Amazing is a word which suffers from a good deal of over-use these days but in this case it is an accurate description. To find such a detailed and personal account written by one of the millions of ordinary men, plucked from an ordinary life to play his part in such an extra-ordinary event must be truly unique. Harry pulls no punches, hides none of the nasty, cruel and extremely unpleasant aspects of the day to day life of an ordinary soldier. What you read is what he saw and experienced, uncensored by a sensitive hierarchy or press. The Great War as it really was. Mud over the tops of their boots, wet, miserable, frozen, hungry, deprived of sleep, even when in reserve, rats, fleas, all are here as well as the sense of being afraid but ultimately accepting that many who took over the front line would have "gone west" by the end of their days of endless waiting, watching and guarding. Often Harry's mental attitude comes through in his writing. Always asking why, never really finding an answer but all the same, doing a patriotic duty at any cost. This comes glaring off these pages. It is a long book, it might appear repetitive in places, but that is by no means a criticism. It was a very long War and the part played by Harry and millions like him was very repetitive. Stalemate for years in trenches of mud mixed with the bodies of mates you joined up with as well as the perceived enemy. It could be the diary of any one of millions who served but it is the diary of a survivor. Amazing.
Incredible diary of a soldier who fought through the entire First World War, including the Battle of the Somme ...couldn't put it down. Makes you fully understand the horrific conditions the men lived and fought in and so well written it feels like you are there. Brilliant.
Both my Grandfathers served in the trenches, so I've always had an interest in what they must have experienced and have read countless testimonies and accounts of what a soldier's life was like. These diaries strike me as unique and bring an entirely new perspective in that they are contemporaneously written, amazingly detailed, and cover 5 years from Harry's enlistment in late 1915, his training, service in the trenches of France as a private, his promotion to officer, further service in France, a period in Italy, the raid in which he won his MC, through to the end of demobilisation. Other histories tend to focus on incidents, action, or general description, whereas Harry's War provides a comprehensive account and vividly portrays the reality of daily life. What overwhelmed me was the relentlessness of the experiences they suffered: relentless fear and risk of death or injury, relentless exhaustion, relentless mud, relentless bread bacon and jam. Many aspects of their existence never came across to me before, for example, how they would march to the front line in the evening, be ready for action all night, then march back in the morning and spend the entire day labouring in the mines as the Engineers tunnelled under the German lines, only to return to the line again that evening. The utter exhaustion is unimaginable, yet the penalty for falling asleep could be death. Harry's War is such a compelling account that one almost might doubt its authenticity, but the provenance of the diaries and verifiable historic record ensure there is no doubt that these beautifully written diaries are honest and among the most remarkable accounts of the soldier's lot ever to emerge. An absolute must read for anyone with any interest in the subject.
Harry's War: The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater Ebury Press, hardback, £20.00, 395pp., ills, index. ISBN: 9-780-091-957-21-6
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.
Harry is an impressive man and his diary is an excellent historical record.
But much more than this, I found reading his book made me reflect on who we are today, in contrast to who these people were - these people who were our grandfathers and great grandfathers.
Such bravery, discipline and sense of duty. Such great comradeship. Such sense of good and evil. His description of the battlefields left me speechless time after time. And because it is a diary, written within hours of the experience it has such profound immediacy and reality; you live the experience with Harry.
I have no particular interest in military matters, and negligible knowledge of WW1, but that doesn't matter because the book is superbly edited with additional, discrete but informative notes. It certainly seems that Harry ticks all the boxes for WW1 experiences. You wouldn't want any more.
I can see that some people argue about the foolishness of war, what a waste of life, and especially how badly-managed was the trench warfare (they should have used tanks apparently). But whilst these things may well be true, I felt the greater value of this book was in gaining insight into what was the British male mindset 100 years ago and how that contrasts today.
After reading the book I almost feel like I've stepped out of a time-machine, and I'm left with two dominant thoughts: Firstly, a strong sense of gratitude that people laid down their lives so willingly to defend my country. Secondly, that we are mere wisps of men in comparison to them.
This edited book is based on a diary written by Harry Drinkwater a private soldier in the Great War who became an officer in the British Army. As writing a diary was forbidden, Harry wrote his in secret over a period of nearly 5 years. He initially was refused becoming a soldier because he was half an inch too short. Eventually, he joined a Pals battalion, most of whom were killed. Harry was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during a trench raid. Such a diary is probably unique.
It is a moving account of an infantry man's experience on the Somme, at Arras, at Ypres, and in Italy. He was wounded twice. After the war as a Major he narrowly escaped being murdered in Egypt. He records life and death in the trenches plus vivid descriptions of the vagaries of war. It is a refreshing and candid account of the mixed fortunes that befell him.
Harry was born on 19 February 1889 in Stratford upon Avon. His Dad was a boot dealer whose shop was close to the house where Shakespeare was born. Harry was one of 5 children, two of whom died at an early age. The family were staunch Methodists.
His diary reflects life in the Royal Warwickshires telling how becoming an officer changed his world. Now he gives the orders knowing that life as a platoon officer was short on the Western Front.
His diary covers his many experiences in training, action, and as an officer cadet. He had never intended it to be published. It is a remarkable and absorbing read.
I have only one small caveat given the existence of those who deride the war as futile. This account is one by someone who had the education to put pen to paper. Thousands were not able to do this. Also, Harry was in the infantry. Many thousands of soldiers never saw action as he did because they were engaged in vital supply, repair and maintenance work. We need also to remember that research clearly indicates that very seldom did a soldier spend more than 2 weeks at a time in a trench. Finally, numerous trench systems in different geographical/geological areas bore little resemblance to those described by Harry. In brief, this moving and graphic account should not be used to support those who sign up to the 'donkey'argument or view the war as a 'fight about nothing'. Highly recommended.
This really is a cracker of a publication! The author,of the diary,Harry Drinkwater,,managed to survive the Great War,maintained an illegal diary,and after the war embellished the raw written record so that it reads like a complete autobiography. It is truly outstanding,and captures life and death in the trenches,and elsewhere,and some of the many lunacies that went hand in hand with that conflict,far more realistically than any similar "diary"of the period that I've ever read. One of the things that fascinated me as I turned the pages,was the way his personality,and attitude changed slightly,as he moved from being a volunteer Private in an Infantry regiment in 1915,to an officer holding the Kings Commission,in 1917.This by no means implies a criticism of Harry,he was ever loyal to the Cause and his various Commanding Officers,deeply committed to his men,and was obviously an highly intelligent young man who,in spite of,or perhaps because of,the situation he found himself in, ,came to realize his true potential.He was also a very courageous,and lucky soldier,because he should have died many times,yet he lived to serve and see the Victory! Very Highly Recommended! No student of the Great War should be without it.