Dr Western Front

A Doctor on the Western Front

By Henry Owens, Edited by John Hutton

Imprint: Pen & Sword Military

Pages: 224

ISBN: 9781781593066

Published: 31st July 2013

This is a very well written and interesting book from a medical officer in at the start of the war. The book is a diary of Henry Owens who was present at nearly all battles of WW1 on the western front. The source is Henry Owens' diary stored at the Imperial War Museum. It gives a lot of notable information, I was surprised our man was just able to join up when he heard the war announced and could be at the front for the first shots and the retreat from Mons, he travelled to Curragh in Ireland to join a Cavalry Field Ambulance in early August 1914 with no previous military experience. His love of horses and  hunting features several times in his account, even trying to form a hunting pack with local French hounds.

He writes calmly about his duties. He is mainly concerned with the Field ambulances and therefore reports dealing with dressings and evacuations of the wounded for the most part. He does reveal the deaths of RAMC personnel and wounding of medical officers he is serving with.  He details his brief hospital service. He describes several incidents. In the retreat from Mons he sees a Staff Officer who takes his own life because of the devastation of the retreat. He attempts to snipe and tries to shoot his own German but as a non Combatant it is good that he fails. He records observing artillery wire cutting tests in preparation for the Somme. The pace and danger of the final advance and his meeting of the French civilians is especially poignant. His diary covers his relative discomfort in the line and elsewhere, occasionally a bed is available. There are a last few paragraphs after his demobilisation when he is back to hunting. John Hutton's introduction deals with the war and the RAMC and Henry's  brief post war career. Sadly Henry Owens dying of sepsis in 1921.

Added commentaries clarify what went on a at all points including the danger our man would have been in. Summaries are also given by John Hutton about the battles, losses and leadership. They are concise and enhance the text.

I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it wholeheartedly.

 Outline by Paul Nash
 Outline. An Autobiography. Paul Nash

Hardback, 280 pages

14 Colour illustrations

9 Black and White illustrations

Published 16 October 2016

Edited by David Boyd Haycock.

Written by Paul Nash and Margaret Nash.

Oultine is four books in one. The first part is an autobiography, the second part are the notes Nash compiled to complete his autobiography, the third part are letters home to his wife while on the Western Front near Ypres in 1917 and the fourth part is a biography that completes Nash’s life, written by his wife.

The autobiography is as good as his art, and his art is masterful. Within a few sentences you realise you are reading an author of talent. You later learn that his qualities as a writer were recognised when tentatively he became an art critic; only to be crushed by jealous and vitriolic established critics who appear to have wanted to kill off that most dangerous of voices - a critic who was a talented artist too. 

Nash's love of the countryside is established in his youth. 

"I realised, without expressing the thought, that I belonged to the country. The mere sight of it disturbed my senses. Its scenes, and sounds, and smells intoxicated me anew." Paul Nash, Outlines p.36

I read books in print and e-Books. I am used to tagging pages and highlighting passages. With e-Books this is a tap or a swipe of the finger, in a hardback book like this one I use Post-It Note Index and Arrow tabs: I got through a pack of 120 in the 145 pages that make up the autobiography. This is evidence enough for me how worthwhile the book is to own.

On just about every page there is a line to savour, an image or view described to read through several times to get it in your mind’s eye, a sound recalled to hear perfectly and clearly, an anecdote to quote, a phrase, thought or reflection on life to be reminded of. You can sense how his artist’s mind developed and worked, whether filling a page with images or words. Paul Nash thinks a thing through with meticulous care and thought. He is an author to enjoy, and a life to study should you know someone with ambitions to be a ‘creative’: he found his way, he took his chances, he developed resolve, he made art pay (just), he believed in what he had to say and show, while circumstances saw him tipped out of the chalk downlands of southern Britain, into the torturted hell of the Ypres Salient in 1917.

People like his grandfather and uncle Hubert are such rounded characters, so well described, that you can see them: an artist could draw them and create a likeness. Nash describes his uncle:

"He was a tremendous specimen of a man, tall and powerfully built with a handsome head hewn out in Gladstonian lineaments". 

In relation to the First World War, always asking myself the question, ‘what was it really like?’ having been fed, at length and repeatedly over several decades the stories of my late grandfather (a machine-gunner who served on the Somme in 1916 and at Third Ypres in 1917) I came to feel that Paul Nash said it for me; that paintings such as ‘The Menin Road’ got closest to taking me there. Reading Paul Nash’s own words, studying his work further, then attending the new exhibition at Tate Britain, confirms this and more: both as a writer and an artist, his affinity with, study of, and mastery of what his own mind saw does what not photograph can achieve - it recreates ‘the mind’s eye’ - Paul Nash put on paper and canvas what his mind re-created. We see the world translated. We sense it better for this. We begin to 'feel' it. 

