‘Somme Mud’ and ‘Somewhere in blood-soaked France’

For those who enjoy reading soldiers diaries and memoirs of the First World War, the supply seems endless. Most are of interest and can be valuable for scholarly research as well as just enjoyable and thought-provoking reads. But inevitably such works vary in quality. Here are two, published some years ago, that I happened to pick up cheaply in a charity shop.

Somme mud: the experiences of an infantryman in France
by E. P. F. Lynch, edited by Will Davies
published by Doubleday, 2008 and reprinted since
ISBN 9780553819137
cover price – £17.99 but used copies go for pennies
Hardback, 339pp plus glossary, no index
reviewed by Chris Baker

Edward Lynch, a young Australian infantry soldier, fought on the Western Front in France and Flanders and saw action in most of the major engagements fought by the Aussies: Pozieres on the Somme; Messines; Passchendaele; the final advance on the Somme. His memoir was written shortly after the war and his writing is fluid, engaging and aimed at us, the readers – and he is quite storyteller. We get to know him and his personality; we get to know his comrades; and my goodness do we get a feeling for his war. Lynch’s descriptions are visceral, leaving us exhausted with him as (like all infantrymen) he is frequently exposed to appalling conditions and danger and even when times are quiet and sleep would have been welcomed, he is employed on carrying and messenging duties. He enters the war confident but without the naivete of men would went to Gallipoli, for he is well aware of their fate and that he stands a good chance of death of injury. Despite the continual loss of mates and seeing sights that no man really should, Lynch remains optimistic if resigned to the drudgery. I like him as a man. “Somme mud” is up there with the best narrative descriptions of war on the Western Front. His description of Messines certainly gave me a start, for the impression we get of a wonderful success (certainly true in terms of capture of ground) is tempered by the bloody and awful, chaotic, period experienced by Lynch once the ridge is captured and the Australians have to hold their part of the newly won ground under heavy enemy shellfire and German counter attacks. I shall certainly look at the ANZAC graves in that area with a new respect. I often read out loud or to myself extracts from such memoirs when I am on the ground, and it is often hard to square the pretty, rural ground of today with the hell of the Great War. Edward Lynch has certainly done his part in helping us understand. I could not recommend this book more highly.

Somewhere in blood-soaked France
edited by Alasdair Sutherland
published by Spellmount, 2011
ISBN 9780752464466
Cover price £14.99 but used copies going for £3-4 upwards
Paperback, 214pp plus order of battle, timeline, bibliography and index; illustrated
reviewed by Chris Baker

This is an edited version of the diary of Corporal Angus Mackay, 1/5th Royal Scots and latterly 88th Company of the Machine Gun Corps, who died of wounds at Monchy-le-Preux in 1917. Unlike Lynch’s work, it was written at the time and without the opportunity for reflection: it was also not written with readership in mind. Mackay served in Gallipoli with the Royal Scots, for his Territorial battalion had the honour of serving with that fine regular formation the 29th Division which landed at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915. He then went with the battalion to Egypt and moved with it to France in March 1916. By this time he had been moved with his battalion’s machine gun section to join 88th Brigade Machine Gun Company, and although he resisted the idea for a while he eventually formally transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. His diary is generally terse and factual, and through it we get little feeling for the man himself. In terms of proportion of the book that is written by Mackay, I would be surprised if it was as high as 15%. The rest is contextual and background explanation added by editor Alasdair Sutherland. This would perhaps be a good read if you are new to the Great War or have a particular interest in the battalion, but overall when faced with many other better memoirs and diaries I would rate this rather low.

Reviews originally posted 7 December 2013