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

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918

By Trevor Wilson
Blackwell/Polity Press, 1986
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Trevor Wilson, 1928–2022

Dear Reader, 

I hope you’ll read this review because I fear you may not read all 864 pages of the book. Yes, it’s ‘dated’ and long—but over the past month or so I’ve found it to be an extremely rich insight into the various aspects of how World War One was experienced and fought by the people of Britain. Author Trevor Wilson, a noted Australian professor and scholar, drew from innumerable sources to produce this book, and the result is a lively and highly readable study composed of eighteen chapters, each with two to seven subsections. Useful maps are included along the way, and many black and white photos help bring us in contact with the everyday people of the time.

Nothing relating to Britain’s war experience is neglected in this work. Military, political, diplomatic, economic, and social life are all examined in detail. The early retreat from Mons is typically described in a combination of prose and personal experience. The retreat continued for thirteen days, and the average soldier managed three or four hours of sleep every 24 hours. In this way some 200 miles were covered, much in extreme heat. A corporal describes how he inadvisably took his boots off one night to find his feet covered in blood. “As I couldn’t get my boots on again I cut the sides away, and when we started marching again, my feet hurt like hell.” His company eventually covered 251 miles of retreat (pp. 45-46).

This frequent combining of fact with human experience keeps Wilson’s book flowing and interesting. The sections describing an Irish soldier’s time on the Aisne is riveting, as are later sections where we hear the voices of officers, airmen, sailors, politicians, the working class, and housewives. Ultimately, we hear the voices of Britons at the end of a war that resulted in intense questioning of whether it was all worth it. (The author somewhat cryptically deals with this question at the very end of the book). . .

Infantry Advancing at the Somme

Every battlefront is considered. This includes Gallipoli, Salonika, and Mesopotamia, the section for which is interestingly headed “Sideshows More or Less” (p. 266). One of the longest chapters, with seven parts, is “Blooding the New Armies: The Battle of the Somme, 1916.” Here again the author is comprehensive, including graphic details of the part played by the “motor-monster” (the tank), the war in the sky, and a personal account by one private who endured and survived the Somme. This private describes the kinds of lads he arrived at the battlefield with: 

tough lads: dustmen, fish-dock workers, trawler hands, merchant seamen, casual dockside laborers, plus a sprinkling of white-collar types. As civilians, most were as poor as cows—and we were all poor together as privates in the Infantry. But as comrades under the most miserable of conditions you would have to go a long way to find better lads than those with whom I served…. (p. 354).

We learn much about the Generals and politicians involved in the war. High-level personalities and their foibles, conflicts, self-doubts, and inconsistencies make for interesting reading. But what I found most appealing in the book was the attention given to the commoners at home, how they struggled on several levels, and how they received war news. In Chapter 46, significantly entitled “A Land No Longer Merry,” the author admits that 1917 was indeed a grim year not only for the military but also for the civilian population:

. . . the exhilarating brief successes of Vimy Ridge and Messines were soon overshadowed by the protracted bloodbaths of Arras and Third Ypres. Nor did the Prime Minister’s Paris speech at the end of the year, in effect denying confidence in Britain’s commanders while failing to end their command, uplift the spirit of the public (p. 507).

British Wounded at Salonika

A more intimate insight into personal suffering at home is shown in this letter of a schoolmaster to a relative:

One of the mothers [of a former pupil] brought me her boy’s photo and apologized because he didn’t call on me when he was home from the front where he had been 2 years before getting Leave. He is in the 16th lancers & she said she nearly cried to see the change in him, all the Boy being gone. He couldn’t bear to come down the street to see anyone & was very downhearted to go back. She said the sound of the Guns all day long when she was alone nearly drove her mad thinking of her boy out there (p. 508).

Chapter 60, “Warriors and Victims,” cites both military and civilian writers to graphically illustrate the suffering of both groups, while Chapter 67 aims at more personal grief with an opening quote from Lady Asquith’s diary of 7 October 1918:

I am beginning to rub my eyes at the prospect of peace. I think it will require more courage than anything that has gone before….one will at last fully recognize that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war (p. 751).

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This is truly a book showing “the Myriad Faces of War.” The titular word “myriad” meaning limitless, numberless, unlimited, is not an exaggeration. The author has produced an encyclopedic work that I suspect is one of the best studies of Britain and the war. In conclusion, the elegiac tone struck by the quotation from Henry Read’s “To a Conscript of 1940” heading Chapter 74, “A World Not Renewed,” is a reality we may all share:

    We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud:
     We fought as you will fight
     With death and darkness and despair;
     We gave what you will give-our brains and our blood.
     We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
     There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
     But the old world was restored and we returned
     To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud
     Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
      Power was retained where power had been misused. . .

David F. Beer


  1. Thank you David!
    Joe Unger

  2. This review really makes one want to read the book. Frank Rukovena, Jr.