on 18 October 2008
I don't normally feel compelled to comment on any books I read, however this new book by Richard Van Emden is so good that I couldn't resist making my views known.
The book progresses year by year through the duration of the war, each chapter is full of amazing personal accounts most of which have never previously been published, through these Mr Van Emden sets out not just to tell us of the utter horror of the war, but also of the everyday experiences of the troops out of the line.
However it is not just the superb text that makes this book a must buy, the book also contains many truely excellent unpublished photos that I have never seen before. Most of these photos were taken by troops using their own cameras which was strictly against regulations, but thanks to their efforts they give us a remarkable view of their world.
This book isn't just for those who have a major interest in the war, but should be read by just about everyone in order to give us all a better understanding of what this generation suffered.
A really superb read.
on 10 November 2008
The Soldiers' War is genuinely exceptional. There are other Great War anthologies around, but this one stands out by a country mile. The book claims to contain primarily unpublished stories from 1914-1918 and whilst I do not know enough about the period to comment, I do not recognise any accounts that I have read before. Furthermore, the breadth and exquisite balance of the tales here makes this book so very gripping.
The book contains not just the familiar stories associated with the war, but others that I have never even thought about: There is a man pulling 18th Century pewter from a dugout, another finding a Roman Sword uncovered by a shell explosion. There are stories of the survival and the beauty of nature, and of men locating trout ponds behind the Somme Battlefield for a spot of fishing.
Some of the stories are frightening and, at times, violent; many others are deeply moving and occasionally almost poetic, emotionally charged as they are. Others are genuinely funny, such as the officer who writes about two Geordie friends one of whom is shot and wounded. One man rips open the tunic of the other, looks at the wound and says `ee man, its champion'. The friend, pleased with the nice wound, replies: `Howay, Geordie, gan awa and shake hands with the German for bein' sae canny.' The incredible gallows humour of conflict.
I found the illustrations extraordinary, not least because the soldiers themselves took them, using their own private cameras, which were banned and therefore illegal. I've never seen such privately taken images elsewhere, although one slight nit-picky point here is the quality of reproduction - it's good, but given their historical importance might have been a little better. That said, on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, this book is an outstanding tribute to those men who lost so much, and whose sacrifices we must keep on remembering.
on 1 November 2008
Whilst this is in no way an original format for WW1 books, much of the material is. I have to be honest and say I was expecting more interesting new photographs, but they are remarkable from the point of view that they were taken on Kodak pocket cameras that were banned for most of the war.
The book is mainly a selection of personal accounts, and are a great way for those who have never taken an interest in WW1 to quickly get a feel for the experiences of soldiers without having to study the dry minutiae of war tactics and so on. My personal favourite cameo was one where a British soldier goes to steal some chickens for lunch, but comes across a German doing the same. The German merely nods to acknowledge the Tommy, and both carry on with catching their respective chickens and returning to their trenches.
In all, I think it's been a bit over-marketed on the new photos, but the book is certainly a must-read.
on 28 December 2008
There are a couple of truisms about the Great War: that it was a famously squalid and horrible four years entailing the senseless loss of swathes of Europe's youth; and that it was the war that the combatants (such as my own grandfather) would never talk about.
It's in this context that this is such a good book. It builds up a compelling, multi-layered body of evidence about the daily (and nightly) experience of the soldiers. No matter how well we might feel we understand the war - not least from fictional works such as Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy, or Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong - there is something extraordinary about being told, in the words of those who were there, why there was a general order not to shoot rats, what it was like to watch a firing squad shoot a deserter, and how poison gas moved across the battlefield.
There are numerous frank admissions of terror, as well as the personal means by which the soldiers (both Tommies and officers) overcame this. There are also numerous descriptions of the appalling carnage and the casually witnessed dead - the soldiers playing cards using as their table the level back of a frozen soldier. For the generations that knew such scenes had taken place, but had not found a relative prepared to talk about it, this is an engrossing and important book.
I purchased this book as I thought it would be the best way to get a real sense of what WW1 was like from a personal point of view. The book certainly did not disappoint. The descriptions written by individual soldiers portray the horror, fear and sometimes comedy of life experienced in the trenches.
Each chapter begins with an overview of what was happening on a wider scale which I found most helpful. These introductions were to the point and easy to follow, so no degree in history is needed!
