Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart

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Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: This eyewitness history is one of those which adds a new dimension to the more straightforward narratives of the First World War. This book tells it from the perspective of the men who suffered from all the wartime privations and dangers, some of whom miraculously came out without a scratch, some whose lives were ruined or changed forever.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Profile
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1781254745

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Variations on telling the story of the First World War are seemingly endless. In this book Peter Hart takes the approach of an account pieced together through first-hand accounts from British soldiers, sailors and airmen, officers and privates alike, and across every front.

183 interviews with veterans were carried out in the 1980s and 1990s, as a way of adding to the existing historical records. As Hart observes, oral history is often a strange business; it can be the cold and unemotional process of sitting in a museum environment listening to disembodied voices recorded long ago by complete strangers, or it 'can be like stepping into your own past'. His aim was to make this a deeply personal book, reflecting the stories told directly to him as opposed to those passed down second-hand.

The extracts from interviews are divided into thirteen roughly chronological sections or chapters. The first inevitably reflects the brief optimism which everybody felt at the start, when so many were convinced that the war would be over by Christmas. A strange air of other-worldliness, if not lack of realism, pervades some of the soundbites, one soldier even recalling that 'the whole spirit was ecstasy', and another that everybody was very patriotic, imbued with the idea of going off to beat the Germans and presumably returning home unscathed, as if the war was little more than a football match on the other team's home pitch.

Disillusion gradually set in with the realisation that it would be a very long haul, far longer than almost anybody had anticipated, whether they were part of the stalemate that was the particularly savage battle of the Somme, or fighting on sea and in the sky. There is a vivid description of a blockship being scuttled with orders to everyone on board to evacuate under heavy machine gun fire on all sides, and dense fog all around, amid amazement that any of them managed to survive such conditions. Even more harrowing are the accounts of mass burials with twenty, thirty or more men in graves at the nearest cemetery, and sometimes of having to sew up the dead in blankets first. Then there was the new phenomenon of war in the air, after the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912 and the Royal Naval Air Service two years later. This brought new hazards and feats of bravery, such as the business of piloting a notoriously unstable Sopwith Camel in the dark, and the Independent Air Force formed specifically for strategic bombing against the German heartland after German raids on London, keen to try and avoid attacking civilian homes or people as far as possible.

As the end came, the fighting men were torn between grumbling and despair on one hand after nearly four years of wearisome conflict, and confidence that they would eventually prevail. Hart is critical of Lloyd George, who as Prime Minister recoiled from the excruciating casualties inevitable in facing the German army head-on, and the frittering away of vital resources on campaigns that were peripheral to the result of the war, as well as starving the Western Front of reinforcements needed to maintain the strength of the BEF in the face of mounting losses. Even so, to some of the men, there were signs of a positive conclusion in sight. One British Private could see in one of the closing battles that there no longer seemed to be such a sense of discipline among 'the Boche' who were facing them, their equipment was very backward, and they were 'getting towards the end'.

A final chapter is devoted to the aftermath of war, and some of the problems of peace. For some of the veterans, it was a struggle for them to readjust to the constraints and petty humiliations of civilian life. One aviator had been so accustomed to living out in the open that at first he could not bear to be in bed and at home. For the first two or three months of post-war life, he had to sleep in a bunk in a stable with no doors at the bottom of the garden.

Such eyewitness histories all add a new dimension to the more straightforward narratives of the four years of war. This book tells it from the perspective of the men who suffered from all the wartime privations and dangers, the rough diamonds and stolid Bible-readers, the bespectacled intellectuals and the eccentrics, some of whom miraculously came out without a scratch, some whose lives were ruined or changed forever. Yet they were fortunate to come out and in many cases enjoy a relatively peaceful, healthy old age as well as pass their stories down to posterity.

We also recommend The Great War by Peter Hart, which as the title suggests is a more straightforward volume on the course of events, and also Great Britain's Great War by Jeremy Paxman, a study of how the conflict affected people in everyday Britain at the time.

Buy Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart at Amazon.com.


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