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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Harry's War: The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Harry's War: The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater
Jon Cooksey and David Griffiths (eds.)
London, Ebury Press, 2013

Harry Drinkwater's diary is a testament to one man's attempt to maintain his humanity throughout the war, both in battle and while waiting patiently in the trenches. Covering the full period of the war, Drinkwater's diary provides rare insights into conditions at the front, the conduct of major battles, and the hopes and fears of the ordinary soldier. As the war progressed, Drinkwater's tone developed and became stronger and more passionate. As Jon Cooksey (ed.) writes in his introduction, the diaries contain "vivid personal descriptions of the brutal vagaries of war written in real time on the battlefields, charting, with a fresh candour and honesty, the mixed fortunes which befell Harry and the men with whom he lived and served."

Drinkwater's diary entries transport one to the very heart of the action, recording details of mud, cold, fear, smells, and the scent of spilled blood. They also describe the transformation of a private soldier to a commissioned officer, showing how Harry moved from being a private soldier taking orders to an officer giving orders, yet he reveals time and time again that he has not forgotten what it was like to be on the receiving end of orders.

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Harry's War is a series of scenes which, unlike many World War One diaries, does not end abruptly with the writer's death. In contrast to many survivors of the war, Drinkwater did not bury his feelings and refuse to talk about his experiences; instead, he revised his diary and recorded his feelings in detail. Cooksey argues that Drinkwater's diary is "one of the most potent of all those that have yet emerged from the First World War. It will carry far into the next 100 years." As the reader progresses through Harry's War, the truth of this assertion becomes increasingly convincing.

The nine chapters — dealing with enlistment, the Somme, Arras, return to the Somme, French Flanders, promotion, Passchendaele, Italy, and Lys respectively — are introduced by a short historical context enabling the reader to better understand Drinkwater's observations. Many of the diary entries are unusually lengthy, some being up to five pages long. A case in point is the entry for Tuesday 5 September 1916, which is four pages long, and in which Drinkwater describes in graphic detail his situation at the Somme:

My position was secure as long as I lay in the bottom of the shell-hole but I was exposed to fire on my right. To attempt to go forward under the circumstances would have been absurd. I was carrying part of the Lewis gun and had no idea where the team was. To make for our line was risky; I had been watching some of our fellows try to do so and they were lying about over the ground, shot through the back, so I lay down beside the German. I found myself covered in maggots, and as best as I was able I covered him with dirt but I could not keep the smell down. So I lit my pipe and blew the smoke into my haversack.

Harry Drinkwater, Soldier of the King

Harry Drinkwater died in 1978. His death and his contributions to our understanding of World War One were noted by many British newspapers, including the Mail Online, whose article on Drinkwater contains a number of extracts from his diary as well as some photographs 

Edited by a leading military historian (Jon Cooksey) and by an author, former soldier, and collector of militaria (David Griffiths, who is also the owner of Drinkwater's diary), Harry's War: The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater is a unique account that tells a personal story that has been "silent" for a hundred years. Interspersed with black and white photographs, it brings the horrors as well as the rare pleasures of war to life in intricate detail. It also tells the story of an extraordinary man who should , in fact, never have enlisted (he was half an inch too short) but who was ultimately to be awarded the Military Cross.  

Dubbed by Roderick Suddaby, former keeper of the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum as "one of the best diaries of the First World War," Drinkwater's diary is to be published fittingly on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. "Harry's war" is a war shared by many, but few have been able to describe it in such detail, with such sincerity and over the entire length of the war.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


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