No matter how hard we may try to picture in our minds the devastation wrought by years of almost continual bombardment, actual photographs still have the power to surprise, even shock, us. This book demonstrates that so vividly. There was an area of France, roughly ten miles wide, which took years to clear of all the war material and turn it back into productive use. There was another area, some seven to eight miles deep, where the devastation was so complete that every building had been ground into dust, and the actual earth itself had been so mixed with the substrate that restitution would be a long and costly job. Some people even argued that the ground was so heavily contaminated that there was no point in trying to bring it back into use and that it should simply abandoned to nature. This area covered nearly 50,000 acres.
Lieutenant Harry Strawn from Swissvale, Pennsylvania, was a pilot with the 309th Squadron of the 31st Fighter Group, which he joined in 1942. Throughout the war he maintained a diary which forms the basis of this book.
Strawn’s unit arrived in the United Kingdom in June 1942 to a typical British summer: “The weather is terrible today, cold and raining ... I have a beautiful cold now and this weather isn’t helping me much ... In fact I really want to get some warm clothes. This cold weather will put us all in bed ... No heat in the stove as they are short on coal in this country.” Welcome to wartime Britain.
The Americans clearly had little appreciation of what had happened in the first year or two of the war. “Spent most of the evening talking with my bat boy about the battle of England [sic]. They really are funny chaps. I guess England was just about gone if Hitler could have held out a little longer.”
This is a fine collection of personal accounts from the opening year of the First World War, a good number of which have not been published before. What makes this book particularly interesting is the number of German accounts which are included.
Amongst these is the description given by the German novelist Walter Bleom, of the 6th Brandenburg Regiment’s attack against the 1st Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment at St. Ghislain at the Battle of Mons: “And so we went on, gradually working forwards by rushes of a hundred, later fifty, and then about thirty yards towards the invisible enemy. At every rush a few more fell, but one could do nothing for them. On and on, that was the only solution. Easier said than done, however, for not only was the meadow horribly swampy, filling our boots with water, but it was intersected by broad, water-logged drains and barbed wire fences that had to be cut through ... Behind us the whole meadow was dotted with little grey heaps. The hundred and sixty men that had left the wood with me had shrunk to less than a hundred.”
It is perhaps some measure of our humanity that the brief, partial, and entirely unauthorised, Christmas Truce of 1914, has become one of the most celebrated events of the First World War. It had no lasting impact upon the course of the conflict; no advantage was gained, no territory was won or lost. Yet this event, in many respects so normal and equally so bizarre, continues to attract our attention and many books and articles have been written about that first Christmas in the trenches. What Alan Wakefield has done, however, is slightly different, in that he has investigated what happened on the other three Christmas periods of the war as well as the Christmas of 1918 when, if they were not yet at home, there was at least peace and where a degree of goodwill might be expected.