Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Star Shell Reflections 1914 – 1916
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Star Shell Reflections 1914 – 1916: The Illustrated Great War Diaries of Jim Maultsaid


Barbara McClune, Editor
Pen & Sword Military, 2015


I have tried to place before you a true and faithful picture of the life we boys lived during those years. Many writers of war books (and some of the best sellers) have made their name in describing the filth and misery, the horrible sights, the pain and suffering of war and all that starkness. Let me give you a glimpse of the bright side and an insight into the lives of those wonderful chums of mine. Kind true hearts beat beneath war-worn khaki tunics-read between the lines and find that indomitable spirit, the spirit that went on to win the war, that swept through the boys from Ulster in the 36th Division...(vii)


This book is an entertaining diary and also an intriguing collection of sketches and photographs. Even though the dust cover states he was often "described as the unofficial war artist," James Alexander Bovaird Maultsaid never claimed to be an artist; however, his sketches are captivating and take us, often in a cartoon-like style, into the heart of the everyday soldier's life on the Western Front. His prose entries are almost always brief and record his experiences in a factual manner, sometimes with humor and even nostalgia. He's surprisingly upbeat in his response to the grim life in the trenches and always seems to find something positive to say about what he goes through or sees. In this he is notably different from most writers who have recorded their life in the trenches.

The author had an interesting early life. He was raised in Donegal, Ireland, but was born in the U.S. to Irish parents who decided to return home. Thus he was an American citizen who later joined the British Army in Belfast. When he left school at age 13 he was already somewhat talented in writing and drawing and worked in the Belfast shipyards before volunteering for the Royal Irish Rifles on 14 September 1914. He was badly wounded on the first day of the Somme, and, although then unfit for active service, he was commissioned in 1917 to work with the Chinese Labour Corps. His experiences with them are recorded in a second volume, War! Hellish War! (also published by Pen & Sword).

Little seems to be left out of the WWI soldier's experience in this diary. From jam and bully beef, hard tack, mail from home and rum rations (Maultsaid himself was a strict teetotaler), to bayonet drill, endless marching, sleeping in the rain, and a rat that became his pet for a week, the author gives us an intimate chronicle through words and pictures. Interestingly, while he describes the fighting he says little about his pals who died, feeling that their memories are sacred and to be kept to himself.

Some entries are more detailed than others. The author describes a group of "colored" troops practicing a kind of wild dance and knife-throwing: "These were Indian troops, Gurkhas, I think, but I'm not quite sure." One dramatic episode involves a plump hen that sadly "Westward went" and which "never, never in this world would grace that old farmyard" again. Some two pages provide sketches of regimental colors. He expresses his admiration for "The Air Boys" at length and includes a unique aerial photo taken by a captured German pilot.

In spite of the fighting, there was often time for a sports day and the competition between teams was fierce, the officers often joining in. Infantry attacks coordinated with "the Skins" (The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) were frequent, and "a finer lot of fellows than our friends the Skins you could never meet" (125). Maultsaid lists his impressions of all the nationalities he meets during the fighting and has this to say about "the Yanks"—

Some great lads here! Most of them came from English, Irish and Scottish stock, mostly Irish. Put in some real good work, but did not win the war. I think more of them could have been used, some in fact after months 'out there' never got firing a shot even, much to their disgust (p. 79).

Jim Maultsaid After He Was Wounded
As he put his diary and sketches in order—later to be published by his granddaughter Barbara Anne McClune—Jim Maultsaid often found himself looking back at the war with mixed feelings. He remembers the happy times as well as the heartbreaking ones. Sometimes he begins a sentence by appealing to our memories, as though the reader had been there too—"Do you remember how we looked for the postman?" or "Yet…with it all, can't you remember the share-and-share alike spirit?" "Can't you still hear…"

Thus, with reader-friendly prose and sketches that sometimes reflect the "Old Bill" cartoons, we get a surprisingly full picture of an Irish soldier's thoughts, impressions and actions in the trenches and in battle from 1914 to 1916. This is an easy read that nevertheless leaves us feeling we know more about personal experience in the war than we did before. I'm eager now to get the second volume of this diary and to learn how Jim Maultsaid fared with the Chinese Labour Corps!

David F. Beer

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this fine review David. I'm going to have to buy both volumes myself!
    Pete

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  2. Solid review, David.
    Sounds like a fascinating and engaging read. Reminds me of what other war writers, like Tim O'Brien, have argued. One can't understand the experience of war without "a glimpse of the bright side and an insight into the lives of those wonderful chums of mine".

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  3. For years I have always asked for a more balanced view of the war from a soldier's stand point. Your review comes none too soon and adds to the list of items that have to be read. Cheers

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  4. Barbara Anne McCluneFebruary 15, 2017 at 9:14 AM

    Thank you for your very insightful review David, I am delighted you appreciate my grandfather's work. Just to let you know that the Starshell Reflections trilogy completes publication this year.

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