9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A brilliant and moving book,
This review is from: Blood and Iron: Letters from the Western Front (Hardcover)This book is based on a collection of letters written by Hugh Butterworth which had a very limited publication in 1916 as 'LETTERS, written in the trenches near Ypres between May and September 1915, by H. M. Butterworth, 9th Rifle Brigade, who fell in action on September 25, 1915'. It is a truism that some editors add little of worth to collections of letters or diaries and I was indeed a little worried to see mention of John Laffin early in the introduction! But have no fear - Cooksey administers a thorough kicking whilst exposing Laffin's deliberate misquoting of Butterworth in the farrago that is Butchers and Bunglers. Indeed throughout Cooksey demonstrates a sound appreciation of operational history and the terrible problems posed by war against the formidable German Army on the Western Front in 1915; as such he offers neither trite 'solutions' nor maudlin musings. He also adds value to the letters by adding the often baleful insights of Buttterworth's battalion commander, the delightfully 'crusty' Lieutenant Colonel William Villiers-Stuart.
The letters chart the effects of that terrible conflict and the severe fighting experienced by the 9th Rifle Brigade in the Ypres Salient - including the murderous German flamethrower attack of 30 July 1915. It is evident that Butterworth suffered some personal trauma and was prey to growing nerves - how could it be otherwise? This is no warrior, but a schoolmaster trying his best in near impossible circumstances. The letters themselves are wonderful: well written, insightful, intelligent and amusing. As such it is a credit to Cooksey's own writing style that the qualities of his subject's prose have not left him embarrassed. But Cooksey has also done a great deal of work to present a rounded picture of the man. He has trawled to great effect through Butterworth's life, filling out the background details: his childhood, his education and sporting prowess, his pre-war teaching and cricket coaching at the Wanganui Collegiate School of New Zealand. As a flailing (failing?) cricketer I found it touching to see that six of the eleven 13-year-old lads that made up the Hazelwood Preparatory School First Cricket XI of 1899 were killed in action during the Great War. There is indeed definitely a strain of the typical P. G. Wodehousian character in Butterworth, who at times taps into the same vein of studied comic understatement in describing what is referred to as 'the recent unpleasantness in France' in the classic Indiscretions of Archie. I also empathise with what is described as Butterworth's `slouching gait and lackadaisical manner'; although his Colonel seems not to have been quite so enamoured!
The last letter is a tragic document. Having sketched out the daunting sequence of dangerous military tasks lying before him during the diversionary attack on Bellewaarde Ridge to be made on 25 September, Butterworth reacts in a manner which stands as a testament to his determination. "Well, when one is faced with a programme like that, one touches up one's will, thanks heaven one has led a fairly amusing life, thanks God one is not married, and trusts in Providence." His last words prove that hope does indeed spring eternal, "Perhaps I shan't be killed!!'?" But 'Providence', as is so often the case, let him down.
Cooksey provides a wonderful account of that now almost forgotten 'action' at Bellewaarde Ridge, dwarfed by the long shadow of the Battle of Loos. The planning process had been detailed, the preparations meticulous. Mines lay ready for detonation at Zero Hour and the supporting bombardment was the best possible given the artillery constraints of 1915. But when they went over the top at 04.20 on 25 September the result was still disaster. Using all possible sources and with German accounts woven into the picture, we get a good idea of what happened to Butterworth and the men that followed him. Initial partial success merely left then more isolated when the inevitable German counter-attacks burst upon them. Poignantly Cooksey quotes the increasingly desperate pencil messages from subalterns for more bombs and bombers; messages still blotted with the raindrops which fell so long ago; messages still preserved in the National Archives. Somewhere in this maelstrom Hugh Butterworth was killed and the remnants of the 9th Rifle Brigade were thrown back to their own front line - not an inch of ground had been captured. Like so many of his comrades he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate.
Hugh Butterworth surely had the noblest form of courage: he knew what was likely to happen to him that morning yet faced it unflinchingly. Like all those young men he had a lot to lose, as he put it so eloquently in a letter written in July 1915, "I'm not particularly afraid of death, but I dislike the thought of dying because I enjoy life so much, and I want to enjoy it such a lot more." It is truly moving to think of this very likeable 29-year old - doomed to die young by his date of birth - who knowingly sacrificed all his precious tomorrows for the enduring benefit of us all. A brilliant book indeed.