Overall, I found this book so interesting and engaging that I have started researching my family tree and asking relatives of their experiences of war time. I would recommend this book to people who are interested in what soldiers in WW1 experienced on a day to day basis. It is a very moving and engaging read that vividly shows the lengths individuals had to go to and the strengths they found to survive.
on 31 August 2010
I have a general interest in the history of World War One and this book, I think, captures better than anything else I've read the sense of the people involved. The book moves from year to year, but at the same time merges the topics beautifully, so that we learn about medals and honours and what a mess that was and then about how animals and wildlife were regarded by the soldiers. I found it strangely unemotional which actually is a good thing. The situation these very young men found themselves in was one of extraordinary stress and emotional strain, as well as the obvious and ever present threat of death or, more understandably of greater concern, mutilation but survival. And yet the words are very straightforward which makes me feel so much more admiration for them and their situation. It's not British 'stiff-upper-lip' because the experiences are honest and clear, not propaganda. The only improvement I'd suggest for the book and something that I'd have found very helpful would have been some maps, especially detailed maps when the description is about the advance and retreat of the armies at various stages during the conflict. As a keen amateur photographer, the pictures were stunning and extraordinary. Finally, I have huge respect for the author, Richard Van Emden, for his light-touch editing and interjections were sensitive and added context without being over-bearing or overly emotional. This is a must read for anyone - even if you only want to 'dip' in and out - but cover to cover was the only way for me.
on 6 February 2013
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE FIRST WORLD WAR IN THE EYES OF THOSE WHO FOUGHT AND SURVIVED. MY GRANDFATHER DIED IN THIS WAR AND TO FIND OUT ABOUT THOSE TERRIBLE CONDITIONS IS WHAT THIS BOOK IS ALL ABOUT.TRUE STORIES FROM THOSE THAT WERE THERE.I JUST DON'T THINK YOU COULD IMAGINE SOMETHING LIKE THAT HAPPENED JUST A GENERATION AGO. i FEEL A BOOK LIKE THIS SHOULD BE INCLUDED IN TODAY'S SCHOOL CURRICULUM AND THAT IT SHOULD NEVER BE ALLOWED TO BE FORGOTTEN. I HAVE AT LAST FOUND OUT THROUGH THIS BOOK THE CONDITIONS UNDER WHICH MY GRANDDAD,SERVED AND DIED HE AND ALL THOSE WHO SERVED ARE TRUE HEROES AND WE OWE THEM SO MUCH!!!!!
Forgive me if I compare a lot with the 3 Forgotten Voices books that are fully or partially about WWI. Let it be said, right at the start, this is the superior book. The universal fault of the FV series is that they print their photo's on ordinary paper. Here, they are printed on decent quality paper. This is just as well, as many of the photo's in this book are not of the best quality to start with. This is not a criticism; far from it. Barring one studio shot, all of the many photo's in this book were taken by serving soldiers (some of them German) on pocket cameras, and have never been published before. Any faults in quality, then, are entirely forgiveable.
The author states that he has used a variety of written testimony. However, many passages are in first person past-tense, and read as though they are transcribed interviews, possibly even audio. The FV series limited itself to the contents of audio archive of the Imperial War Museum, which was disappointing when it came to the VC book - more than half the VCs ever awarded were won in WWI, but there are disproportionately few accounts in the book because there are fewer accounts in the archive. Whether or not the author has used audio as well as written testimony, the fact is he hasn't artificially limited himself, and the selection of accounts is varied and uniformly excellent. As much of his material is also either never before published, or not widely published, there is little, if anything, that I have read before; another plus.
Finally, the title tells you exactly what the book is - it's the soldiers' war. Not the Navy, or the airmen; there's no German or French testimony here either. In actual fact, this is more limited in scope than the FV Great War book, which does include French & German accounts, and some civilians too. But that book is misleadingly titled; with a brief sidestep to Gallipoli, it focuses entirely on the Western Front armies, which was rather disappointing. Whilst I've no regrets at adding the FV series to my bookshelf (the FV Somme book is the one that comes closest to this in standard), this is much the best book of any of them. If you're only going to buy one book of the soliders' own testimony as to their experiences of WWI, it should, without any doubt, be this one.
on 7 December 2010
A really enthralling book, based on letters and reports by all ranks in the first world war and presented on a yearly basis. I learnt so much from this version of 'trench' warfare that was new, and expanded my knowledge of this period.
on 25 July 2013
I like the clear structure of this book: each year of the war is summarised, and these summaries then provide the relevant background for letters written by front-line soldiers.
The letters are often tragic and highly revealing. If there is a theme to be found in the letters it is in the various ways that front-line soldiers come to terms with the fact that their own death may be tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes.
The other clear theme is that of the lunacy of the war. Humanity is debased: soldiers eat their food beside dead men where before the war the very thought would have turned them sick. A colonel writes "I have a vivid mental picture...of two young soldiers in an alcove scooped out of the side of their sludge-filled trench; their table was the back of a dead soldier lying on his face half buried in the mud ..."
The letters show that generals, & padres, were rarely seen in the front lines; but more junior officers were often respected.
This book gives flesh to events that general histories of World War 1 tend put second to overriding military matters.