This is yet another diary from the Great War and it is a very good read for either the casual reader or the historian. Billy Congreve was a regular army lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade when Britain went to war in August 1914. Billy’s father, Walter Congreve VC, or ‘Squibs’ to his friends, was a Brigadier-General and rose to the rank of Lieutenant-General by the end of the war. His mother worked as a nurse in France during the conflict and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire and one of Billy’s ancestors had been the inventor of the Congreve Rocket. Billy served with his battalion on the Western Front until he was appointed to be a staff officer on Major-General Hamilton’s staff in the 3rd Division in September 1914. Billy Congreve was determined that his post as a staff officer would not keep him out of the front line and nor did it. His activities and visits to the line earned him the MC, DSO, and Legion of Honour. He was rapidly promoted to captain and then major as the war progressed and promotion opportunities arose.
His diary is detailed, is very honest and contains little of the ‘jingoistic’ rhetoric that can be found in some diaries and memoirs. There are also a number of very interesting photographs in the book taken by Billy himself. Billy wrote about events and happenings as he saw them and often passed some kind of comment. He certainly had a dislike of the British newspapers whom he thought, quite rightly, were putting too much of a gloss on the war news, making defeats and reverses sound like victories. On the other hand he did not shy away from writing about British bungling and poor staff work in stinging terms. He mentions the Christmas of 1914, there was no truce on his divisional front, or at least that was what was reported to him. Carol singing German soldiers who approached a British trench on Christmas Day were shot down and Billy had no sympathy for them at all. Being a staff officer he met many officers, many well known to us now, and his descriptions of them are quite illuminating. His description of searching for and find his uncle’s body is understated but poignant. When the body was found Billy himself went out to it and took personal effects from the bullet ridden corpse to send back to his aunt. As time progressed, the war dragged on and his duties became more intensive so he had less time to keep his diary.
We have read many times how the Tommies disliked the ‘Red Tabs’, the staff officers who lived in comfort behind the lines. This is a myth and in Billy’s case untrue. His bravery in the line was undoubted and in the last few days of his life on the Somme battlefield in July 1916 he showed extraordinary courage and devotion to his duties. Billy Congreve earned his posthumous VC, not for one death defying act of bravery but many. He was killed in action, while working in the front line. He was shot in the throat at 10.55 am on 20 July 1916. When his father came to see his son’s body after it was recovered the old general placed a bunch of flowers in the dead boy’s hand.
This review cannot end without a mention of the late Terry Norman, the historian who came across Billy’s diary when he was researching his seminal and excellent book, The Hell They Called High Wood. Norman saw to it that Billy’s diary was published in 1982 and his editorial within the diary is useful, helping to clarify points and sometimes stitch the narrative together where needed. Norman’s voice is always present but never at any time drowns out Billy’s; his editorial work is sensitively done.
I for one am glad Terry Norman brought this diary into the light of day and I am very glad to see it back in print. In conclusion, this is a good diary to read, it is full of description, written in an easy style and edited by a fine historian.
Reviewed by Dr. Wayne Osborne for War History Online.
A VC’S Diary 1914-1916
By Billy Congreve
Edited by Terry Norman
Re-printed by Pen & Sword Ltd, 2014.
First published by William Kimber& Co, 1982.
ISBN:978 1 47382 119 4