‘Tommy’s War’ by Richard Van Emden

Tommy's War

What this amazing book is not is a conventional, comprehensive history of the First World War. What it is instead is first-hand testimony, a chronological selection from letters, diaries and written accounts by those at the front, accompanied by masses of photos, some of them illicitly taken and some of them taken by the men who’ve written the accompanying words.

And where it really succeeds is in giving you some idea of what it was like to experience the war. That doesn’t mean it’s a litany of trauma and horror, although there’s plenty of that.

Instead you get the hopes, fears and, yes, the sense of excitement. You read about what they eat (lots of bully beef, biscuits and bread cadged from French farmers) , what they see, the rats they share the trenches with, the jokes they tell each other.

One regular says about the raw recruits of the New Army,

… they’re not the ‘flower of English manhood’ or if they are, I pity the weeds.

Adding to this first-hand experience are those astonishing photos, many never seen before of ordinary people coping with circumstances barely imaginable.

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