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Through their eyes

November 9, 2013

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In my professional life I am acutely aware of the power of personal stories to bring alive crucial issues like that of mental illness. As we approach the centenary of the start of the First World War there appears a welcome interest in the publication of further first-hand accounts of the conflict to add to the already extensive canon of such work.

Indeed the quantity of such material is, from the perspective of the historian, one of the distinctive features of the First World War.  The War was a common experience which affected millions of people but it was also an experience which impacted on the first generations to have benefitted from universal primary school education, in both Britain and across Western Europe and therefore able to express their own version of events.

This autumn I’ve had the chance to read a number of such accounts, all of them very powerful, but telling the story of the War from different viewpoints.

The first of them, Private 12678 by John Jackson is the story of a private in the Highland Camerons who joined up in 1914 and fought his way through most of the major battles of the War.  The second, Somme Mud is the account of another private, the Australian Edward Lynch who arrived in France at the end of 1916 and fought through to the end of the War.  The third Home Fires Burning is different.  Rather than a description of life at the front it covers the wartime diary of Georgina Lee, a middle to upper class resident of Chelsea.  Its contemporary insights into the impact of the war on civilian life are equally fascinating.

Only one of the accounts (Georgina Lee’s diaries) is strictly contemporary, the other two being written down in the 1920s.  None of them were published in the author’s own lifetime despite attempts to do so.  The generation which fought the First World War did not share our penchant for instant disclosure.  Indeed the very horror of what many went through meant that it was some time before even the most famous early accounts of the War such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Goodbye to all that appeared.

The value of personal accounts is just that.  They provide the individual perspectives of individuals caught up in these momentous events.  They may not have the intensity of language of the great poetry of the War but nonetheless they capture the depths of a set of experiences which are hard to appreciate from the perspective of those who have lived our lives in the shallows of peacetime.

I strongly recommend all of these accounts for anyone with the slightest interest in this period.  They cover many aspects of the war but three wider impressions stand out.

First one has to be amazed by the phenomenal bravery of those who took part in the conflict.  Whether rushing a machine gun position, digging a grave while under fire from a sniper, crawling out into No Man’s Lands to mend telephone lines or withstanding the most infernal bombardments the combatant writers describe situations where death is a fraction of a second away.  Even those occasions where a decision to retreat is made are fraught with danger.  Any why are these men so brave?  Military discipline and the instinct to obey orders play their part.  Patriotism and concepts of manly behaviour are important too.  However more than anything else is the sense of solidarity amongst the troops, what Edward Lynch describes as “mateism”.  Men joined up because their mates did.  They likewise face danger because their mates do.

Second there is no mistaking the absolute brutality of this conflict.  Many of the pictures of the War capture vividly the destruction of places and landscapes but these accounts also bring out the horrific damage to the soldiers themselves.   The human frame is not designed to withstand high explosives and some of the descriptions of the injuries experienced by those caught by a shell or the deadly fire of a machine gun are completely chilling.  What is left of man who has been run over by a tank?

In addition there is the horror for the living soldiers of being constantly surrounded by the fallen who lie in No Man’s Land or trenches unburied. One writer describes the dead soldier buried in a trench wall whom you have to pass every day, the hair and skin on his head rubbed off to a bone.

The final impression is of the ambivalence of attitudes towards the enemy. Views are much clearer in Georgina Lee’s diaries, full of firm condemnation of German atrocities to Belgian civilians or the brutal loss of life on passenger ships sent to the bottom by German U-boats.  For those writing as combatants the picture is more subtle.  The enemy is always referred to in the singular “Fritz” or “Jerry”.  Yes at times soldiers can be filled with an almost feral hatred especially when motivated by the loss of one of their own comrades.  At other times there can be genuine sympathy for those who, on the other side, are going through the same experience as them.  Occasionally this can take truly heroic proportions as when one soldier risks his own life to rescue a wounded German soldier from No Man’s Land.

I very much hope such first-hand accounts dominate the coverage of the Great War in the next year building up to Centenary.  They cast, as in many other areas of human experience today, a true light on the reality of events and on the consequences of decisions taken by nations and their rulers.

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