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Last Man Standing,
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This review is from: Last Man Standing: The Memoirs, Letters & Photographs of a Teenage Officer (Kindle Edition)
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.