This book contains an autobiographical novel that details the service of Joseph Steward in the 13th (Kensington) Battalion, London Regiment from the Somme in 1916 through to the final days of the war in the autumn of 1918. It offers a soldier's perspective of the fighting at Arras, in the Salient, Cambrai, Vimy and Oppy Wood through to the last 100 days. The novel covers a period when the tactical development of the infantry platoon was significant. New training doctrine, the integration of specialist roles and the widespread use of grenades and the firepower brought by Lewis guns transformed the role of the platoon and its use and deployment in battle. Similarly, the platoon provided a focus for a soldier's commitment, loyalty and friendships.
Joseph Steward was an unremarkable soldier. It is important to recognise that the authors of the classic and better known memoirs of the Great War – such as Graves and Sassoon – were successful professional writers. Steward was not a professional writer and this is shown in his writing – his characters are wooden and lack intimacy and depth and his narrative lacks the punch of a good war story. This novel was never destined to be a best-seller and, as the editors admit, "the style was rather limited and as a novel it was not a page-turner". However, Steward's book is very readable and is not without its humour – the account of a startled soldier's night-time encounter with German trench raiders is very funny.
It also has value as a historical source as it does offer some interesting perspectives and insights into the life of a front-line soldier in the last two years of the year. For example, its account of the German use of gas in counter-battery fire as an irritant to inhibit and impede the effectiveness of British gunners rather than kill was something I had not previously come across and I hope other readers will find other small pieces of information that help to gain a better insight of the war at "the sharp end".
The novel is also interesting in that it does not share much of the retrospective bitterness, irony and sense of futility that seem to permeate and ooze from similar work written in the 1930s. All in all, as a stand-alone novel, however, it is very unlikely that this adds much to the genre and what other memoirs already tell us about the personal experience of war but, nonetheless, it is a very worthwhile read.
It is the editors who really add the value to this work. They have taken a very innovative and thoughtful approach to the treatment of the novel by using it to demonstrate how this and similar historical sources can be used as the basis for detective work to reconstruct an individual's experience of the war. The novel is prefaced by a number of sections that detail how to start searches for information on individuals who fought in the Great War. These encompass internet searches of medal index cards, examining service records at the National Archives at Kew and the use of other resources such as Ancestry.co.uk. These sections also acknowledge the value of battalion war diaries and regimental histories for cross-referencing personal diaries and setting them in a broader context. Coverage is also given to non-military sources such as census data which can provide details of social and family backgrounds and previous occupations. All in all, for those wishing to find out more about an individual soldier and their role and experience in the Great War, this book is a very useful starting point and provides good answers to some of the questions about "where do I start"?
The editors have also provided a useful but brief explanation of the structure of the British Army and the role of the platoon and its arms and equipment. This is unlikely to satisfy those seeking an in-depth description and there are many other places where this can be found. But, as a commentary designed for those who are either seeking to develop an understanding or are perhaps less interested in the war but more in the individual they are researching, this is a very good overview. The use of endnotes to clarify events, describe military slang or to explain items of military equipment mentioned in the novel will also be very useful for those with a less well developed knowledge of the British Army in the Great War. The placing of these at the end of each chapter, however, can be a little irritating and the need for frequent page turning does, unfortunately, detract from their value but this is perhaps more a criticism of the publisher than the editors.
The novel is very much a personal story that concentrates on the personal implications of the war. As such, it gives little indication of the broader strategy that led to the author's involvement in the actions described. It would have been useful to have included a brief overview of the place of the events described in the context of the broader campaign and prosecution of the war. This was perhaps a missed opportunity within a book with an introductory narrative aimed at those without an in-depth knowledge of the Great War. However, as Samuel Hynes has said about soldier's memoirs and accounts, "Why is not a soldier's question" - issues of strategy were not part of a private soldier's experience of the war and perhaps therefore has no place in an account of this nature.
In summary, this is a useful book and is very much recommended for those wishing to trace an ancestor or for those wishing to develop a first-hand understanding of the experience and perspective of the private soldier in the Great War.
Review by: Adrian Parry