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The Distant Drum: A Memoir of a Guardsman in the Great War Hardcover – 30 Jul 2010
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After being rejected on a number of occasions as a willing and determined volunteer recruit (due to his asthma, which seemed to disappear once he was in service and with fresh air and exercise, only returning once to trouble him), Frederick Noakes was eventually conscripted and mobilised in June 1917. He was allotted to the Household Battalion, which he initially believed to be part of the Guards. A good chunk of the memoir describes his physically demanding but happy time with the battalion's reserve at the Windsor depot. The atmospheric minutiae of his training regime, social life, relationships with other men, officers and NCOs make these passages informative and enjoyable. He finally left for France with a draft on 22 October 1917; his descriptions of life at the squalid base camp and in Le Havre are splendid and add to our understanding of something most men in France experienced at some time.
The Household Battalion was in the Arras sector when he arrived, generally in the area of Fosse Farm and Monchy-le-Preux. He describes the front and Arras (notably Schramm Barracks) in detail. Noakes discovers the realities of life in the forward zone, at a relatively quiet time in this area, but in bitter weather and possibly the gloomiest time of the war for the British soldier. "Fen" remains at once stoical and enthusiastic, although his mood and motivations change over time, as he is exposed to the inevitable all-pervading smell of death, the rats and the lice, and the probabilities of his own survival. He left the battalion due to poisoning caused by an untreated cut to his finger, and spent weeks in hospitals and convalescent camps, the descriptions of which are once again most valuable not least because of their scarcity.
On returning to action, "Fen" finds that his battalion is no more for it has been disbanded. He is instead posted to the 2nd Coldstream Guards, with which he enjoys a happy association for the rest of his service. He takes part in the much-changed conditions of open warfare as the Guards Division plays an important part in the "Hundred Days" offensive in the Cambrai area and the Canal du Nord, until he sustains a wound to his left leg when hit by shell fragments while taking part in another attack. He was still in convalescence in France when the Armistice brought fighting to an end, and he experiences the wild excitements of celebrations of those who were not at the front.
The final passages describe his time with the battalion as part of the army of occupation at Cologne and later the return home via Mons and Arras. This too is of enduring interest and value, for it is another period that soldiers' memoirs rarely cover in depth.
Overall, a really good read and well worth buying.
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