Review of Peter Hart’s “Voices from the front”

Voices from the front: an oral history of the Great War
By Peter Hart
Published by Profile Books, 2015
ISBN 978 1 78125 474 5
Hardback, 424pp including index
Cover price £25

Peter Hart’s name will be familiar to many visitors to the Long, Long Trail as he is the author of numerous books on the subject of the Great War, the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum and these days also a battlefield guide. He is always very active in social media and all told is one of the higher profile of our military historians.

In “Voices from the Great War” he brings together many first-hand accounts, drawing upon 183 interviews that he carried out with men who were there. Most of the interviews were carried out in the 1980s when the former soldiers, airmen and sailors were in their 80s or 90s. The author provides a framework, giving a well-observed historical context into which the extracts from the interviews are threaded.

Inevitably, we must question the value of the men’s statements in terms of their accuracy and objectivity. After all, they were remembering complex events many decades after they took place, and through the haze of the great events of the 20th Century and of their own long lives. It is hard to believe that the men’s memories and what they said in interview are not in some way tempered by the influence of things they had since read, heard or discussed about their war. But we must cut through that to reach the authentic voice beneath- and that voice is not so much about military matters as  men and their fragilities: at war they feel tired, hot, cold, frightened, exhilarated, proud. They remember mates, good leaders and bad. They recall minor incidents and places that no official documentation will mention. As such, “Voices from the Great War” should have an appeal to a wide readership for it is about the experience of men at war rather than a factual history of it.

The interviews embrace men from all three services although the army is in the majority, and almost all of it concerns the Western Front or Gallipoli. The important theatres of Egypt and Palestine, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Italy and Africa were just not covered by interviews at the time and now of course never will be. That is a pity for us all.