Margaret Nash descibes what Paul made of joining the Artist's Rifles in 1914.

"He was thrilled with a boyish pride in the whole heroic adventure of war. He saw its ugliness, but he also saw its haunting beauty and drama ... beauty and mystery." 

You will reach page 145, turn to the next page and despair. Paul Nash wrote no more - war is yet to break out. He takes us towards August 1914, but no further, not in his autobiography at least. He was writing from notes made in the 1930s and this is 1946; he died suddenly. 

Having been so engaged, so entralled and so convinced of the world he recreated for us: growing up, facing many boyhood struggles at school - when and where attempts were made to bash him into something he could never be (a naval officer), and seeing, hearing and sensing it all so well: eventually gravitating towards his place as a graphic designer, or illustrator, or landscape artist, and then learning how he would go off somewhere, seak out the view, and having drawn it at the time, then, many years later writing about it from the artist’s point of view, picking out the detail that matters when forming a picture. Having done all this, at first you will feel you have walked up to the edge of a great chasm.

Can you read on after page 145?

‘Paul Nash’s Notes For The Continuation of His Autobiography’ only tell you how much thought he took when preparing his text. The previous 145 pages are not, could not have been, a stiring ‘stream of consciousness’ to have come out so well. Here are the writer’s preparatory notes. It is hard to imagine how he would have filled the pages, only to know that 27 points would have been transformed into another 145 pages. A glance through his notes, and already knowing him as an artist inclined to detail, that like Proust, given a chance, his autobiography would have gone on to many hundreds of pages, and several volumes.

You quickly wonder about the rest of the book. There follow around 30 pages of letters from Paul Nash to his wife, 1917-18. These go a long way to bring relief from your sense of loss and missed opportunity. In a way, it is charming and revealing to hear Paul Nash writing in a less indulgent and studious way. The same voice is there, while his love for his wife Margaret emerges, as does the tone of a journalist - he knows how to tell a story, make a point, paint a picture and to recreate a scene, as well as any artist or screenwriter. Some of his War Work, paintings from the Western Front, are featured too. Quite quickly you understand what he has achieved: it is if a young man, after ten years perfecting his eye on the human body, has been presented with the body distressed: the skin torn off, bones broken and exposed … he would understand the comparison. His approach, as he and others saw it, was to ‘animate nature’ - to see trees as ‘personages’ as it is put. This thought alone explains his shell-struck trees on the Western Front as surreal, dripping and drooping, as if made of flesh like molten pulp. Only a master of the natural and imagined landscape could realise it thus. 

As if you are taking a few steps out of a hole, depressed at having lost Paul Nash’s voice for the part of the his life that might interest you most - his war experiences, his wife Margaret Nash steps in to complete her husband’s story 1913-1946.

 

Margaret was smart. She had gained a scholarship to Oxford and had been working in Whitehall when they met. She tells it well.

On completing the book, by chance, I was coming into London last Sunday morning (6th November) and decided to take myself to Tate Britain to see the recently opened Paul Nash exhibition. I wasn’t disappointed. ‘Outline’ had prepared my way beautifully.

 

I felt I knew much of the work in Room 1 seeing many of his early drawings and paintings, while Room 2 enjoying his First World War work, which was even more powerful than I had imagined. Neither a reproduction in a book, nor online, can do justice to any painting, but here the scale of ‘Menin Road’ is incredible. It is a piece of theatre painted on a large canvas (182.8 x 317.5). That’s nearly 6ft high, and remember it is already mounted at knee height. It is over 10ft long. It shocking, memorable and appropriate. 

"On looking at his work at this period," Margaret Nash writes, "one realises the immense importance of its line and plan, but I think that that formal aspect of his work came from a sudden unnaccustomed acceptance of a highly disciplined life in order to meet something that had hitherto never come into his experience - fear, danger, death and that experience included himself and me." Outline. p197.

Armed with an audio-guide, I initially crossed back and forth between these two rooms. You see that Paul Nash's mind, that was mastering his artistic interpretation of the natural landscape, is well able to visualise the flip-side hell of a landscape destroyed by artillery and poison gas, lit up by Verey lights and punctured by steel, wrapped in tangles of barbed wire with trees, as already described … not quite as dead as a photograph might show them. It is as if the sap they drip has been drawn from the puckered earth and made them like black candles. They are, and are meant to be, totems to the dead who have been churned into the battlefield.

