"For Sale: We have a few well seasoned rats in stock. Large variety of colourings and tail lengths. Any tail length from 2 to 6 inches. No reasonable offered refused:- Apply Quarter Master's Stores"
"Wanted: A serviceable pair of pedigree webbed feet. Size 10.5. Must be in good condition. State price and references:- X. Dugout 473"
This book is a poignant contemporary collection of articles written by the men who served and died on the Western Front during the Great War. It is an eclectic collection of poems, notices, jokes, articles on just about any aspect of their lives in the trenches. It is perhaps all the more powerful for its seemingly ordinariness in what must have been absolutely extraordinary circumstances. You read of debating societies, boxing matches, weddings and anecdote a plenty. However, it is interspersed with a great many obituaries and casualty lists. These, in an instant, bring you back in to the horror of their world.
Just one example from many is the reported death of Lieutenant T. H. Moore and Lance-Corporal Rodway. In barely a couple of paragraphs of this magazine it is possible to recreate the imagery of their horrible deaths and yet see a fine and noble gesture that helps illustrate the cruel paradoxes of this conflict. Basically, it says that the Lieutenant died in 'No-Man's Land' trying to rescue the Lance Corporal. We further learn that not only were they on a reconnaisance patrol together - but that they had formed such a high opinion of one another that they would always accompany go out on such missions together. It is perhaps more understandable to see men's willingness to take danger in their stride as more comprehensible when they do it on behalf of a friend or colleague. The Germans they were fighting obviously thought this was the case as they were reported to have given the Lieutenant a full officer's funeral and wrote to his wife to tell her how bravely her husband had died. It would be interesting to know what her reaction would have been on receiving such a double-edged compliment. There is no mention of a funeral or any such letter concerning the Lance Corporal. Noble gestures were well and truly rooted in the officer class system.
This book is not all about death and carnage. There is plenty to read that is entertaining and informative. There is a deep strain of sarcasm and irony running throughout the pages lambasting themselves, their officers, the Germans, and even the civilians at home. There were very few sacred cows - although the censor's pen does appear on a few occasions? You quickly realise that food, rats and weather seem to be the main pre-occupations of their lives - far more than bullets or offensives even. There is an excellent example of the droll humour in this article about Fritz the Rat. It's the mixture of the ordinary and extraordinary and this peek at people's everday lives in what is anything but an everyday situation that makes this book such a marvellous book to read. I think that it is far more informative and enlightening than any traditional history book, novel or film based on the era. Being a primary source you can feel the ordinariness and immediacy of all the writing and yet it is also remarkably coherent and fluent. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone with even a passing interest in this era of history. It's a must read.