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VINE VOICEon 8 May 2012
Do not hesitate: if you have any interest in the Great War or a man's experiences at war, you will find no better work than "Last man standing". It is a genuine "cannot-put-down". Editor Richard van Emden has produced a really memorable account of Norman Collins' war, based on Norman's own letters, photographs and descriptive memoir. Norman reached the grand old age of one hundred years and passed away in 1998, but in his later years Richard got to know him well. The story, however, is of a boy who was just seventeen in 1914.

Norman Collins was perhaps typical in that he was keen to get to war, to the extent that he did not tell his parents and went as far from his home as possible to enlist, joining the Seaforth Highlanders as a ranker in mid 1915. He had already seen some of war's brutality, in the form of the German naval bombardment of his home town of Hartlepool. From the time he joined, Norman was very evidently proud to be a "kiltie". He was a good soldier, rapidly promoted through the ranks and commissioned after officer training at Lichfield. His descriptions of life there and previously at Seaforths barracks and camps at Fort George and Ripon paint a detailed and absorbing picture of the soldier's life in training.

Once in France he sees a great deal of action, serving with the 4th and 6th Battalions and going over the top at Beaumont Hamel (November 1916) and Arras (April 1917). His experiences inevitably include the deaths of close friends, comrades and even his young servant. Norman is also detailed to lead a burial party after the attack at Beaumont-Hamel, in which his men find around 1000 bodies including many skeletal remains from 1 July 1916. It is perhaps unsurprising that this episode gives him nightmares; but he also suffers a recurring dream which affected him for many years, of the marching boots of his comrades, leaving him behind as last man standing.

Although wounded and spending months in hospital and convalescence, Norman made a sufficient recovery to return to service and an eventual requested transfer to the Indian Army, with which he saw post-war service on the North West Frontier. He went on to a most interesting and illustrious career of which we see only a glimpse in the book but perhaps enough to demonstrate the character of the man. Norman only returned to the old battlefields in the 1990's, encouraged to do so by his son. It was a last chance to say goodbye to many of his chums, whose graves he visited. He is no doubt with them again, no longer the last.
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on 3 January 2013
If, like me, you have previously read general histories of the 1st World War, this personal record shows things from a different perspective.

Norman Collins was unusual in that all his letters home were kept, thus giving a remarkably complete record of his army life and thoughts from the date of his joining the army as a young volunteer until shortly after the end of hostilities.

He had joined his school cadet force which gave him a sound introduction to army life. His letters during his army training show how the army set about things: everything is covered - from food, sleeping accommodation, leave, exercises and so on. He, and his volunteer colleagues, looked forward to the prospect of war and to joining the regiments they were keen on, seeing things more or less as an adventure - not knowing of course what the reality would turn out to be. 'The day war broke out I was thrilled' he wrote and rushed down to the recruiting station. Patriotism, he says, was assumed.

Fairly quickly, his confidence, abilities and the encouragement of his CO lead him to apply for a Commission, which he duly attained.

In France he proved to be a very competent officer judging by the tasks he was allotted. And he gave much thought to the needs of the men in his charge. Early on he says 'On the whole I prefer this to being at home as I am doing something at last and although it is a very hard life it is not so monotonous'. He was just 19.

Physical conditions were often appalling. Apart from the fighting there was the mud, sometimes almost waste deep. One of his tasks was to collect the dead. Rats scurried from the chest cavities of some of the bodies.

Later, his enthusiasm was less marked, though he always continued to be an effective officer. He was incensed when he once went back to brigade headquarters and found the officers there living in considerable comfort - white tablecloths for full meals, and polished buttons and belts, and food parcels from Fortum & Masons, etc. In the line trenches you didn't wash, you just scraped the mud off.

He never pretended he was not scared before a battle - but he knew he had to set an example to his men, which he did. 'You could not avoid the bullets, or the shells; it was sheer chance' he wrote. Writing to his brother he said 'You know how keen I was about the army and wanting to get out here, so I know what I am talking about. It is the nearest approach to Hell on earth that there is'.

He later described war as futile: both sides were losers he said. He thought the war could have been ended much sooner.

