Tuesday, April 08, 2014
The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater
Edited by Jon Cooksey & David Griffiths
Published by Ebury/Random House UK, October 2013
August 4th of 2014 will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, the war that was believed would be the war to end all wars, and which almost destroyed an entire generation of men who fought in the four years of bitter armed conflict.
We are far enough removed from that time for it to be almost impossible to truly comprehend just how terrible it was, and it is perhaps only when we are able to catch glimpses of how it appeared to those who actually experienced it that it becomes real for us in our own generation.
Harry Drinkwater was rejected when he first applied to join the army. He was all of half an inch too short to meet the criteria, but he persevered until he found a battalion that was prepared to overlook that half an inch; he left his home in Stratford upon Avon to become a soldier with the 2nd Birmingham City Battalion in October of 1914. After basic training, he was set to France in November 1915, to the Somme, where he had a baptism of fire. It was to be fourteen long months before he slept in a bed again.
For Harry and his companions, the war meant that barns, rough billets, tents and the vile, muddy trenches were to be their home and rats and vermin their uncomfortably near neighbours as they saw their friends and colleagues die around them. Exhaustion, privation, lack of food and clean water, harsh military discipline which saw infractions punishable by execution added to the horror of being surrounded by rotting corpses and the ever present danger of death from incoming sniper fire and mortar shells.
Harry broke the rules and secretly kept a diary of what his war was like; this was in itself an offence for which he could have been court-martialled. The delights of actually being able to have a proper wash and a shave after a week pale into insignificance as the war progresses and he has to scrape the trench mud off his hands and clothes with a knife and ends up wearing the same clothes for over a month before the bliss of finally being able to get clean ones and bathe properly. Cold rations and heavy rain are frequent companions, making tots of rum both a welcome treat and a morale-booster.
Harry saw active service in Arras, the Somme, Passchendaele, French Flanders and even Italy before the war ended and although he was wounded twice, he was one of the fortunate few who survived. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery (he had completed a trench raid although badly wounded) and was an officer by the time the war ended; he remained in the army, being sent to Italy and then to Egypt before being finally discharged on medical grounds with a pension in May of 1920.
This is the remarkable story of a remarkable man, who willingly did what he felt was his duty to his King and Country, like so many of his compatriots. Major Harry Drinkwater's spellbinding diary speaks for the many equally brave souls who did not survive that terrible war and is a tribute to all who served.