Forgotten Voices of the Great War

Forgotten Voices Of The Great War

By Max Arthur

Ebury Press – £7.99

In 1972 a team of academics and archivists from the Imperial War Museum set about the momentous task of tracing ordinary men and women who had lived through one of the most harrowing periods of modern history, the First World War. The result of which is this Sunday Times bestseller, Forgotten Voices of the Great War – which, in Association with The Imperial War Museum, is a chronological account of the harrowing day-to-day experiences, as seen through the eyes of those who were (unfortunately) there.

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel upon reading this book. Obviously, I knew I was going to be touched, saddened and reminded of just how very fortunate I am, to have never had to endure such superfluous suffering and dire hardship. But for some reason, I wasn’t nearly as moved as I thought I might be.

Perhaps this was due to the relentlessness of the subject matter, or the writing itself. Or perhaps it was due to the sheer madness of the entire campaign, which – given today’s obsession with that of a Broken Society, thanks (in part) to the ever sickening obsession that is Health and Safety – doesn’t seem comprehendible. Let alone acceptable.

Were it not for the recognition of French geography, many of the British, French and German (as well as Australian, American and Canadian) veterans, might just as well be speaking about a different planet. For such was the barbarity of the fighting, not to mention the stupidity, audacity and sheer naivety of those who gave the orders. In 1918 for instance – both sides having already endured four years of endless slaughter – came the infamous and equally appalling order from Field Marshal Haig: ‘’Backs to the wall. Every man will stand and fight and fall. No more retreating.’’

Again, given today’s higher regard for life among the Armed Forces, such myopic and cruel stupidity, just wouldn’t be allowed. One need only look at the current reportage, and the way British soldiers are treated in Afghanistan, to ascertain that such a pathetic command/demand just wouldn’t be tolerated.

In nigh harmony, Max Arthur has done a commendable job compiling Forgotten Voices of the Great War. There are indeed a great many, too many in fact, whom cover a wide open terrain of human emotion – of which the following by Sergeant Jack Dorgan of the 7th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (in 1915), is as surely eloquent and heartbreaking, as it can possibly, possibly get:

‘’During the attack on St Julien on the 26th of April a shell dropped right in amongst us, and when I pulled myself together I found myself lying in a shell-hole. There was one other soldier who, like me was unhurt, but two more were heavily wounded, so we shouted for stretcher-bearers.

Then the other uninjured chap said to me, ‘We’re not all here, Jack,’ so I climbed out of the shell-hole and found two more of our comrades lying just a few yards from the shell-hole.

They had their legs blown off. All I could see when I got up to them was their thigh bones. I will always remember their white thigh bones, the rest of their legs were gone. Private Jackie Oliver was one of them, and he was unconscious. I shouted back to the fellows behind me, ‘Tell Reedy Oliver his brother’s been wounded.’ So Reedy came along and stood looking at his brother, lying there with no legs, and a few minutes later he watched him die. But the other fellow, Private Bob Young, was conscious right to the last. I lay alongside of him and said, ‘Can I do anything for you Bob?’ He said,

Straighten my legs, Jack,’ but he had no legs. I touched the bones and that satisfied him. Then he said, ‘Get my wife’s photograph out of my breast pocket.’ I took the photograph out and put it in his hands. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t lift a hand, he couldn’t lift a finger, but he somehow held his wife’s photograph on his chest. And that’s how Bob Young died […].’’

David Marx


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