An Infantryman on the Western Front 1916-18 Joseph Johns StewardHardback
224 pages
ISBN: 9781848843615

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

soldier_of_the_horseISBN 978-1-926741-24-6
Can$19.95
234pp

Although this is a novel - a genre I usually avoid - this book has clearly been well-researched and is well-written.

The story is based on the fictional character of Tom Macrae who, due to a series of incidents, finds himself volunteering for service in the Canadian Cavalry regiment Lord Strathcona's Horse. Tom's training is described, with enemies from his recent past lurking in the background. Eventually arriving in France, the author sets Tom in the front line, with his regiment serving as infantry.

Usually, when reading about the Great War, one does not notice the absence of dialogue between the participants but, in this instance, due to the nature of the book, dialogue is a significant part of the story. For me, it brings a fresh perspective to interpreting the war - it also brings the point home that the war was not conducted in silence and the participants did interact with each other. This is not always the case when reading standard histories.

The climax of the story is the Battle of Moreuil Wood when Tom comes into contact with Brigadier-General Jack Seely: this feels slightly contrived but nevertheless the characters feel realistic and the plot accurate.

The book is recommended.

Reviewed by: David Tattersfield.

sacrifice_of_innocentsPublished by Tommies Guides.

ISBN: 978-0-9555698-7-6

Alan Barker has written an excellent Novel about the Great War in his book 'A Sacrifice of Innocents'.

The book revolves John Barrett and the "King's Own Lancashire Rifles". The story revolves around a fictional "Offical War Dairy" he has acquired.

The reader is thrown head long into the appalling suffering, the acts of courage and heroism shown by men involved in battle.  You are drawn through the story with John Barrett realising just what warfare is in all its appalling horror... All the time as he reads the Diary he draws the reader through some of the most profound aspects of modern warfare.

This is a thoroughly well researched book.  Alan Barker, although writing a novel, has made sure that details of rank, location, dates and events are historically correct.  This attention to detail helps to add to the authenticity of this work.

This book is a very good novel about the Great War. Alan Barker should be rightly proud of this work of historical fiction.

Reviewer: Martin Hornby

And here is the review from Stand To! No 86

An Effective Novel Approach

Although Birdsong and a number of other late 20th century novels about the Great War have their adherents, it seems to me that only one novel about the war since 1945 has the power and feeling of veracity to compare with the works of the 1920s and 30s. Covenant with Death, by John Harris, retains a firm grasp of fact. It is compelling; its texture, pace and detail drive the story to its inevitable conclusion. Comparison of Harris's work with that of later writers underlines that writing a new novel about the Great War is a hard trick to pull off, yet it is one in which Alan Barker has largely succeeded. A Sacrifice of Innocents shows the influence of Harris's work in its attempt to reproduce the reality of war for the fictional 19th (Service Battalion) Kings Own Lancashire Rifles Regiment between September 1915 and March 1916. Like Covenant with Death it reproduces the experiences of a Kitchener battalion - but in this case the period is earlier, detailing the battalion's service, following its actions, at Loos to its virtual destruction in late July 1916. The author's technique is to reproduce daily extracts from the battalion's war diary and then to weave and expand the tale through the reported events as they affected individual officers and men. Certainly the Great War expert will find some annoying errors of fact - not least the mention of a five round Lee Enfield magazine and ‘Flodden gray kilt covers' - and certain characteristically obvious story lines and prototypical characters. But, this is worthy of forgiveness and Alan Barker maintains the pace of his tale with skill and interest, and the events are certainly more believable than those detailed in works like Birdsong. Further, the pace of the book's narrative is maintained throughout with considerable skill both in its writing about action and that covering periods behind the lines. Overall Sacrifice of Innocents is a readable and generally well researched piece of work. Its many strands of a complex tale are well paced and largely believable. In short, it is quite the best re-creation of the Great War in fiction for some time, and a book whose pages just keep turning.

Reviewer: David Filsell

more_then_just_a_lifeAuthorhouse UK Ltd, 2010

ISBN 978-1-4490-7089-2

Steve Little has written a fascinating novel about the capture and court martial of a deserter from the Third Battle of Ypres.

The book starts when our two protagonists, Private Eddie Wilson (the deserter) and Corporal (later Sergeant) Frank Shipley, the Military Policeman assigned to tracking him down, playing cat-and-mouse in the lanes around Calais. These two men are drawn sympathetically and, once the inevitable happens, we are concerned about Eddie's survival - the court martial will only have one outcome.

The book is let down by the lengthy middle section in which we find out why Eddie deserted. Apparently he arrives at the Western Front in October 1917 with minimum training and in three weeks he experiences every catastrophe imaginable: bullying sergeants, attempted suicide, death by shelling of his platoon (including his closest friend).

Once the author has moved back to the journey in which Frank takes Eddie to Poperinghe for the court martial, the story picks up. We learn from episodes of 'madness' that Eddie is still suffering from shell shock and Frank slowly comes to believe that Eddie is not a coward. The court martial is very well described and the denouement with its twist is extremely well laid out.

If you can overlook some of the middle section (everything happens over a period of three weeks while Eddie is in the front line), the story is well written and very engrossing.

Reviewer: Peter J Palmer

keep_the_home_fires_burningISBN: 978-0-9555698-3-8

Keep the Home Fires Burning is a first class novel written around the main characters life before, during and after the Great War.  It covers many of the topical area's of a young man's need to serve his country. We move from Tom's early life in Radnorshire, to his involvement in the war, and finally his life after.

This is a well written and researched novel. It does not pretend to be anything other than a well written and informative book written loosely around the Great War.

It is a thorourghly good read and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the Great War.  Yet again Tommies Guides have provided  an author with access to the public, in a wonderfully presented book.

Martin Hornby 

Vice Chairman

 

 

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