Lead book review

Up close and personal: voices from the Great War, week by week

As the Great War unfolds, voices we don’t usually hear describe with a terrible raw honesty the realities of their experience, says David Crane

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

As We Were: The First World War: Tales from a Broken World Week-by-Week David Hargreaves and Margaret-Louise O’Keeffe

White Fox Publishing, four volumes, pp.2200, 100

In the summer of 2014, David Hargreaves was invited by Robert Cottrell, the editor of The Browser, to write a series of articles shadowing, week by week, the course of the first world war. Over the next four years Hargreaves and his researcher and co-author, Margaret-Louise O’Keeffe, brought these out online, and they have now been published, originally by subscription, in a set of four volumes that runs in all to a monumental 2,200 pages.

It is one thing to have dreamed up the project, it’s another to have carried it off with the collaborative skill and commitment on show here. It is impressive enough that over those years they never missed a single deadline; but what seems every bit as remarkable is the emotional stamina that saw them return, week in, week out, to a war in which success could be measured in yards, and lives expended with a profligacy that beggars belief.

The challenge for anyone writing, or even reading, about the Great War is just as often a matter of ‘anger management’ as ‘compassion fatigue’. It is fair enough for military historians to argue that the war was never the exercise in futility of popular myth. But for anyone drawn to the subject by sympathy for the men and women who endured it, academic detachment can seem no more appropriate a response than it does when walking among the graves of the Western Front.

There is certainly nothing temperate or detached about Hargreaves’s narrative — neither the war nor the web exactly encourage self-restraint — but As We Were is fuelled as much by admiration as it is by anger. The thought of Churchill’s antics over the Antwerp debacle or another Asquith
letter to Venetia Stanley are always enough to raise his blood pressure. Yet time and again through these pages, the familiar old story of jealousies, vanities, carnage and serial incompetence runs up against the rich evidence of dignity and selfless courage that fill the private letters and diaries of the time.

On New Year’s Eve 1914, the German soldier and author Rudolf Binding insisted that the history of the war ‘will never be written’, but if ever a book gave the lie to that it is As We Were. For the first years after the armistice it looked as if Binding might well prove right; but during the war itself, long before the flood of memoirs and novels broke the public silence, soldiers and civilians everywhere had been recording with a terrible and raw honesty the realities of their experience.

One German sergeant wrote home in 1915, after bayoneting a French soldier through the chest:

I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and they asked me ‘what’s the matter with you?’. I remembered then that we had been told that a good soldier kills without thinking of his adversary as a human being… My comrades were absolutely undisturbed by what had happened. One of them boasted that he had killed a poilu with the butt of his rifle. Another one had strangled a French captain. A third had hit somebody over the head with a spade. They were ordinary men like me. One was a tram conductor, another a commercial traveller, two were students, the rest farm workers — ordinary people who never would have thought to harm anybody. But I had the dead French soldier in front of me, and how I would have liked him to have raised his hand! I would have shaken it and we would have been the best of friends because he was nothing but a poor boy — like me.

It is this extraordinary wealth of material — and there are literally hundreds of such gobbets here, woven into the fabric of the narrative — that brings us as close as we can ever get to the individual experience of war. While all the usual suspects — Vera Brittain, Sassoon, Grenfell, Brooke, Graves et al — rightly have their place, it is the voices that we don’t usually hear, glimpses of life from the Carpathians and the Dolomites, from the Serbian Front and Ekaterinburg, from the sieges of Kut or Przemysl, that give these volumes their breadth and richness. ‘Bandits armed to the teeth, atop stolen horses flew into our yard with red flags,’ wrote Felix Yusupov, caught up in the turmoil of Russia’s defeat and revolution:

On the flags the promising ‘Death to the bourgeoisie!’, ‘Death to the counter-revolutionaries!’, ‘Death to property-owners!… Suddenly one of them asked if it were true that I killed Rasputin. When I said that it was true, they drank to my health and announced that if it indeed were so, neither I nor my family had anything to fear.

Given the sheer scale of this project, and the weekly pressures of time and space, it is hardly surprising there are uneven passages, but it is a formidable achievement to bring these different worlds into a single focus. Ideally, these instalments would have been followed in their original form, week by week; but there is perhaps something to be said for reading them now, because, if nothing else, a year such as this last one is a sobering reminder of just how interminably long the two world wars must have felt. For many people, last March will already feel a lifetime away. Yet if we think of that year in terms of the Great War, then the Marne and the First and Second Ypres might be behind us, but the horrors of Gallipoli would still be festering on; Loos, Jutland, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele and the great panic of 1918 all in the future, the Americans nowhere in sight and the armistice —with the grim prospect of the Spanish flu to top things off —more than three years and many millions of dead away.

Try as one might, too, it is impossible to keep hindsight out of it, and from the first pages of Hargreaves and O’Keeffe’s opening volume, loud with the noises of patriotic euphoria and promises of quick victory, a chilling sense of foreboding hovers over the narrative. The knowledge of what lay ahead inevitably makes the optimism and predictions of statesmen and generals seem criminally fatuous, and yet — it is a question this book makes you ask — if you had told anyone — politicians, generals, men of the BEF, the boys of the Pals’ Battalions or the dead of Langemarck — what was in store for them, would it have made any difference?

The answer is very possibly not, and that is both the tragedy and the wonder of the Great War. It is what gives it its permanent hold on the British imagination and these volumes their power. Hargreaves has a penchant for soft targets and throwaway lines that don’t translate well on to the page; but when it comes to the endurance and courage of ‘ordinary’ men and women, and to a humanity that somehow survived the hatreds and savagery of war, his writing, invariably fluent and conversational, is at its best.

Nowhere is that more true than in the long recessional of its final chapters. For some, peace would mean — wonderful phrase — ‘the scarcely bearable burden of a non-communicable memory’. For Rowland Fielding it was ‘an atmosphere of selflessness and a spirit of camaraderie the like of which has probably not been seen in the world before’; for Cynthia Asquith, the dawning realisation that the dead were dead not just for the duration but for ever; and for Private Alexander Jamieson, marching up through the nightmare landscape of the Ypres Salient on to a ridge above? — a visionary glimpse of a world that he had forgotten was there. ‘We could look ahead,’ he wrote, ‘and could see trees and all the rest of it that had never been affected by war. It was unbelievable. We knew then that things were going well.’

What more symbolic end could there be? Unless perhaps, the recollection of one German soldier, in hospital and temporarily blind from a gas attack: ‘I had not cried since my mother’s death. Now I couldn’t do anything else… That night I resolved, that if I recovered my sight, I would go into politics.’ True or not, the long half-time of what de Gaulle would call the second ‘Thirty Years War’ was just beginning.

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