M R-D-Foot

Letters from the Front

M. R. D. Foot on a collection of letters from WW1 soldiers

A wide gap has opened up between British military historians who work on the world war of 1914-18 and the mass of British schoolteachers who take it in school history classes. The teachers, impressed by the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, follow what may be called the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ school of Alan Clark, and regard the war as a colossal waste of men and effort. More and more of the military historians, led by Brian Bond, now appreciate that British commanders in those years contended well with the unprecedented difficulties of industrial war, and deserve credit rather than contempt. Peter Hart, who has soaked himself for a decade in the treasures of the Imperial War Museum’s collections, weighs in on the historians’ side with a most readable book based on original documents.

He mixes together soldiers’ letters home to their families and friends with the much better-known reflexions of the high commanders on both sides. He has many more letters from British and British Commonwealth than from French or German writers, but does not leave the enemy out altogether, and, as deftly as a pointillist painter, he blends his fragments into a coherent whole. At the end of every extract he names the writer and adds the unit or formation to keep the reader abreast of the angle from which the war is being viewed.

There is not a great deal of grand strategy here, but there is plenty of human interest; most of the horrors that soldiers could not bear to talk about when they came home on leave get covered, including a lot of dismembered bodies. The nastiness of war is set out quite nakedly, so is its noise; only its boredom is skipped over. There is plenty of fright and plenty of quiet courage as well.

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