Harry's War: The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater
Ebury Press, hardback, £20.00, 395pp., ills, index.
This book is a real pleasure to read. It has been skilfully edited by Jon Cooksey - with the wholehearted support of David Griffiths, the current owner of the diary - with just the right amount of additional background text. Too often one finds editors seeming to want to crowbar in the whole history of the war. Refreshingly, Cooksey evades such an elephant trap by restraining himself to the bare minimum of commentary, allowing Harry Drinkwater to tell his own story. I particularly like that the editor has looked up and confirmed the fate of the men we encounter in turning the pages.
The diary entries are a veritable torrent of fascinating information. I have conducted many oral history interviews for the Imperial War Museum and this diary shares the immediacy of those oral accounts, bringing to life the very zeitgeist of the experience for millions of men in the trenches: the awful smells and dreadful sights; being lathered in sweat from the back-breaking working parties, or drenched by the pouring rain; men up to their knees in mud, blood and water. All the clichés perhaps, but given depth and meaning here by the very restraint with which Drinkwater expresses his trials and tribulations.
Life was certainly not mundane for Harry Drinkwater at the front with the 15th Royal Warwickshire Regiment - the 2nd Birmingham Pals. Rapped on the helmet by a sniper's bullet, mining and visceral crater fighting near Arras, in the thick of it and going 'over the top' on the Somme, once covered in maggots from a bloated corpse, blasted by shells here, there and everywhere, he led a charmed life. Many of his friends - his best friend amongst them - were not so lucky and he movingly recounts their awful demise. On one occasion, he reflects the sheer drama of watching a ration party struggling through with heavy dixies. Real characters shine through, like Lance Corporal Sidney Page, a mere lad who grew into his position before being killed on the Somme.
Drinkwater served in the line until January 1917, after which he underwent officer training in Ireland. He returned to serve as a second lieutenant with the 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, just in time for the delights of Third Ypres. Now he had a real responsibility for the lives and very survival of the men he commanded with distinction in the attacks on the German field `fortress' that had been the Polderhoek Chateau north of Gheluvelt. A brief interlude in Italy is followed by a return to the Western Front where he was finally wounded on a night raid in June 1918. One gains a sense that he was, right from the start, an excellent officer. Unlike memoirs written, or worse still, edited in the 1960s, there is no resort to purple prose and trite ex-post facto commentary. Drinkwater himself is an intelligent and likeable man, an insightful observer with whom one can really empathise.
The diary also accurately reflects that the soldiers were not always in the trenches, not always going 'over the top'. The British Army devoted an enormous amount of effort to constantly rotating the battalions around between the front, support and reserve lines and rest. The very fact that this is a daily record allows us to see the other side of the Western Front: the periods out of the line, the billets, the working parties, the recreations. Occasionally a lovely touch shines through, like the heartfelt impact of real football jerseys worn during a game while out on rest.
The illustrations, although poorly reproduced by the publisher, added a great deal to my enjoyment of the book, it was fascinating to see photos of the subject and the characters that crop up in the narrative. The photos also include pictures of the ephemera related to Drinkwater in what must be the magnificent collection of David Griffiths. I particularly liked the depiction of the German bayonet scabbard Drinkwater sent home as a souvenir after alert sentry-keeping had thwarted a German bombing raid in 1916.
All in all Harry's War reflects a strange world, but the commonality of human nature also brings it closer, sometimes almost too close in some of the rawer passages. A fantastic book and a credit to everyone involved.