men they led (roughly 20 per cent of subalterns died, compared to around 14 per cent of the army as a whole), Lewis-Stempel decided to select the cream of those writings. The result is the most moving single book on the Great War that I have ever read – and I have read many.
The title starkly sums up the average time a subaltern might expect to spend in the trenches before he was wounded or killed. Extraordinarily, however, even knowing these odds, the overwhelming majority did their duties willingly, even eagerly. The author cannot disguise his wondering admiration at the self-sacrifice of these men, and his book pays the subalterns the respect they deserve by entering into their distant mindsets. This is achieved by linking long quotations from the best of the Great War writings – not only those of Graves, Blunden, Owen and Sassoon but also those of less familiar names: H E L Mellersh, Robert Talbot Kelly and Guy Chapman. Here too are the experiences of the soon-to-be-famous: Macmillan and his future rival and fellow PM Anthony Eden; the writers J R R Tolkien, J B Priestley and Alec Waugh; and John Reith, the austere Scot who founded the BBC. Most poignantly of all, here are the words of those who would never set down their official reminiscences or achieve greatness –
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Colourful characters like the aristocratic poet and sportsman Julian Grenfell revelled in conditions which made more sensitive souls cringe. ‘I adore war,’ he wrote home. ‘It is like a big picnic, but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy.’ Grenfell kept a pack of hunting dogs at the front, and went on his own hunting expeditions, sniping ‘Huns’ from No Man’s Land and entering his kills in a game book as though the potted Germans were so many pheasants or hares. In the end a shell splinter in his brain killed Grenfell. His brother Billy died at the front too, and Lewis-Stempel makes the point that the war was the last hurrah of the British aristocracy, who were wiped out in numbers not seen since the fratricidal Wars of the Roses, just at the moment when Lloyd George’s death duties were exterminating them economically. One of the non-aristocratic subalterns who features in Six Weeks, Edwin Campion Vaughan, wrote a diary, Some Desperate Glory (Pen and Sword 232pp £12.99), which, hidden away in a cupboard, only surfaced in 1981 and is now being republished in a new edition. Vaughan, a Londoner from an Irish Catholic family, enlisted and trained at the same time and at the same camp, Hare Hall in Essex, as Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas – though there is no record of them meeting. Vaughan went through the hell of Passchendaele, and describes listening helplessly to the agonised cries of wounded men who, crawling into the illusory shelter of shellholes, find them filling with water in which they slowly drown. Winning an MC at the war’s end for gallantry in crossing the same canal on which Owen died, Vaughan ends the diary unable to complete the casualty report for the men who did not make it. Instead he ‘sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a blank and empty future’.
This prophecy proved accurate. Vaughan was one of millions of ex-servicemen who found it impossible to sink back into the humdrum rhythms of civilian life after the war. Like T E Lawrence, he re-enlisted, first in the Army, then in the RAF. Tragically, he died in 1931 in hospital after a negligent doctor accidentally administered to him, instead of Novocaine, a lethal dose of cocaine. He left behind a wife and four children. His diary, perhaps the rawest document to emerge from the trenches, has now found its place in the pantheon as one of the half dozen best books about the Great War.
Vaughan, Owen and Sassoon, despite their horror at what they had witnessed, all won the ‘officers’ medal’ – the Military Cross – for their bravery. Forgotten Voices of the Victoria Cross by Roderick Bailey (Ebury Press 382pp £16.99) recounts the deeds of those who were awarded the highest decoration of all for acts of valour. Though he covers VCs won in conflicts from the Crimea in the 1850s (when it was instituted) to the
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010