Plenty has been written and said over the last fortnight about the horrors and sacrifices that the men of Britain and her colonies made during the First World War. For Britain, of course, you can read France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Turkey and so on. Nationality no longer seems to be important when it comes to counting the cost of the dead.
The one thing missing from much of this eve of centenary talk, though, is context. And perhaps the daily human side of life in the trenches as well. And this is the strength of Lyn Macdonald’s book 1915 The Death of Innocence (John Hopkins University Press, 1993).
As with all things historic, context is king. How can we hope to understand the mechanics and the machinations of the First World War simply by looking at the numbers of the fallen? We can’t. We get an idea of the scale of the slaughter but not of the movements that led to the strategies and the stalemate.
And how can we understand events of 1916 through to the end of the war without first getting to grips with what happened in 1915, the year when the gloves really came off with a vengeance, when trench warfare set up shop on the Western Front and a lack of planning and realism turned an imaginative plan to snatch the Dardanelles and topple the Ottoman Empire into a bumbling botchjob that cost thousands of lives?
We need to understand why they were there, the forces that were at play, and how the various actions intertwined to create the canopy of carnage.
Macdonald does this superbly. Using the voices of some of the participants as well as diaries, letters and reports, she offers the personal source of individual actions. That gives us a framework of day to day life in the trenches.
Macdonald is never boring; nor is she a dry textbook. Amid the moments of adrenalin-charged terror as the troops piled over the top only to stumble in the hailstorm of enemy machine guns are the moments of tedium which every soldier from every conflict knows. There are also the quirky moments of lightness, if not actual comedy – a night patrol, for example, taking a gramophone into No Man’s Land for no other reason than to give the Germans an unusual surprise.
On top of that, though, she strings together the actions of 1915 in a way that provides a logic and a rhythm. Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Loos, Hill 60, Hill 70, Anzac Cove and so on were not just one-off actions but part of a much bigger picture.
Macdonald provides the context with which we can get a grip of what happened not just in 1915 but in the three years of war that followed.
©Barney Spender 2013