Great! A diary of Stanley Spencer, one of the greatest of war artists! Erm, no ... a Sheffield lad whose name was actually Charles William Stanley Spencer, a ranker who rose to a commission and an MC, who has left one of the finest of war diaries, describing his time on the Western Front.
Stanley Spencer served as Private 2682 in the 24th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, with which he saw action in the Loos area, on the Somme, in the pursuit of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line and at Arras. He was commissioned into the West Yorkshire Regiment in late October 1917 and served with the 10th (Service) Battalion. Stanley's descriptions of many incidents large and small are very fine, but perhaps none more so than his tale of chaotic retreat in March 1918. This part of his story is a genuine addition to our knowledge of that terrible time. He went on to win the Military Cross for his leading part in a raid near Bouzincourt, which he modestly describes in the diary as "a walkover". His MC was gazetted in October 1918, by which time he was back in England having fallen ill. He did not return to France.
The writing is frank and mentions many individuals, not all in glowing terms. Place and battle descriptions are vivid if surprisingly unemotional, particularly as Spencer's friends and comrades fall. He is a keen soldier, selected at times for unusual tasks such as an attachment to Divisional Intelligence, but we get little real insight into his motivations and feelings. As a chronicle of the times, though, it would be hard to better.
There are some weaknesses. The lack of an index is a pity, as is the consistent misspelling of three placenames. For Corbie we have Corbic, Couin becomes Conin and Loupart Wood is Lonpart Wood. It is hard to believe that Stanley spelled them this way.
One of the best Great War books of recent times.
on 5 December 2009
I was very impressed with the way that Stanley Spencer has written his diary. It gives a real sense of the war from a birds eye perspective which can never be achieved by historical accounts. This was a soldier writing his account of the war and its trials and tribulations on a day to day basis. Sometimes even in the face of adversity it comes across with a young man full of wit and humour along with a sense of survival and adventure. Times were extremely hard, to fall off a duck board into the thick wet mud was not unusual and would have resulted in certain death. For Stanley as luck would have it the last man in the line helped pull him out. A trip to the local estaminate saw him fill his face with a plentifully cooked breakfast which must have been heaven. To have to strip naked and have a cold shower with a dozen other men in a disused barn in a French winter in the middle of a war would be a sight for sore eyes.He even turns down promotion to lance corporal as he states he doesn't want to be weighed down with the NCO stuff!!
A remarkable insight into a soldiers life during the great war. I loved it and am heartened that the family have chosen to share with us this historical document, which I'm sure will become an important great war treasure to be read and shared for another 100yrs.
Very sorry that Stanley had failing health and was unable to live a full married life and succumbed to his illnesses well before he would have been able to fulfill his dreams, especially after surviving the war and winning himself a military cross.
on 26 April 2012
Described as a diary this is more of a memoir with each chapter covering a month. It is a curiously slim book considering that it covers the author's experiences over four years, much of that time spent on the Western Front including the 1916 Battle of the Somme and the March 1918 German offensive.
The tone is matter of fact and short on insights and opinions which make it difficult to empathise with the author - modesty and reticence are admirable traits but not desirable in a writer. It would have been interesting to hear the author's views on many things, perhaps the contrast between his life as an officer with that as a private (he was commissioned in 1917), but sadly there are few insights.
Any previously unpublished firsthand accounts from a generation now departed are a welcome addition to WW1 literature and I am sure this will be of interest to many. However it is not a classic and even amongst the `new' WW1 memoirs published in recent years as the centenary approaches there have been better written and more interesting accounts. Hence the 3 star rating.