Remembering Tommy: The British Soldier in The First World War and Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918

Peter Morrell reviews two books about World War 1 that acted as excellent primers for his recent visit to the Flanders Battlefields

Remembering Tommy: The British Soldier in The First World War by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster

I read this before visiting the Ypres Salient, the bulge of land into enemy territory, where some of WW1’s bloodiest battles took place including Passchendael.  It really put into context what I saw in terms of the trenches and bunkers (although now reconstructions).

The book starts by talking about the recruitment of the soldiers and how ‘Pals’ or affinity groups, who were friends in a town, village or work place, all joined up simultaneously.

It goes on to cover subjects like uniforms, equipment, weaponry all of which changed dramatically during the course of the war. In fact it was the industrialisation of weapons manufacture that caused such great loss of life.

It takes you through the soldier’s process of induction from training to being in the rear trenches and eventually going up to the front line. There are insights into the dangers they faced, not just going ‘over the top’ but the constant threat from snipers and trench mortars, and later in the conflict, gas attacks. And if the munitions didn’t get you then there was always fever, trench foot, lice and rats.

The book also deals with the more mundane things in life like food, making cups of tea, keeping warm and writing letters home. There is also some humour, the combatants rum ration was poured from a flagon marked SRD which soon became ‘Soon runs dry’ in soldiers parlance. Also covered are the accurate but amusing ‘Sketches of Tommy’s Life’ postcards by the artist Fergus Mackain.

This is a beautifully illustrated and highly detailed book, well worth reading if you are going to the battlefields for this year’s commemorations or are just interested in the very tough life of a WW1 soldier.

Published by The History Press, RRP £25 hardback

You can but Remembering Tommy from Amazon by clicking here…

Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918 by Dr Emily Mayhew

Dr Mayhew is a professional historian and this is reflected in the book. With forensic accuracy it traces the journey of soldiers from being wounded on the battlefield to what may be a hospital back in ‘Blighty’, the UK.

Again this had particular resonance for me as I visited the site of the Lijssenthoek casualty clearing station and military cemetery, just behind the Ypres Salient. This is where 11,000 men and Nellie Spindler, the only woman killed in the Salient are buried, this figure is only 3% of the total that passed through the hospital.

This was a different war to all that preceded it, the shrapnel from shells was no respecter of men’s bodies, indiscriminately ripping off faces and limbs, and leaving vast jagged wounds embedded with mud and clothing.

The book details individual cases, the soldiers, the stretcher bearers, the surgeons and the nurses who helped the wounded on their long and difficult journey to treatment.

Amongst the most fascinating stories are those of the Army Chaplains who gave up on church services but gave comfort, faith and in many cases, a respectful burial. As one commented, I was still doing God’s work.

The most severely wounded were taken by train and ship back to Blightly, a journey that could take many days, as re-enforcements and munitions took precedence over hospital trains. Dedicated nurses worked in cramped conditions to keep these men alive. Back in the UK volunteers who formed the London ambulance column looked after the men during their last few miles to hospital.

There is an epilogue in the book about what happened to the wounded men. It was clear that many bore the physical and mental scars of their experiences for the rest of their lives. One name that did come up was John Glubb, who suffered severe facial injuries, but who went on to command the Arab Legion with the title Glubb Pasha. I remember my father speaking very warmly about him.

This book is pitched at the human level and tells many stories both tragic and uplifting, for me it brought home the full horrors of the war.

Published by Bodley Head, RRP £20 hardback

You can buy Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918 from Amazon by clicking here

Peter’s article ‘In Flanders Fields the poppies blow’ can be read by clicking here…