Review of “The Unprofessional Soldier”

The unprofessional soldier: memoirs of a foot soldier in the Mesopotamian campaign of the Great War
by Maurice Ellis Bird
edited by his grandson David G. Alexander
published by Austin Macauley 2016
ISBN 978 1 7845 58 291 (paperback) 314 (hardback) 307 (ebook)
283 pages, no index, one photograph

This is a fascinating book: it is essentially a memoir, presented in a pacy, chatty and engaging style. According to what is left of his army service record, Maurice Bird served with the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) with number G/1100, having enlisted on 3 September 1914. He went to Mesopotamia in December 1915 having been posted to the regiment’s 2nd Battalion, and saw service in the efforts to relieve Kut-al-Amara in the spring of 1916. Bird spent some months in India in 1916 before returning to Mespot and the eventual advance to Baghdad, the Adhaim and beyond to Tikrit.

Bird covers the military events that he witnessed in some depth but perhaps the most interesting content is his observations on life: of the land in which he was serving, the people and his comrades, places, conditions, the weather and all the minutiae of active service. He has an endearing habit of veering “off topic” – for example while on his way to Suez we are treated to a discourse on the Panama Canal – and I found that rather than being an annoyance it made his narrative rather more human.

The book is said to be a compilation of Maurice’s contemporary diary and original manuscript, blended with recollections of later conversations with his grandson and additional material on the wider aspects of the campaign. That explains why, for example, his discussion of the Panama Canal is informed by his post-war career at sea. Unfortunately this blending of sources diminishes the value of “The unprofessional soldier” for the historian. There is no identification of which elements of the book are original and which are the products of his later thoughts or even those of his grandson and editor David G. Alexander. A pity, for it is an entertaining work.

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