David Crane

Up close and personal: voices from the Great War, week by week

Extracts from hundreds of letters and diaries provide moving testimony to the dignity and selfless courage of all nationalities involved

Wounded German soldiers at the Front. Credit: Getty Images

In the summer of 2014, David Hargreaves was invited by Robert Cottrell, the editor of The Browser, to write a series of articles shadowing, week by week, the course of the first world war. Over the next four years Hargreaves and his researcher and co-author, Margaret-Louise O’Keeffe, brought these out online, and they have now been published, originally by subscription, in a set of four volumes that runs in all to a monumental 2,200 pages.

It is one thing to have dreamed up the project, it’s another to have carried it off with the collaborative skill and commitment on show here. It is impressive enough that over those years they never missed a single deadline; but what seems every bit as remarkable is the emotional stamina that saw them return, week in, week out, to a war in which success could be measured in yards, and lives expended with a profligacy that beggars belief.

The challenge for anyone writing, or even reading, about the Great War is just as often a matter of ‘anger management’ as ‘compassion fatigue’. It is fair enough for military historians to argue that the war was never the exercise in futility of popular myth. But for anyone drawn to the subject by sympathy for the men and women who endured it, academic detachment can seem no more appropriate a response than it does when walking among the graves of the Western Front.

There is certainly nothing temperate or detached about Hargreaves’s narrative — neither the war nor the web exactly encourage self-restraint — but As We Were is fuelled as much by admiration as it is by anger. The thought of Churchill’s antics over the Antwerp debacle or another Asquith
letter to Venetia Stanley are always enough to raise his blood pressure. Yet time and again through these pages, the familiar old story of jealousies, vanities, carnage and serial incompetence runs up against the rich evidence of dignity and selfless courage that fill the private letters and diaries of the time.

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