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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War
reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Commitment and Sacrifice: 
Personal Diaries from the Great War
by Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee
Oxford University Press, 2015

One of the Diarists Was an Australian Gunner at ANZAC

The authors Coetzee have given Great War historians another spell-binding work (previous World War I: A History in Documents and Empires, Soldiers, and Citizens: A World War I Sourcebook). However, the words of the authors do not do the stunning. Instead, it is the words of Great War participants, faithfully reproduced from their diaries, that stun the reader with their often on-the-brink -of-disaster descriptions or calm, measured words that assure the reader that everything is as it should be in time of war. That does not mean the authors are completely mute about the day-in and day-out entries. Their introductions to each of the diarists make the reader totally familiar with the chroniclers through a brief biography going from birth to the writers' ends. These introductions make the otherwise unknown diarist into an old friend who is about to take the readers into his confidence.

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There are five previously unpublished works and one reprint in the pages of this book. The diarists inhabit levels of participation that many of us are unfamiliar with and, therefore, the analogues are fresh, informative, and of great interest. There are the usual fighting men: a British sapper who digs the mine tunnels along the Western Front, an American ambulance driver in the early years of the war, an ANZAC artillery man at Gallipoli, and a French infantry officer embroiled in some of the most noteworthy battles. Outside of the military presence, there is an interned German businessman and a German prisoner of war in the French system. Notable in all the diaries, with the exception of the French officer, is a lack of hatred for the enemy, a lament over dreaded living conditions, or despair for the way the war is going.

What the reader finds is a candid, day-by-day account of what is transpiring in the writers' lives. Sometimes, the entries are repetitive, but that is as it should be. Then there are other entries which are highly informative. The German businessman very adequately describes the British internment procedure and the German prisoner of war minutely outlines the treatment of the captured soldier from the first moment to the last—nearly a year after the war was over. But even putting aside the last day-of-my-life existence that the French officer constantly enters, his diary gives readers a look at what the man in the trenches thought of the overall conduct of his superiors who inspect men in the trenches while noting that shoelaces are unkempt and buttons not well cleaned.

Another Diarist Was a German Prisoner of the French Like These

This work opens levels of Great War participation that have not been adequately explored. Previously printed diaries seem to pale in light of these entries that neither lament nor glorify the war as so many of those others have. It was very refreshing to find people saying that the war is bad but one has to adapt and move on. It dethrones otherwise lionized levels of Great War participation. Even the morose French officer's sarcasm toward his superiors is tempered by respect and a deep knowledge that winning the war has to be pursued regardless of the losses. This is a must read for historians.

Michael Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. I was getting a bit tired of books based mainly on diaries and memoirs but this one sounds refreshingly original and telling. A very thorough review. Thank you!