Introduced by Richard van Emden
This emotive history constructs an absorbing narrative from the eyewitness testimonies of those who experienced the war. Contemporary photographs illuminate their words.
A chemical worker’s recollections of creating mustard gas in a Leverkusen laboratory is followed by a British army officer’s account of the devastating effects of a gas attack; the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914 – when German and British troops laid down their guns, exchanging cigarettes and playing football in No Man’s Land – is described with affection from both sides; while in a letter to his parents, a New Zealand infantryman reveals how Allied mismanagement turned him and thousands like him into cannon fodder on the slopes of Passchendaele.
The First World War inspired an enormous volume of writing: letters home from the front, poetry, diaries, newspaper despatches, intelligence reports, telegrams. The lucid testimonies in this emotive eyewitness history, selected by military historian Lyn Macdonald for Folio, provide an extraordinary insight into the most appalling of conflicts. Together they form an unofficial history, describing the war as the combatants saw it.
No colour breaks this tongue of barren land
Save where a group of huddled tents gleams white;
Before me ugly shapes like spectres stand,
And wooden crosses cleave the waning light.
Alongside Macdonald’s preface, this edition, back by popular demand, features a new introduction by British historian and documentary film producer Richard van Emden. An expert on the First World War, van Emden has interviewed 270 veterans and written many books on the subject, including one with Harry Patch, who was the last surviving veteran of the trenches until his death in 2009. Van Emden describes Macdonald as one of the first historians to take an interest in the wartime experiences of ‘ordinary men and women’, her enthusiasm for their stories helping to establish ‘a new style of historiography’. This edition is illustrated with photographs from the Imperial War Museum, selected for the original Folio edition. Each provides a compelling glimpse of life as a soldier, from the hardships of the trenches and the omnipresence of death, to rarer moments of humour and good cheer.
A hundred years on, the First World War has moved beyond living memory; there are no longer any veterans to provide direct evidence of their experiences. Lyn Macdonald was able to cull those memories while many were still alive. A novel approach when first published; the passage of time has given her work even greater importance. It is in the true sense of the word a ‘testimony’ of the Great War.
We expect to be relieved tonight but I don’t care if we are not for this isn’t a bad ‘stunt’ and I must say I have enjoyed myself immensely. I was off duty at 6 p.m., and as the estaminets were open from six to eight everything was OK. We cooked our own grub and lived like lords. Eggs and bacon for breakfast, Welsh Rarebit and tea for supper, tinned fruit and cream for tea. But such things ended on the twenty-eighth when we returned to the firing line
The two main national memorials in Britain, the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, are characterised by their deliberate emphasis on anonymity. Their aim was to provide a focus for universal commemoration, and at this they were entirely successful. However, they also remind us that the First World War took place in a society which was the antithesis of today’s cult of the individual. The masses of participants were by and large merely names in service records.
Lyn Macdonald penetrated something of their anonymity with her collection of ‘voices’. She focused on the most important theatre of war, the Western Front, and was able to assemble compelling evidence of the gamut of experience, especially in the ‘other ranks’ below the officer class. Now complemented by photographs, many taken by the soldiers themselves, the book becomes a bridge across the 100 intervening years to enable us to listen to these voices in all their different tones. It is a tremendous route to understanding a very different era to our own.
Director of Collections
National Museums Scotland
For those interested in the story of life in the front line, Ordeal by Fire is a book that uses the voice of the soldier from many backgrounds and nationalities, the Tommy, the Jerry, the Digger; the men who frequented the trenches and who lived and endured the daily grind and the intermittent moments of terror and exhilaration. The book moves seamlessly through four years of war, from mobilisation to embarkation and the opening salvos of the fighting around Mons to the devastating battles with which the Great War has become synonymous, the Somme, Arras and the Third Battle of Ypres. We hear from the Old Contemptibles, that stalwart band of regular soldiers, famously maligned by the Kaiser, but who nevertheless held back the German onslaught despite overwhelming odds, thereby thwarting the Kaiser’s best intention to seal an early victory. And we hear too from German soldiers, eloquent voices of the German Imperial Army, such as Leutnant Fritz Nagel of the artillery, or Freiwilliger Reinhold Spengler of the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment, who fought and suffered every bit as much as their counterparts on the other side of No Man’s Land.
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