeps coming, for example, p90 and fig 58 show us a carrier pigeon being released from a tank; p91 and fig 59 show us and tell us about the Fullerphone, a predecessor of broadband where Morse could be sent down the same line at the same time as a spoken phone call, and the Morse was almost impossible for the Germans to pick up with their buried microphones; p100 and fig 67 shows us a bloke up a transportable pole (I kid you not), desperately trying to see what’s going on.
For those who can’t understand how, and why, the artillery couldn’t hit what the soldiers at the front needed them to hit, a look at fig 71 on p104 shows us a very complicated board where the information from the front is being turned into the information the artillery need (very different forms of data), and which gun is firing where. This vital link is widely ignored, and far too many people assume the process was extremely simple, when it wasn’t. The accusation of incompetence needs to be directed at those who will not research what was actually going on, rather than directed at those who did know what was going on, but didn’t run the war the way 21st century pacifists would like it to have been.
Also spectacularly absent are fields of holes and mud. Given that the vast majority of these pictures are ‘snap-shots’, taken by the soldiers themselves, we notice what was of interest to the soldiers, not those with a vested interest in proving the war was a particular caricatured way. We see people shaving, washing, meet some FANYs, see a tank well and truly jammed in a German trench, and occasionally visit fronts way from the Western one, eg East Africa and the Middle East. Remember, it was a world war, not a Flanders war.
And when the soldiers came back, they miss it (p236) ! They had a predominantly positive tone during the war: this was one of the many reasons they coped. The problem surface in peace-time in re-adjusting to peace and the lack of support for returning soldiers (still far too common today).
My criticisms are two-fold. Firstly, the author seems obliged to pander to the “death, doom, and disaster” brigade because just about everyone who is mentioned in the text (not necessarily in the photos) dies. Brief work with a calculator shows this is not so (total BEF force approx 5.7 million, total BEF dead approx 0.7 million. That is approx 12%, ie 88% live.) and yet it is only the stories of the dead we seem to hear. Secondly, there are precious few shots of the extensive victory celebrations, reinforcing the idea that it was not a victory worth celebrating.
This book goes some way to bringing us a balanced, but still more needs to be said about the overwhelming majority who served and lived, and to stop the fixation on Flanders. This book contains many, many deeply interesting and unusual viewpoints that we never hear, and really ought to be part of the British school curriculum so we can have a balanced and rounded view, rather than a warped and selective one.
Please buy and read this book, and see how the soldiers really lived, away from the highly selective viewpoint of those with a stubborn, pre-disposed hatred of the whole venture.