The past is a foreign country
… they do things differently there
It’s becoming history now, almost unknowable, slipping —like Gordon of Khartoum — into that curious spectacle of caricature and legend.
As the Great War marches on, wraith-like, into the new armies of ideology and commerce, it’s ever more difficult to distinguish shape from shadow. Like optimistic but futile sound mirrors on the English coast, we strain at imperfect echoes from a distant land.
What was it really like, when everything was in the balance?
That question was unanswerable — even in 1916 — when Bernard Adams, convalescing at home, wrote “Nothing of importance,” eight months at the front with a Welsh battalion.
Adams’ is the only memoir by a combatant printed while the war was still being fought. It is also one of the finest. The young Cambridge classicist returned to France to die in 1917.
You can download the book now from archive.org.
Sister Elsie Tranter’s diary, rediscovered by Jennifer Mary Gillings and Julieanne Richards and published in 2008, is more difficult to find, but that effort is rewarded by a clear, straight-ahead and recognisably modern account by a woman working in a remarkable time and space.
In all those lines : the diary of Sister Elsie Tranter 1916–1919 will resonate with any Australian who has gone backpacking in Europe. Her travels are not dissimilar to yours, if you put aside the war.
Tranter was a 28 year old nurse from Geelong.
July 31st 1915
The whole staff, Orderlies & all were worn out, the Mortuary Corporal included — one afternoon he came to Miss C. & asked her to help him “sort them out” & when she got there he threw off blanket after blanket from the poor dead things — who had been brought down in such numbers that some tickets were off. He said “Did you ever see ‘im before — & did you ever see ’im”. His one job was to sort out R.C.s — & Church of England — so that each Padre might bury his own. Then he found a fresh difficulty — over one — whom he thought was an Officer — but had nothing to mark him — “And ‘ow am I to bury ‘im — as a’ Officer — or man”. Sister said — “Surely they all get buried the same.” “No, they don’t.” said the bewildered Cpl. “Men is hammered — Officers is screwed.”
Among Australian memoirs, you are well served for laconic humour by Victoria Cross winner Joe Maxwell in Hell’s bells & mademoiselles.
His story reads easily and is told with a light and likable touch.
And then there’s Somme Mud, a classic all-action account of an AIF infantryman that is spectacularly vivid, direct and perhaps not all true.
But what is?
Big guns in the canon of WWI literature — Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a fox-hunting man and Memoirs of an infantry officer — have also drawn acolytes and critics.
They remain essential reads, alongside fellow officer Edmund Blundon’s Undertones of war and rarer memoirs from non-commissioned officers and rankers, like George Coppard’s With a machine gun to Cambrai, Frank Richards’ Old soldiers never die and John F. Lucy’s There’s a devil in the drum.
A special class of memoir belongs to the airmen.
Cecil Lewis will put you in the seat of a wood and wire aeroplane and give you wings. His wonder at riding the sky is reflected beautifully in Sagittarius Rising.
Equally adept at fixing this era on paper is Duncan Grinnell-Milne, with Wind in the wires.
Darker clouds set over V. M. Yeates’ Winged Victory, a precursor in some ways to Catch-22, sardonic and alcoholic. Here the fear is tangible, an enemy acknowledged by one of the greatest of Australian aces — Harry Cobby. His High Adventure is in the vein of Joe Maxwell’s work and similarly likable.
Non-English writers are not well known to me. Ernst Jünger (Storm of steel) and Erich Maria Remarque (All quiet on the western front) are widely available but a personal favourite is the Gallic and earthy Lice by Blaise Cendrars. The book’s original title is La Main coupée. No Woolworths biscuit box sets here.
You can browse many other memoirs published after the war by their dust jackets on this collector’s website.
But how to side-step hindsight and return to 1914–1919?
Letters, diaries and photographs offer an immediate connection, even if these conceal — and sometimes distort — more than they reveal.
Nothing beats spending time in a reading room. You never know what ephemera accompanies a collection of letters from the stack. Aerial photographs of Biblical villages traversed by air in Palestine or day passes to Brighton with pressed flowers from Le Touquet.
Or, pick up a transcript published online and follow the thread. I learnt a lot mapping Allan Allsop’s diary. Place names, trench systems, orders of battle, the routine that informs the extraordinary.
British author Richard van Emden has an ear for interesting and unusual first person narratives, and has done the hard work to collect them.
Tommy’s War is the British soldier’s story told in his own words, supplemented by personal and candid photographs, many not seen before. Other volumes include The Quick and the Dead, Meeting the Enemy, Boy Soldiers of the Great War and Tommy’s Ark.
Of the many military histories on offer, Peter Hart’s are distinguished by his adept use of first-hand accounts to paint in the detail of big picture battles and campaigns. Hart’s Gallipoli offers a more complete perspective of the peninsula than most.
Hart’s book is joined this month by Gallipoli : the Dardanelles disaster in soldiers’ words and photographs by van Emden and Stephen Chambers.
This cartoon begins with a caption that reads, 'the German monster threatens the world with bloodshed, slavery and…aso.gov.au
I began this piece with the intent to focus on personal narratives, to avoid the political and the ideological. But the debates that began in the trenches continue today —
For there’s one thing financiers cannot or will not see. They have visions of a frontierless world in which their operations will proceed without hindrance and make all human activities dependent on them; but their world state is impossible because finance is sterile, and a state living by finance must always have neighbours from which to suck blood, or it is like a dog eating its own tail… an intense war-fever inoculation was carried out by the press. It took rather less than three months, I believe, to make the popular demand for war irresistible… There’ll be a famous orgy of money snatching over our bones.
This is Victor Maslin Yeates (referenced above).
What do contemporary historians make of it?
The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark is a brilliant foray into the archives of European empires and their bureaucracies. Soldiers fight wars but rarely start them. To this briefest of lists I would add the two volumes by Saul Friedländer that place the First World War in context of greater European horrors to come.
The Great War is reflected in tens if not hundreds of thousands of literary works. This is a personal selection. But any will occasion the questions — what have we learnt and what have we forgotten? And, who is speaking for them when they can speak for themselves?