Friday, 14 November 2014

Private Coward's Diary

Disclaimer - I have nothing to do with the publishing of this book and given the title of the blog I am naturally going to enjoy the diary of the member of the Somerset Light Infantry - if you have come here via the twitter feed of The Somersets the chances are you will too.

Coward's War
An ‘Old Contemptible’s’ View of the Great War
by Tim Machin

To make one thing clear: this is his real name and this is not a more depressing version of Private Peaceful. George Coward was a Private in the Somerset Light Infantry - he joined in 1906 and had travelled the world with the Battalion in the years before the Great War, he seems to have enjoyed his time in Malta in particular and despite all that happens later argues that joining the army is a desirable career for anyone starting from his station in life, but admits he missed an opportunity to save the Battalion a lot of problems when the Kaiser passes him in the street on his way to review the Battalion in Valletta

George leaves the service in 1913 and struggles to find well-paid work before the outbreak of war, although I was interested to find he would at one stage have been the postman on the street I currently live on. This contrasts with a comrade who at one stage in 1914 states he is about to exact revenge on the Germans for costing him a well-paid job when he was called out of the reserve in August 1914 - no comment is made about defending Belgium.

George reports to the Drill Hall in Bath at the outbreak of war, re-joins his Battalion and heads off to France after a period of training.

He is involved in the fighting at Le Cateau, which the Somersets refer to this as the Battle of Ligny, it is the first eyewitness account I have read (one of the reasons I set up the twitter account/blog is that the Somersets do not seem to have left many records and it seemed the centenary would pass them by) it is, to put it mildly, vivid. His account of the war at this time matches exactly that given in the war diary - both in fact and tone - for example neither has any regard at all for the standard of French railways.

I will not cover his story blow by blow - you should order the book for that, but I will summarise the other aspects he covers so you can judge for yourselves

He is injured during the action at St Yves at the end of October 1914 that gave rise to the name Prowse Point, departs to hospital and returns to the front in 1915 on the Yser. This means he is not present for the Christmas Truce, which is a great shame as a diarist would have surely have left an excellent account of the event. He moves from the front line to become a signaller (eventually moving to the Royal Engineers), which means he sees the action from close range, including the first day of the Somme but does not go over the top again. This may explain why he was able to serve from 1914-1918. He is by no means out of danger though and experiences a number of potentially life-threatening situations, including a memorably dangerous day visiting the front line with Major CB Prowse, George admires him a great deal and devotes an entire chapter to this. If you have read a number of dairies then his expertise as a "scrounger" and as a signaller may be new to you. Lovers of slang may be interested to see how many of the phrases he apologises for as army slang that a general reader would not understand are now part of regular language. He is also able to compare warfare in 1914 with that in 1918, for example the way trenches are constructed. He suffers a gas attack and there are several long and terrifying nights in the open trying to repair broken lines.

The diaries were written with an eye to being published, the editor lets George speak, there is a separate section summarising the story of the Battalion and he uses footnotes to add context about events, places and people, so if you know the story there is no interruption. The last chapter contains some strong words about those who did not serve during the war and the terms he uses to describe the people and places he came across during his travels in the army would not be used today.

Falling ill with pleurisy during the German spring offensive in 1918 he recovers and tries to get sent back to join his friends, he is told that those who went out in 1914 had "done their bit" and so is in England at the end of the war. After being demobbed George returned to Bath after and struggled to find work again, he became a member of the Old Contemptible's Association and was a regular at the Hop Pole pub, which is still in business today

On a customer service note - I ordered the book and it didn't arrive, I contacted the firm and they sent another one without asking any questions

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