The following five rooms of art take us through another thirty years, and another five stages in his life. I’ll leave you to explore these rooms and discover this part of Paul Nash’s life for yourself, however, it is worth noting that having been an Official War Artist in the First World War, that Paul Nash was commissioned to paint the Second World War too. ‘Totes Meer’ (Dead Sea) with broken parts of downed German bombers forming a sea breaking on a British Shore has its origins in the young Paul Nash. There is a clear logic, that I'd never appreciate before, between his early work, his experiences on the Western Front, surrealism and his later work. 

Oultine. An Autobiography is a remarkable book that pieces together an author and painter who captured the pain suffered by ‘Mother Earth’ during the First World War; for me he gets as close as I have ever seen or experienced of ‘being there’ in the mud of the Ypres Salient in 1917.

 Paul Nash
 Unknown Photographer, Paul Nash, c.1930-32. 

 

Paul Nash - Tate Britain, is a special exhibition that takes you on a journey through his mind, experiences and craft. I recommend both the book and the exhibition.

 Paul Nash, Landscape of a Summar Solstice
 Paul Nash, Landscape of the Summer Solstice, 1943, Oil on Canvas

 

Paul Nash - Tate Britain, London until 5 March 2017, The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich 7 April to 20 August 2017, Laing Art Gallery, Newcaslte 9 September 2017 to end of January 2018.

Catch it if you can.

Oultine. An Autobiograph. Paul Nash (and Margaret Nash, with forewards/introductions by David Boyd Haycock) A must for those with an interest an ‘artist as a young man’ (in his own words), as well as British art and times of 1900 through the Great War, Surrealism, World War 2 and a little beyond.

 

Find out more about Paul Nash on the Tate Britain website. 

Purchase 'Outline' from Lund Humphries.

Purchase 'Paul Nash' from Tate Shop

Review by Jonathan Vernon

 

 

 

Victoria Crosses on the Western Front
Victoria Crosses on the Western Front : Paul Oldfield

 

Victoria Crosses on the Western Front April 1915 - June 1916

Paul Oldfield

(Pen & Sword Military, 2015) £30

476 pp, including seven ‘master’ maps, plus various modern maps and numerous b/w photos throughout the text.

Abbreviations, sources, useful information and index.

 

On 3 August 1915, 1/Scots Guards (1 (Guards) Brigade, 1st Division) was serving in the British trenches south of the Béthune- La Bassée road. No particular action was underway and overall the period of duty was a quiet one. Under cover of darkness, 2nd Lieutenant George Boyd-Rochfort was supervising a working party of around forty men in a communications trench. At 0200 hours an enemy trench mortar bomb landed on the parapet and toppled over into the trench. Instead of stepping around a traverse and into safety Boyd-Rochfort shouted out a warning and, catching the bomb before it hit the ground, threw it away over the parapet. The resulting explosion buried both him and another soldier, but neither were injured. The lieutenant’s courageous action undoubtedly saved many lives. For his quick thinking and bravery, Boyd-Rochfort was awarded the Victoria Cross.

This story reminds us that soldiers serving on the Western Front were always at constant risk even when there was no major fighting taking place and conditions appeared quiet. As with many of the awards of the Victoria Cross, it involved the incredible bravery of one man acting to save the lives of his companions.

The courage of 2nd Lieutenant Boyd-Rochfort is one of the sixty-four Victoria Cross actions described in Paul Oldfield’s excellent book. This edition is the second volume of a planned series of nine books describing all 492 Victoria Crosses won by ground troops serving on the Western Front.

The book is designed to aid the visitor to the battlefields as well as providing an engaging and informative read. This reflects the long-standing interest of the author who began his researches nearly thirty years ago, while a serving soldier. Paul Oldfield subsequently became a battlefield guide and is a member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. He decided to find out more about where Victoria Cross (VC) actions had taken place and the background to those individuals whose remarkable bravery had been acknowledged by this most prestigious of awards.

The book is in two parts.

The first section comprises chapters on each of the principal battles and operations throughout the fourteen month period covered. The author supplies valuable context through an account of the relevant strategic and tactical history within which he describes the action relating to each VC. For ease of reference each VC is numbered chronologically (starting with ‘60’ to continue the sequence begun in the first volume). These accounts are supported by seven modern ‘master’ maps which show the general area within which the actions took place, allowing the visitor to find the particular location. For each VC there is a sketch map and route directions which will assist the visitor to stand on, or close to, the spot where the action took place; there is also, at least, one modern photograph of the site to provide further information.

Part two provides a detailed biography of each VC recipient providing information on every aspect of their lives.