The book is well presented with interesting photographs, some by Norman Collins himself. I did not notice any typos. I found it a very absorbing and sobering read, and a complement to my previous reading about WW1. Highly recommended.
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on 13 June 2013
It felt like a privilege to read this. I possibly have a better understanding of WW1 now than I've ever had. I think it was the immediacy of it, composed as it is largely of letters written home, either from his training periods, or else from the Front itself. The day-to-day-ness of the book made it so much easier to comprehend than serious, weighty historical tomes ever could - in my opinion, anyway. And I found myself liking this man enormously. The book also cleared up something for me. In my ignorance I'd always felt that, either with the volunteers during the first two years of this war, or else the conscripts from 1916 onwards, officers and men alike were more or less given a uniform and a rifle, shipped over the France, then told to just get on with it. Nothing, it seems, was further from the truth, because they were trained meticulously for many months before they were deemed fit to go and fight.

Norman didn't consider himself to be a hero. I beg to differ.
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on 25 December 2012
I not only have one of the original hard copies, I was gifted this lifetime with the great pleasure of knowing Norman Collins for many years. He was/is one of the most incredible human beings it has been my pleasure to know this lifetime. Tiny in physical stature, he was a giant in personality, ethics, intelligence and overall humanity. His memory for detail, beginning from the time he was 3 years old and viewed the Coronation of the Queen, was utterly prolific. (Among other things, he had a rose garden for many years with over 5000 varieties, and he knew every one of them by name and with any unusual details!) Whenever I was over the Pond, I cherished the time spent with him as he regaled me with fascinating stories of his life and times, including WWII during which he served with such distinction, that Hitler took note and placed him on a list of 100 souls to be executed when Germany invaded and conquered England.

The book itself chronicles the time of his youth, his desire to get into the war after witnessing Germany's first naval shelling of the Scottish coast and, later, the absolute horrors of that war. Buried alive by a shell burst at The Somme, he was only saved because one of his fellow officers happened to be looking at him when it occurred and was able to muster a few others to dig Norman out. He later served in India. He told me that after his adventures in service, he decided to live every day as if it were his last. He did so, much to the benefit of many. It was an honour to know this great man and I'm immensely pleased to know his publishers have been wise enough to republish this work. England should never forget him and his benefit to the nation during two tumultuous wars as well as his business contributions to a great industry, Perkins Engines in which he had a powerful impact.
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on 14 December 2012
A great insight into the thoughts and feelings of a truly brave young soldier on the front line told from his memoirs at the time and accounts in later life.

If WW1 is of interest to you then this is a must. A snip at only £0.98

Purchase now
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on 15 April 2013
..of a fairly ordinary young man who served throughout WW1 but who was a brave and observant soldier. A recommended read.
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on 17 April 2013
What a stimulating and excellent biography of one man's war. I recommend it to all would be military historians. I was amazed that he remained a 2nd Lt despite all the deaths of his comrades and his obvious good performance as an officer.
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on 12 January 2013
This is one of the most profound pieces of documentary history I have ever read. Not only are the descriptions of life in the trenches incredibly real, but the book also gives a wonderful feel for the whole era. It not something that was ever meant to be written as a history, but is simply personal letters and photographs belonging to someone who was actually there. None of them were ever originally intended for publication and that is what gives them their amazing authenticity. These together with the information gathered through interviews by the book's editor, Richard Van Emden, make a complete picture of the War and the times which in quite unique in my experience. A fascinating read. If you are at all interested in the history of the period you must read it.
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on 28 November 2012
This story is a terrific read and reveals an era at the beginning of the 20 th Century of close family, personal ambition, loyalty to your country and the real horrors of war.
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on 6 January 2014
A remarkable story about a remarkable man who simply lived through the most perilous of times...the trench warfare of ww1!

Basically the book revolves around the fascinating letters of a 2nd Lt during his service in the UK & France during ww1. The book also comprises personal reflections from Lt 'Norman' Collins, accurate editor comments and a host of photographs of times gone by.

The above paragraph is simply a clinical description of the book whereby the book content is much, much more. It is in essence a horrific historical personal insight to the horrors of trench warfare by a very, very brave man who was twice wounded, who lost most of his friends in the process and who actually lived through the most terrible of times.

The letters are fascinating and there are many stories, good and bad, held within them. In the main however, reading them leaves you shocked and sad at the tragic loss of a whole generation of extremely brave young men. The volume and quantity of the carnage is simple staggering!

The book though is all about the experiences of 'Norman,' told through his eyes but it does not follow the normal format of a story. However it is simply a brilliant chronological read, a historic one at that too. An incredible personal story about an incredible modest man who became one of our last 'tommies.'

I also read this as a Falklands veteran thinking I knew about war, death and it's suffering. I do not....!
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