In the Trenches: Those Who Were There - by Rachel Bilton
Books describing the personal experiences of soldiers fighting in the various theatres of the First World War invariably fall into several categories; those from soldiers in the front lines seeking to explain and describe their direct experiences of war; those from combatants attempting to justify a particular personal view; those from participants wishing to exculpate themselves from feelings of guilt brought on by taking the life of another human being in the service of their country. Of these, the ones from soldiers describing directly and without exaggeration their own experiences of the war are relatively familiar and the current Centenary of the First World War has prompted the publication of many such accounts. Where Rachel Bilton’s book differs from many other publications is both in the unembellished directness of the seventeen accounts published in her book, and the scope of the campaigns highlighted, ranging from the trenches of the Western Front to the dust and flies of Gallipoli and the Middle East.
Rachel is a young author and this is her first book, forming part of a trilogy, the third part of which she has edited. Her most recent book, Prisoners and Escape, was published this year so perhaps Rachel has found her metier in this field of personal experiences from the First World War. In compiling first-hand experiences of war between 1914 and 1918, Rachel has undoubtedly produced a most enjoyable read. While many of the personal experiences are necessarily recollections of those involved in the particular events, with some being quite detailed accounts written years after the war, the immediacy of many of the accounts makes them very powerful, bringing home both the horror of war and the incredible resilience of men in combat. Many also produce interesting asides on peoples’ characters, especially those in command, often interspersed with intuitive overviews of their circumstances together with moments of comedy and personal reflection.
There is a good balance of accounts chosen, following the chronology of the war and focusing on the main campaigns fought by British soldiers in the First World War. Starting with several stories covering the early battles of the war, the book then moves on to vivid recollections of the first gas attack at Ypres and the exploits of Captain A.O. Pollard VC, on the same part of the front. Accounts of Gallipoli, the battle of Kut and Salonika are combined with those from the main campaigns of 1916 and 1917, and the book concludes with several fascinating narratives of men caught up in the German spring offensive of 1918 and the final Allied advance. Of personal interest were the experiences of R.H. Mottram, rather plainly entitled A Personal Record, but containing the most perceptive memories of his time as a front-line officer and later as a liaison officer dealing with complaints about damage caused by British soldiers. Such is the nature of the military machine that even in the midst of a titanic struggle, the wheels of military bureaucracy had to keep turning and good relations between allies maintained.
In her biographical notes, Rachel expresses her wish to find answers as to why so many men wanted to kill complete strangers for four years. This is a very laudable aim, occupying many writers over the recent past and contributing much valuable research to the canon of literature on the First World War. Certainly this book will add to that scholarship from the British point of view and hopefully might be the prelude to additional volumes covering the experiences of combatants from the other belligerent nations. While this book might have benefitted from a preface or introduction to set the personal accounts in context, the stories on their own are potent examples of ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances. If you are looking for an absorbing and interesting collection of personal stories from the First World War, consider purchasing a copy of Rachel Bilton’s book without delay.
Review by Heathcliffe Bowen