Forgotten Voices of the Great War

Written by Max Arthur
Review by John R. Vallely

Published in association with the Imperial War Museum, Max Arthur’s two volumes [the other is Forgotten Voices of World War II (ed.)] are collections of personal narratives by officers and other ranks who were part of the British war efforts in the two world wars of the 20th century. The author has grouped the accounts by year and by topic. This allows the reader to pick and choose the times and events that interest them. Modern histories of war depend upon the memoirs of survivors to draw a more complete picture of the conflict; these are denied us for wars from the days before most people had the ability to read and write. The accounts were written with an eye towards an honest description of the horrors of the trenches, the special fear that accompanied a gas attack, the sensations of flying obsolescent bombers in the face of a determined Luftwaffe, and the awesome spectacle of landing on Sword beach while surrounded by a sea full of Allied warships.

Some of the writing is so matter-of fact that it surprises 21st century minds that are used to individuals heaping praise upon themselves for doing far less than their ancestors did. An example would be Major Pat Porteus of the Royal Artillery: “I never discovered why I was awarded the VC [Victoria Cross]. The citation said that I’d been wounded in my hand, and had then led this bayonet charge against the guns, got wounded again, and carried on. But I felt it was rather like being in a rugger scrum—you got kicked about a bit and the object was to get over the line.” This hero of the Dieppe raid was certainly a master of understatement! Both volumes enable the reader of historical fiction to realize, once again, that truth is, in many disarming ways, far more fascinating than fiction.