A Subaltern’s War (research review)

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A Subaltern’s War by Charles Edmonds (CE Carrington) is one of my favourite soldiers’ accounts of the #GreatWar. As the author explains in the preface to my 1984 edition, he wrote the book (based contemporary diaries) back in 1929 in part to counter the prevailing mood of “pacifist emotionalism … crocodile tears … and absurd attempt to make the military commanders the scapegoats of a bellicose human race”. Although Edmonds admits that “like so many young men he enjoyed being a soldier on the whole”, this is not a Boy’s Own romp but a literary exploration of the contradictions and complexities of waging war and the “proud, dogged, tense spirit” of its later warriors. The story opens in 1914 with a boy of 17 “in a garden full of delphiniums” who later admits to feeling rather scared whilst walking a girl home down “a very dark lane”. It ends after the Armistice with acknowledgment of the difficulties faced by “millions of young men (who) had known no other career, no other destiny than battle”. In between are wonderfully detailed and very human accounts of daily life on or near the front line, including one of the most vivid descriptions I have read of the gut-wrenching terror of an artillery bombardment and utter confusion of action in No Man’s land. There are moments of pathos (“We crept down the staircase, I with a match and a revolver, he with a bayonet and the giggles”) and unexpected beauty: “We sat in the dugout … a mat of men sleeping thick … in the dusk of this rat hole, and one of the NCOs, a loud-mouth Sam Weller in khaki, broke into song with a Latin hymn to the Virgin, while we listened in astonished silence”. And there are terrible yet apposite accounts of painful death: “His head was shattered … an old corporal looked after him, held his body and arms, which writhed and fought feebly as he lay. It was over two hours before he died, hours of July sunshine in a crowded space … the soothing voice of the corporal, a gurgling and a moaning…” #WW1 #amwriting #amreading #bookstagram #greatwar

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About Hannah

Author of literary historical fiction set in the First World War. Revising my first book, writing the next, seeking representation. Mountaineer, gardener, traveller, off-road runner. Africa, modern history, coffee, roses, films, book and unrealistic romance. NHS midwife in a former life.
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