I recently picked up a British soldier’s memoirs of WWI called The Ebb & Flow of Battle. This particular British officer was named P. J. Campbell, and these memoirs were written sixty years after the events they describe. Yet, the descriptions of his time in an artillery battery during the last year of the war sounds vivid enough to have been written as soon as he returned home. He gives particular attention to the Spring Offensive–the last German major offensive campaign–and to the Allied counterattack which ended the war on November 11, 1918. Over the course of this year of the war, Campbell is promoted from lieutenant to captain and transfers to another battery.
The main virtue of this memoir is how well it describes the people who fought beside Campbell. Most of the attention naturally goes to Campbell’s fellow officers and the NCOs serving under Campbell. During the bitterest moments of the war, their personalities would clash–especially when new commanding officers took charge–and Campbell often served as a peacemaker in the battery. The officers ranged from people with aristocratic sensibilities, like Major Bingley, to officers who were renown for both their brusqueness and courage, like Major John. We learn that the majority of the men in the battery hail from Yorkshire, which gives the unit a regional flavor. All in all, he immerses the reader perfectly in the everyday life and struggles of the men in the battery.
I cannot say that he described the fighting or even its aftermath particularly well; but, he was an artillery officer. Therefore, the closest he got to the fighting was a short engagement where he had to direct artillery fire from an exposed position during the Spring Offensive. (This is perhaps the most exciting part of the book.) However, we do see how wearying the struggle is on his body, and it is interesting to read how he dealt with the peril of mustard gas. One sees how different this kind of war is from modern warfare both in the dangers offered by chemical warfare and that officers kept servants in their employ. One is reminded of how Dumas’ famous musketeers also went to war with their valets, which is very hard for us moderns to imagine now.
And so, I heartily recommend this account of WWI. Campbell makes the soldiers he fought beside very down to earth. The peculiarities of how modern warfare blended with older forms of war may be seen in both the use of servants by the officers and that cavalry was still employed. The pages turn very quickly!