“Accounts of German treachery and brutality have been omitted from this book. The Briton is a clean handed and debonair fighter, his hand clasp ready after a bout. The Teuton is different.” Says Brice on page fifty-three, summing up the tone of her book very nicely! Don’t expect an even, balanced view of the war in the pages of this book. It is an odd book and it reads like an over enthusiastic multi-Divisional History. So it should, it was produced in the 1920s, the time when unit histories of all kinds were being written or published. My first thoughts were, after I had got over the ‘Boys Own’ approach to the Great War, was that this book is a mausoleum in words. Which fits because it was written at the time when the Imperial War Graves Commission was building monuments and cemeteries all over the battlefields of the world.
People in the 1920s were travelling over the Channel to the old front line and Brice wrote this book and The Immortal Salient with that in mind. She was a leading light and committee member in the prominent group the Ypres League. Nigel Cave points out that the year after this book was published, the British Legion organised a trip to Ypres for about 11,000 people. This text would have proved to be an excellent guide book for many of them. In fact it proves a point. This book was not written for you or me, it was written for those who had been through the Great War in one way or another and it was written as a memorial in words to the fallen. A Menin gate in text. In her own words, the book was written and produced “For the greater ease of those who take this book on pilgrimage to Ypres …”
Brice, had been a VAD and had apparently served for a time on the Western Front. She had seen the war and the wounded at first hand so she must have had a fair idea of what she was writing about. She was also well known during the Great War for her patriotic poetry. As Nigel Cave makes clear in his introduction to this book, this is a gazetteer and it does have a peculiar layout. The history of the Salient from 1914 to 1918 is covered from page three to forty-nine. There then follows a series of individual narratives about the war in the Salient set in alphabetical order of places and which are out of historical sequence. Brice calls it “The Storied Map.”
Although individuals did talk to her and give her their reminiscences, the regiments were not keen to help her write this book. Why? is a moot question. It is well known that the soldiers felt a dislocation with the civilians, possibly they were mistrustful of someone other than a military type trying to write a book about their exploits. Or (most likely) they were not keen on a woman doing the job. Also, as stated earlier, in the 1920s the old divisions and battalions were busy preparing and publishing their own versions of events in their histories. Perhaps, they were aware of her style and wanted none of it or they simply did not want competition.
The narrative is relentless and intense, triumphant and evangelical. It is all about fighting and after a while one does experience the need to get into the support trenches, into reserve or even rest, just to get a breather! In Brice’s book it’s fighting every day in the Salient where the British are loyal, gallant and brave. There is real approval for Captain Edwards who is shot down as he stands tall and empties his revolver into the “field grey masses.” The enemy is still the enemy even in 1927, they are treacherous and anxious to surrender. Although, on occasion they are allowed to show some “splendid courage”. German attacks are down played making one wonder how they ever managed to win a battle and why the “astonishing British” were stuck in the Salient for four years and didn’t defeat the German Army before 1918.
For anyone interested in the Salient or researching operations there, then this must be on their book shelf. If only to refer to. However, I’d treat it with caution. This is more than a history of the Salient and more than a Gazetteer. It is a post Great War British social statement, a tour into the psyche of someone profoundly affected by the conflict. It’s easy to mock this book but we should not. We have to view it in the context of when it was written. The worst calamity the world had seen in living memory had just ended, millions were dead and maimed, families torn apart, grief had become a common bond. The scars of the war were still fresh on the battlefields of the world, some of the dead lay unburied, many were missing. The trenches, the wreckage and the bones could still be seen by the ‘Cook’s Tourists’ to the front. The pain was deep, the trauma still there. Some sense had to be made of it all, the sacrifices and deaths of so many had to be lionised, that is what this book attempted to do. There is an obsession about the Great War lurking in these pages. There’s plenty of that around, even today. I like this book, but not for its history of 1914 – 1919. I like it for its view of the Great War from the 1920s.
Reviewed by Dr. Wayne Osborne for War History Online.
The Battle Book Of Ypres. A Reference To Military Operations In The Ypres Salient 1914 – 1918.
By Beatrix Brice.
First Published by John Murray Ltd, 1927. Re-Printed by Pen & Sword, 2014.
ISBN 978 1 47382 123 1