Author: Harry Drinkwater
Editor: Jon Cooksey
Publisher: Ebury Press
Published: July 2014
Genre: Non-Fiction HIstorical Diary
My Rating: 5/5
Harry’s War is nothing more than a diary kept by a soldier during the First World War; yet it so much more than that as it’s one of the few (if not only) vivid and descriptive firsthand accounts written by a soldier who not only survived the War but went back and edited his diary accounts. Recently rediscovered and edited, Harry’s War was published for the centenary anniversary of the start of The Great War.
I have an interest in history, particularly accounts and memories of those who lived, rather than just names and dates. Because of this I’ve always felt a little annoyed there wasn’t more than metaphoric poetry to describe what life was like at the front during the First World War (I now know diaries were forbidden on the front which no doubt is why there are so few accounts). Perhaps it’s because so much is written about WWII that the utter lack of description from the First World War bothered me; though it is also the need to learn and understand. Shortly into Harry’s War I understood why so many chose not to actively remember and discuss their experiences.
Harry Drinkwater honestly recorded as much of his experiences as he could, which in itself. However, I felt a lot of it lacked emotion, with gruesome details being plainly described (the one that will always stay with me is when his arm literally sunk into a dead German as Harry tried to use him to lever himself out of a hole). I expect this is because to survive living through something as horrific as the frontline during the First World War, the men must have dissociated themselves from what was happening on a day-to-day basis; but it makes reading this diary not only very uncomfortable and disturbing, but sometimes causes the reader to dissociate from the experience as well, making it an effort to truly accept the terribleness of what actually happened.
One thing I particularly liked about Harry’s War is that the diary doesn’t stop when Harry was on reprieve, so that it covers all of his experiences as a soldier rather than simply what happened to him on the front. In fact, Harry himself often comments on how the time spent away from the front is like heaven compared to the hell of being in the trenches, showing he had clarity and could understand how bizarre his situation was.
To bring together the diary, the editor Jon Cooksey includes notes which put the situations and places into context in regards to the war, and important events that were happening at the time. I found this really useful as it gives the reader information to understand how Harry’s experiences related to what else was happening at the time. This, along with Harry Drinkwater’s voice, is gratefully the closest any of us can get to imagining what The Great War was like.
I would recommend Harry’s War to anyone with an interest in social history or the First World War, though I think almost everyone could benefit from reading this detailed account of man’s fight to create the world we live in today.