“The ordeal of the night was plainly visible on all faces, ghastly white showing through masks of grim and dried sweat, eyes glassy, protruding, and full of horror seen only upon men who have lived through a heavy bombardment.”
“The ordeal of the night was plainly visible on all faces, ghastly white showing through masks of grim and dried sweat, eyes glassy, protruding, and full of horror seen only upon men who have lived through a heavy bombardment.”

Books can be wonderful things and there have been times when I have really blessed my good fortune for accepting this gig when the coffee addict Beckett offered it to me. To be frank there have been odd occasions when I have wrapped my eyes round a few terrors and it would seem you have been spared my barbed thoughts on these. No danger here, though.

The first draft of this review had me going off on a serpentine-like tangent, waxing lyrical about other books I would love to be assured you have read. It all sounded great while I was brushing my teeth and putting the cat out but once it was partly on paper some of the clever prose of the bathroom sink was lost down the plughole. Lucky you!

This book was first published in 1933 when memories of the Great War were fresh and the men who had fought it were approaching middle or old age. Some were riddled with ailments caused by wounds or afflicted with the horrors of gas poisoning. For others the elements had done them no favours or they had suffered the stuff of nightmares, impairing mind and spirit. We have a lot of clever words and a lot more sympathy for this sort of thing these days, or so we like to think.

Harold Roy Williams was a twenty-six year old warehouseman living in Croydon, a suburb of Sydney, when he joined the Australian Imperial Force in 1915. He travelled to the Western Front via Egypt, where the withdrawal from Gallipoli saved him from that particular hell just in time. He served with the 56th Battalion and took part in the disastrous Battle of Fromelles made famous in modern times by the recent discovery of a massed grave of casualties now buried in the newly made cemetery at Pheasant Wood. He went on to take part in some of the bloody engagements of the Battle of the Somme.

I really don’t want to give away any more of this book away, because I can do no more than urge you to read it. Known to his mates as ‘Dick’, Mr Williams is agenuinely wonderful writer. I don’t know how much tidying up his work has gone through by Messrs Grehan and Mace for the benefit of a modern audience, but his descriptive powers and sense of honesty shine through. The writing style doesn’t appear as clipped as so many pre-war books do, yet it retains all the mores of the language and spirit of the age. There is something very other worldly and yet something so very modern I can’t quite put my finger on.  For someone so humble as a warehouseman, his ability to write so eloquently leaves me to assume his officer status allowed him to acquire a better education when he returned home in 1919.

When it was first published the book was entitled The Gallant Company: An Australian Soldier’s Story of 1915-18. I am less than convinced it needed to be changed for a modern readership. It was written for an Australian audience with a confidence that had no room for any petty nationalistic nonsense. There are no cheap jibes at the Brits or negative comments about the high command because Williams’ experience was defined by his rise from private soldier to platoon commander and he confined his writing to it. This is a story of cold, hunger, injury, fear, humour, friendship and death. It happened to all ranks and nations within the wider British Army. Williams knew that the franchisees of the Four Horsemen held no distinction for cap badges.

If you’re an Australian you have to read this book. Dick Williams is yours. If you’re not Australian, you have to read this book anyway, because it so bloody good. There is another great book by an Aussie soldier called Somme Mud which is another corker, but the joy of this book is that Mr Williams wrote a second in 1935 entitled Comrades of the Great Adventure and it would be grand to think this, too, will be republished by P&S but without a revised title. Leave it be, please.

The Australian War Memorial and other organisations have spent many a day scouring for information on the men who fought in the Great War. You can read all about these searches on the internet, using forums and family tree sites, just about anything; to fill in the blanks to get details on the men who left Australia to fight for King and Empire. They have worked hard to find out more about the author and I admit I had been annoyed to find no photo of him in this book (a regular gripe of mine), but, it seems that none have been traced.

Far too many Australians can be found in the cemeteries of the Western Front and not a few more in the communal cemeteries of towns like my own in England.  You often find the inscriptions on their graves are a reminder of the communities they came from. These are often done because the distance from home is so far the chance of a visit from a loved one is remote. There is one lad from New South Wales buried at Wimereux whose inscription tells us “Too Far Away For Us To See, Our Thoughts Will Always Be With Thee.”  Mr Williams was keenly aware of the sacrifice his friends were making and his conclusion makes a strong case of how important it was his readers realised they had not died just to save England but to save Australia from tyranny. I wonder what he thought when they had to do it all again in 1939?

Pen & Sword have a strong reputation for reprints of books like this one, but this, surely, must be one of the very best. Harold Williams died in 1955. Dick to the mates who meant the world to him; he was a soldier’s soldier and kept the experience with him his whole life and wrote his story in a way which has stood the test of time. I urge you to read this wonderful book in remembrance of him and his remarkable generation.

Mark Barnes

The Personal Reflections of an Australian Infantryman from 1916-1918
By H.R. Williams presented and edited by John Grehan & Martin Mace
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Military £19.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 767 5

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.