Book review: Those Who Marched Away

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Those Who Marched Away is an anthology of extracts from some 200 diaries from the 1660s to the present days. Peppered with pathos, hopes, despair and dreams,it recounts the thoughts of nobles, notables and ordinary people in a way that lingers long after the book is put down.

“A completely blank day. There are no interesting wounds,” writes Priscilla Scott-Evans on December 13, 1937 from Spain,where the future actress and novelist was then a nurse.

“Sometimes I think the greatest bravery of all is imply to get up in the morning and to go about your business,” wrote Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the US president about her husband on January 3, 1966. Lyndon Johnson had slept little the night before and had been thinking about Vietnam,where the American involvement was heating up.

Irene & Alan Taylor write in their introduction the purpose of this weighty tome (close to 700 pages) is to “attempt to describe how war infiltrates every aspect f life, embracing those who ‘marched away’ and those who remained at home, those in positions of high command who never fired a shot in earnest and those who chose to be ‘conscientious objectors’.

“Wars have always been a tremendous growth period for diaries”,the more so in the period after the 1880s when literacy in the English-speaking world, at least, increased greatly with the advent of mass education. “this should come as no great surprise since it is human instinct to record extraordinary experience. In wartime, that experience is shared by he whole population, but everyone reacts individually to it. For some,it is so disturbing, it drives them demented or to suicide. Other seem to be able to sail through it almost carefree.”

“This is how the Canadians take their corpses away from the front-line. They tie the hands together at the wrists; feet ditto. Then sling the body on a pole. What splendid common-sense! And how jolly the War is! But I wished they’d put a sandbag over his face,” records Lt Siegfried Sassoon in the trenches of the Western Front.

“I cannot say how touched an impressed I have been by the sight of these noble brave, and so sadly wounded men and how anxious I feel to be of use to them, and to try and get some employment for those who are maimed for life. Those who are discharged will receive very small pensions but not sufficient to live upon” noted Queen Victoria on February 25, 1855 of a party of Coldstream Guards wounded at Inkermann and Alma in the Crimea.

But all is no doom, or gloom. “We see the American Disney film Snow White, a magnificent achievement. A fairy tale for grown-ups, thought out into the last detail and made with a great love for humanity and nature. An artistic delight!,” records Paul Josef Goebbels on February 12,1940.

A few days later Evelyn Waugh visits is brigadier for Saturday lunch: “Mrs Morford was pretty and bright. She seems to me to lead a peculiar life with the Brigadier. She told us with great relish how, the night before, she had to get up several times to look after a sick child. Each time the Brigadier laid a booby trap against her return by putting his boots on the top of the door. … Most of the Brigadier’s family reminiscences dealt with floggings he administered or with grave accidents resulting from various dangerous forms of holiday-making.”

Those Who Marched Away is a delightful thief of time. Arranged in extracts running a calendar year (January 1 to December 31), it easily takes the reader along into the past and into the most private thoughts of the diarists. Useful too is a pen-sketch of each diarist and a summary of each of the relevant conflicts.

That said,the more one reads, the more difficult it becomes to put the book aside, to withdraw from its voyeurism. The nature of the material is such that one can start reading anywhere and can randomly jump pages an years,making this book the ideal travel read or companion for short getways from mundane daily life; during coffee breaks or while sealed in the privy, for example. It can, of course, also be read from beginning to end and is well indexed so that the reader can reference all entries by Sassoon or Goebbels and read these to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, there are many ways to skin this great literary cat. Enjoy.

Those Who Marched Away – An Anthology of the World’s Greatest War Diaries

Irene & Alan Taylor (editors)

Canongate

Edinburgh

2009

Distributed in SA by Penguin.

Price: R220 (£12.99 – about R169 – in the UK)



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