Review of “Survivors of a kind”

Survivors of a kind: memoirs of the Western Front
by Brian Bond
republished by Helion & Company in 2018; originally by Continuum in 2008
hardback ISBN 978 1 912390 39 7
146 pages plus end-notes, appendix, bibliography and index

Brian Bond is an eminent and familiar name in British history circles, principally from his former position as President of the Commission for Military History and as a Fellow of King’s College London, whose Department of War Studies he did so much to establish. Although it has all the hallmarks of academic study, in “Survivors of a kind” he is in a relaxed mode. It soon becomes evident that Bond is enjoying being in good company, for this is an essay in which he reconsiders some of the best and most challenging writing within the sphere of memoirs written by officers and men who served on the Western Front.

The book concludes with a useful chronological list of the dates of publication of memoirs. The earliest (with Bernard Adams’ “Nothing of importance” being listed first, in 1917) were produced while the war was in progress of very soon afterwards; a torrent develops in the 1920s and 30s, as war begins to slip into memory and the atmosphere across Europe changes through boom, bust and into a dark era; and then, with the exception of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1945 “Siegfried’s Journey”, comes along gap before another wave in the 1960s and 70s. By then, these were memories of mature men now living in a different world. The external context is vital when considering the writing, for the author’s opinions and reflections were inevitably affected by it.

Bond has selected a number of works which not only have high literary qualities and make for excellent reading, but are of historical value. This comes partly from the descriptions of war, but also from the expression of the way that the author regarded the war and his part in it. “Survivors of a kind”  assesses not only the literary aspects but what influenced the author to write the way he did. The selection is judicious in that we are presented with a broad range of class and character of the authors; of their military experiences; and of their attitudes. There is much in common between them, but there is also much that differs. In Robert Graves “Goodbye to all that” to Charles Carrington’s “A subaltern’s war” and “Soldier from the wars returning” we have two men who are in many ways comparable: well educated junior officers of infantry battalions who saw much action in the largest battles. But we also find that they have many differences of opinion on the conduct of the war; of leadership and command; of morale, and so on. Bond goes on to review many other well known works from Sassoon, Max Plowman, Guy Chapman, Edmund Blunden, and more. He also picks out the relevant sections from memoirs by Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, who of course went on to great things and whose military period was a relatively small part of their story. The contrasting coverage of time in the Guards regiments that comes from Oliver Lyttelton, Stephen Graham and Norman D. Cliff. Of considerable interest is inclusion of the much less well known work by Frank Crozier, a fascinating character of bravado and perhaps a psychopath during war who lent his weight to the peace movement in later years.

“Survivors of a kind” has inspired me to take these books down from the shelves once more! I shall start with Norman D. Cliff, whose 1988 “To hell and back with the Guards” became a firm favourite on my first reading of it.

The excellent production quality of the book is rather let down by a curious error. It contains two maps, printed on either side of a single page. They are titled as Ypres and the Somme, and are marked up to show the location of the various authors at the key points in their story. Unfortunately, where the Somme map should appear is a repetition of the Ypres version.

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