To find a book where the author has total and absolute knowledge of the subject is quite rare. To find an author whose passion almost eclipses the subject matter is rarer still. To find an author with both attributes is practically unheard of..isn’t it ?
Well no, apparently not. Meet Phil Eyden. He is one of those rare characters whose tireless and unselfish efforts put us to shame. I’m lucky in so far as I’ve known Phil for a while now and am honoured to be on first name terms. He claims to be ‘merely a committee member’ of an organisation called the Western Heights Preservation Society, a charity set up by like-minded people to maintain and preserve a complex and unique set of Napoleonic military defences in Dover. Of the many other local volunteers who represent WHPS I’m certain there’s not one among them who’d say Phil is anything other than a figurehead of this society. Such is his modesty its a title I know he’d deny.
So is Dover’s Western Heights in the First World War another book on the centenary bandwagon?Well actually no. The book took some four years to compile and at just under a hundred pages I did at first wonder why it took so long.The reason is glaringly obvious when you begin to read in as much as there was very little written or recorded at this time in history about the Heights. Four years of research and editing every bit of knowledge, photograph, picture and diary entry proved to be a mammoth task. Some authors would have taken the decision to pad out such a book with their hypothesis or local hearsay but that is certainly not the case here. It’s one I’m thankful for as I like to read facts and not opinions when it comes to such serious subjects such as this.Phil tells it as it is, warts and all and I feel this makes for the most enjoyable of reads.
The book is harsh and poignant in places. The life of a British soldier during the First World War was no easy one and the various training battalions billeted at the Western Heights were no exception. The very geographical existence of the Heights made it impossible for the troops stationed there not to witness the boats and subsequent trainloads of wounded and dying men coming back from the Western Front by the thousands. This clearly did have a terrible effect on the soldiers who must have lived in constant fear and thought of ‘ when is it my turn?’ Barely thirty pages into the book and I was reading of suicide number five and yet another desertion.The strain must have been unbearable and its sad to learn of young soldiers taking their own lives such was the fear of being ‘sent to the front’.
It is this sort of book that rubs away at the shine and gloss of the pomp and circumstance of enlistment and lays bare the reality of conscription and enforced soldiering. Were there cowards in the ranks? Nothing of the sort, with men pushed with fear and apprehension to breaking point at a conflict almost within earshot.
The book isn’t exactly packed with funny anecdotes or humorous incidents; it merely reports what happened to the men and officers of the six regiments stationed at the Heights. The story takes in suicides, accidents, death by enemy action and even murder. It’s a grim tale in what was a grim time.
The book is divided in two parts, each with a number of chapters.
Part 1 gives us the infantry while part 2 concentrates on the Dover Anti -Aircraft Corps. All sources and references are listed were possible (heaven forbid Phil would want to take all credit or acknowledgment in his modest way) and there’s even a few relevant poems to boot!
The book is on a limited run so be quick. It is available from Phil direct by contacting him email@example.com is priced at just £12 per signed copy that includes postage within the UK.
Of worthwhile note is that proceeds of the book go straight to the Western Heights Preservation Society so you’ll be helping to save a piece of history in the process and be getting a damned good read too!Mention War History Online when ordering and it’ll seal the fact that Mr Eyden will have to stand me a pint of real ale next time we meet.
Phil is already working on his second book about the Western Heights during the Second World War and most notably with Lord Lovat’s Commandos and Operation Abercrombie. Let’s just hope Phil doesn’t take four years with this one!
Reviewed by Phil Hodges for War History Online
DOVER’S WESTERN HEIGHTS IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR
By Phil Eyden