I still think the best way to understand war is to read the memoirs, diaries and poems of those who participated. So another recommendation for Great War memoirs is the extraordinary ‘A Chaplain at Gallipoli: The Great War Diaries of Kenneth Best’. Best was a padre who served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front (when he didn’t have to).
I played a tiny part in this War Diary series, published by Simon and Schuster in conjunction with The Imperial War Museum. Employed by Kerri Sharp, the series editor, I did a bit of researching and project managing, which involved working in the IWM archive and assessing diaries donated by the relatives of WW2 servicemen (one, I’ll never forget, came in a shoebox and was made up entirely of scraps of paper that a prisoner of war had smuggled out of occupied Europe in his underwear – he was on the death march from Poland towards Berlin, in which he kept a wounded cousin alive with stolen eggs and Oxo cubes and the help of Italian POW’s, in the snow . . . the story was told on bits of paper the size of till receipts).
Anyway, the extraordinary courage of Kenneth Best, his accounts of the action in the Dardanelles, insights into war, attempts to offer some hope and comfort to men in a burning hell of disease, sniper fire, insufferable insects and heat, as well as the chilling precision of the writing, is not to be missed – as a priest he distinguished himself by defying orders and serving on the front line (very rare). Too easy to think: the diary of a priest, how is that interesting? But it stands up with the greats and is a heartbreaker.
There is a great deal of pathos in his accounts too, and a poignant ending in which he loses his faith (he was an inspiration for M H Mason in my ‘House of Small Shadows’). Also, contains the extraordinary story of the undetected allied retreat from this front – a tactical marvel matching Dunkirk but overlooked.
“5th June 1915
Our poor boys behaved like heroes, but are sadly cut up. No clear orders. Told to make for unidentified objective. They went over trench after trench till they had a mere handful of men left and could get no further. Faced by a mass of Turks, they had to retire, losing nearly everybody . . . Blood, flies and smell – I shall never forget it. As one crawled along the trench, the hands and legs of the dead hanging over the edge would strike one’s face. Here and there a familiar face, cold in death. Heartbreaking work.”