Memoirs of the Great War

As has been said on the page about Literature of WW1, one of the consequences of the writing coming from an educated elite was to create an accepted literary view of the War that did not do full justice to the ordinary soldier. The ordinary soldier has, in general, not been allowed to speak for himself about his experiences of the Great War. Not the least because those who did the actual fighting a) didn’t have time to write about it, b) didn’t have either the skills or desire to write about it or c) very often, wanted to simply forget about it.

Many if not all men who survived the war came back greatly changed and either unable or unwilling to communicate their experiences to their families. This was particularly so for the defeated armies, although there was little sense of triumph throughout Europe in general. It is also sad, but not surprising, that there is so little literature written by the Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi soldiers who served the British Raj in such numbers.

Diaries & Memoirs

Although First World War diaries have provided us with valuable insights into the events encountered and the experiences of those who fought, we come across the intractable problem of them being written almost exclusively by those who might have been close to but were not ordinary soldiers; the men who did the actual fighting.

The advantage of perspective, albeit at the cost of immediacy, is what led to the writing of memoirs by survivors, often years after the actual events. There will always be those who write memoirs through vanity but there is an almost universal rule that anyone who fought was humbled by the courage and sacrifice of those around them.

Joseph Garvey’s Memoirs as an example of the view of the ordinary soldier.

The example of Joseph Garvey’s memoirs and its existence is a good guide to why memoirs can be seen as being of importance to following generations. Joseph Garvey was born in 1888 and served during World War One. Although he had talked to his family of his experiences as both a soldier and Prisoner of War in the years that followed, much of the finer detail remained closed within his memory. Some time in the late 1950s he was asked by his son, a journalist, if he would write his memoirs which could then provide material to be written up into newspaper features.

What Joe Garvey produced was not and was never intended to be a war diary. In such places as when he was captured at the First Battle of Ypres, the memory has, unsurprisingly, a sharpness which beguiles the intervening years. His account does not detail the day-to-day minutiae which can be found in many diaries but offers the long perspective given to a man who has survived, experienced a second World War and is looking back, with remarkably little rancour, on times which changed the world.

And yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of war approaches, there is a tendency for modern generations to see the First World War in a way that completely distances them from the actual humans who were involved; victims, cannon fodder, lions led by donkeys, objects of pity. It is important to at least try to look again at those who fought and to remember their humanity.

Writing about those who fought

A further way to help correct this false view is through people still living who actually knew people who were involved since they are related to them; grandchildren, great nieces and nephews. It is important, while there is yet time, to record what they remember of them. As such, there can be a second generation of memoirs that can help the modern world to understand that the First World War soldier was very much a human and not an object of pity. Though a century ago, we still have living links help deepen our understanding.

Finally, all any writer can hope is to be as honest as possible and leave the rest to the reader, especially if the aim is not artifice but transparency.

Positions - 1st Battle of Ypres

Menin Gate Memorial

The curved ceiling of the Menin Gate Memorial with the rebuilt town in the distance.

Pte A. Stringer’s grave in Perth Cemetery (China Wall)

Menin Gate Panel 11

A detail of Panel 11 of the Memorial with Joe’s friend Fellowes among those without a grave.

Army map of 1st Ypres October, 1914

Army map of 1st Ypres 29th October, 1914 – source, copy in the 'In Flanders Fields Museum', with permission. Where Joseph Garvey was captured is circled.

The Scots Guards Listed on Panel 11 on the Menin Gate

The Scots Guards are listed on Panel 11 on the Menin Gate. Just some of the 58,000 fallen who could not be identified.