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One of the best Great War memoirs
on 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.