These fascinating characters – drawn from every kind of class and social background - are brought to life through an account of the soldier’s education, employment and military career, together with family information. Of particular note, there are details regarding death and burial, including any signs of commemoration regarding the individual or their award. There will no doubt be comparisons drawn between Oldfield’s series of books and the titles produced by Sutton Publishing in the 1990s under the heading VCs of the First World War. From memory these books eventually recorded all the VCs awarded during the war including those theatres beyond France and Belgium. Concerning the book which is the subject of this review, the closest Sutton series title is The Western Front 1915 by Peter F Batchelor & Christopher Matson (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997). Batchelor and Matson’s book lists all those soldiers awarded the VC in that year and for each one there is a description of the action followed by a short biography. The Sutton books provide a valuable record for each and remain worthy of a place in your library.

Paul Oldfield builds effectively upon this information, firstly through providing an excellent summary of the various battles and operations during which the action of the individual soldier took place – as well as providing valuable context this narrative is also a concise and focused history of the war on the Western Front. However the real added value that Oldfield gives is the added detail for the battlefield visitor through the book’s maps, diagrams, modern photos and travel directions. This work represents painstaking research of the highest calibre.

Although it has not been planned as such, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book from cover to cover, working my way through the chronological descriptions of the actions and then reading the summary biographies of each soldier. These are sometimes cut short as his brave act led to his early death. Some went on to lead successful and occasionally remarkable lives in or out of the army. Others lived to pursue quiet and unassuming lives, quite at odds with their award-winning exploits. It is a fascinating read and, as well as being left full of admiration for the individual award winners; one learns much about the British Army, its composition and operations. However, the real power of the books lies in the added value it provides for the battlefield visitor today. It (and its partner volumes) will prove to be an essential item for the suitcase or, more likely, the rucksack.

 

Review by WFA member Dennis Williams

28/10/2015

 Front Cover of Kaiser's Conscript

 

The Kaiser’s Reluctant Conscript: My Experiences in the War 1914-1918. Richert, Dominik. 

Barnsley, South Yorkshire

Pen & Sword Military, 2012.

 

Born in 1893, Dominick Richert had completed less than a year of his compulsory service with the German Army when war broke out in August 1914. Almost five years passed before he returned home. His experiences during the intervening period were almost unbelievably eventful. He participated in the German invasion of France in 1914 and in the highly successful Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive against Russia in 1915. He remained on Germany’s Eastern Front, serving on relatively quiet sectors, throughout the middle years of the war; as an inhabitant of what had been, until 1871, the French province of Alsace, Richert was regarded by his superiors as unsuitable for long-term service in the west. He was transferred back to France only in 1918, when the Russian collapse permitted the concentration of all of Germany’s available manpower on the Western Front for Ludendorff’s ambitious Spring Offensive. As an NCO in his battalion’s machine gun company, Richert fought in several battles early in 1918, including the encounter between German and British tanks at Villers-Bretonneux – probably the first clash between hostile tanks in history. Having long since come to the conclusion that Germany could never win the war, he deserted – accompanied by two other soldiers – in July 1918. He spent the last few months until the armistice in French captivity, finally reuniting with his family (whose home had since been reincorporated into France) in January 1919. A few years later, Richert – like many other veterans of the Great War – set out to record his wartime experiences in detail. This book was the result. It remained almost completely unknown until the manuscript was discovered in a German military archive in 1987. It has since been published in German and French. This edition, translated by D. C. Sutherland and published by Pen and Sword Military, marks the work’s first appearance in the English language.

 

The Kaiser’s Reluctant Conscript is a very welcome addition to the literature of Great War memoirs. Richert’s writing is unique in several respects. In the first place, as an Alsatian, he seems to have remained at heart an outsider within the German military (and within the German Empire as a whole). His attitude toward the supposed righteousness of the German cause was skeptical at best. His only consistent loyalty throughout the war was to his immediate comrades. He comments in the book on a number of occasions on the emptiness of the ideals for which he and his fellow soldiers were supposed to be fighting. He professed to harbor “a secret anger against all officers from lieutenant upwards,” noting bitterly that they were privileged to “[live] in better conditions, were better fed, and, to top it all, were better paid, while the poor soldier had to go through the whole misery of the war ‘for the Fatherland and not for the money, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah’ as one marching song has it.” This was, he suggested, not an unusual sentiment: “We soldiers from Alsace did not have a trace of love for the Fatherland…” (142). This attitude led Richert to engage in a number of activities that, if detected, would have resulted at least in his imprisonment. Yet he had an exceptional talent for deception. Indeed, his survival until the end of the war no doubt owed a great deal to his tendency to go AWOL at opportune moments, to feign illness and to land himself relatively safe assignments.

