As a rule, modern history isn’t my thing, but I was given this book, a British soldier’s diary from 1917, as a gift.
The author is a junior officer entering the war (and the trenches) for the first time. As well as being an enthusiastic, likeable fellow, Edwin Campion Vaughan is also a very engaging writer.
From January to August, almost every day has an individual entry. There’s a natural descent from the excitement at the prospect of doing one’s bit into the horrendous reality of one of history’s worst wars.
The sudden eclipse of anticipation by panic and fear is matched only by the touching humanity of Vaughan and the nightmarish latter entries. There’s a peculiarly persistent decency throughout regarding his view of the Germans. When he marches past a dead German being chewed upon by a cat, he has it shooed away, and when returning the same way and finding the mog returned has it shot.
The sheer arbitrary nature of death in World War One is brought home right from the off (Vaughan narrowly escapes death at a sniper’s hand when he slips and falls over, a bullet flying where his head should’ve been). Shells exploded where they may, machine-guns and snipers ever on alert. It’s a stark contrast (and, counter-intuitively), far worse than the ancient warfare I usually read about, where the enemy is often several thousand strong, in an army and fought at close quarters. In the First World War, death could come at any moment without a real chance to protect oneself.
Amidst the terrible conditions and danger, there are lighter moments, and it’s heartening to see that Vaughan and his comrades managed to keep their spirits up despite the horrors of their day-to-day lives. The part of France in which he found himself has been wrecked by years of warfare, riddled with shattered villages and the land scarred by shell holes (handy for shelter, in a pinch).
I found it very engaging, poignant and incredibly sad. If you’re seeking an unvarnished description of life in the trenches, with all the woe, levity and human spirit it entailed, this is the book for you.