During the First World War the Post Office build the largest wooden building in the world in Regents Park. It covered 5 acres, employed 2,500 staff and in the period 1914-18 dispatched 2 billion letters and over 100 million parcels. That’s an awful lot of mail which should contain many gems for historians and authors. The challenge, as the author acknowledges lies in separating the wheat from the chaff. Having managed that a compiler has to structure the book, either following some protagonists throughout their war, or perhaps covering the war more widely including excerpts from more correspondents. Jacqueline has opted for the latter approach, which also requires the addition of significant amounts of context by the author. It is very ambitious to seek to cover the Western Front, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia Italy, Russia and the Home Front in one 180 page work.
The author is not a military specialist and sometimes omits to include sufficient detail of location and context of a letter. She appears to view the casualty rates as far higher than they actually were and has chosen to omit any reference to gallantry awards received by any of the correspondents because “there must have been an enormous number who deserved recognition but went unnoticed.” The book’s structure means that most pages contain more of her words than extracts from letters.
The extracts from the trenches are fairly dry and matter of fact about fighting, if it is mentioned at all. Commentary on the weather, quality of billets and the other myriad factors of life in the field abound. A few extracts convey a deeper sense – a (public school educated) officer writing to thank his family for a hamper but directing them to send gifts to soldiers, not him. The author seizes on a protracted correspondence from a cavalry sergeant who was court martialled, convicted and pardoned of drunkenness. He writes well but his experience is hardly typical.
The wider context of the book includes letters from soldiers in home based units, both training and garrison artillery as well as letters from Empire servicemen commenting on England. There are also letters from wives and sweethearts to soldiers. The extracts are generally printed verbatim, as they should be. The author has chosen to then highlight grammatical errors with [sic] every time they happen. Why she does this I do not know; they impede the flow and give the impression that the author is sneering at some of her selected correspondent’s literary levels. It is infuriating. She also places explanatory notes in square brackets in the text, rather than covering it in her prose or foot notes. Most extracts are separately indented; some are not which is tiresome.
This book seeks to portray almost the entire war from extracts of letters of fewer than one hundred correspondents. At least a quarter of the letters are not from the trenches at all. It does give a general feeling of what the war felt like to some of the protagonists, who may or may not have been typical, and it is easy enough to read. But having read it the average reader will not have gained much knowledge or understanding of the First World War. It is disappointing.
This Review was first published on http://www.arrse.com and appears here with their kind permission.