 

That is not to say that he had anything like a comfortable time in the army. On the contrary, he faced extreme danger on numerous occasions – frequently for weeks or months on end. The opening months of the Great War were particularly horrific. Richert’s regiment participated in the Battle of the Frontiers and was later condemned to engage in trench warfare against the Indian Army in northern France. During all of these events, Richert generally found himself, rifle in hand, on the front lines. He watched as all but five of the original 280 men in his company, who he had trained with and who were sent into France in August 1914, became casualties by the end of the year. The events of 1915 appear to have been similarly grueling, as Richert fought along through large swathes of Russian Poland. The challenges that mobile warfare posed to the individual soldier were, needless to say, largely unknown on the Western Front between the opening battles in 1914 and the final offensives in 1918. Even in 1916 and 1917, when he was fortunate enough to avoid direct involvement in the materialschlachten of Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele, Richert still endured serious privations. In these circumstances, cold often posed a more immediate threat than the Russians, whose willingness to surrender commonly caught their German opponents by surprise. Yet Richert still experienced moments of fierce combat, for example during operations leading to the capture of Riga in late 1917 – where the German army demonstrated the effectiveness of the mature form of infiltration (or stormtroop) tactics, which had been gradually developed over the course of the war. In 1918, Richert witnessed firsthand the overwhelming material superiority of the British, French and American forces – which contrasted sharply with the condition of near-starvation that obtained within the German Army at that time.

 

Richert’s memoir is not in the same league as more deliberately crafted “war books” by Erich Maria Remarque, Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon – although it does somewhat resemble the straightforward narrative of events found in Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Its simplicity and apparent honesty is nevertheless valuable. The reader is left with the powerful impression that the events described in the book are presented precisely as Richert remembered them. They do not seem to have been embellished or selectively arranged for dramatic effect. But is this the case? The translator’s introduction gives very few details about the work’s composition – probably almost nothing is known. The work seems astonishingly detailed for a memoir. Richert is able to describe the course of events during particular battles almost minute-by-minute. It is not impossible that he could have done this from memory, yet it seems far more likely that he was working from a diary kept during the war itself. This is only speculation, however, as no diary is mentioned directly in the text. The details that Richert does provide, however, do seem to be demonstrably accurate. The translator’s footnotes, found throughout the text, provide useful explanations of obscure terms and background on events alluded to in passing. In only a few places does the translator offer a correction to any of the author’s claims.

 

The translator, D. C. Sutherland, has indeed done exceptionally good work. Richert’s German is rendered in clear and readable English. The text is also accompanied by a map of Europe tracing Richert’s movements throughout the war. This is exceptionally useful for the reader, and a very welcome inclusion. Except for the fact that the book lacks an index, it is a superb production in every respect. Overall, while Richert’s work will never become part of the canon of Great War literature, it will nevertheless serve as a useful account of the First World War for anyone interested in the perspective of a member of Imperial Germany’s Alsatian minority. The work will also interest anyone seeking to understand the experience of the individual German soldier on the Eastern Front.

 

Review by Mason Watson.

tommys sketchbookLance Corporal Henry Buckle, A Tommy's Sketchbook: writings and drawings from the trenches.

Edited by David Read

ISBN 978-0-7524-6605-7

The History Press, 2012 160pp 

This delightful book contains the diary and sketches of Henry Buckle, a lance corporal in the 1/5 Gloucestershires. Originally a whitesmith from Tewkesbury, he had been a pre-war Territorial, re-enlisting on the outbreak of war. He was in France between March and October 1915, when a trench collapsed upon him and he was discharged from the Army during the summer of 1915.

During his time in the Army he kept a diary full of wry observations about Army organisation (or lack of it) and the joys and occasional sadness of service overseas.

He was also an amateur painter – cartoonist might be a better description – painting the world he saw around him. What his sketches lack in technical skill, they more than make up for in atmosphere. He regularly sent the sketches back to his wife and daughter, often providing descriptions.

This is not a book to show the horrors of war. Buckle was too aware of censorship and the need not to frighten his family. Instead it shows the small pleasures that many men took from companionship with their comrades and seeing a world very different from the one they knew.

The book also has an unusually high production value, being full colour throughout, with an informative introduction by David Read of the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, and a forward from the former England cricketer and painter Jack Russell.

It represents excellent value and would make an excellent Christmas stocking filler.

Reviewed by Simon Fowler.

Page 1 of 3
 

Sponsored Link

pen and sword 2014

Back to top