Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Secret History of Soldiers - a review

I don’t consider myself an expert on the First World War, but I have always had an interest in the human side of that horrific conflagration. Books exploring the soldiers’ experiences in the trenches, behind the lines, and back home fuel my fascination with the incredible sacrifices made by those men (and a few women) in a war, and at a time, that is quickly fading from our collective consciousness.

Some of the very best books I have read in that genre include William Faulks’ Birdsong, Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. There are many others but those come first to mind. And now I can add to that list The Secret History of Soldiers by Tim Cook.

Tim Cook is an historian at the Canadian War Museum and has written several books about the Great War (many of which I have read) but in terms of hitting my sweet spot, this volume nails it. In it he explores (from the flyleaf) “the daily lives of the combatants, how they endured the unimaginable conditions of industrial warfare: the rain of shells, bullets, and chemical agents.”

While not a fictional rendering like the books previously mentioned, The Secret History of Soldiers draws from thousands of letters home, postcards, trench art, and other sources to provide a brief glimpse into life in, and behind, the trenches. With life expectancy at the front often measured in hours and days, Cook describes the ways in which soldiers found the strength to face horrors beyond imagining and “push[ed] back against the grim war, refusing to be broken in the mincing machine of the Western Front.”

Highly recommended.

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