VOICES FROM THE FRONT – Review by Dr Wayne Osborne

I want to let Peter Hart tell you what his excellent new book is about: “This is an oral history of the British military involvement in the Great War based on the 183 interviews with veterans that I carried out for the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive in the 1980s and early 1990s … They have never been ‘forgotten’…” That sums this book up very nicely.

Oral history as a means of the transmission and retention of memories and events is, by definition, not new.  Oral history of the Great War has been ongoing since 28 June 1914.  In the post war period anthologies of veterans’ recollections were published. Notably, Guy Chapman edited a collection of veterans’ written memories and published them in Vain Glory, (Cassel, 1937).  Many contemporary historians use veterans’ recollections in an effective and productive way.  Some use war diaries, memoirs, personal diaries, letters and newspaper articles (the primary sources much loved by university academics) to illustrate their work.  Peter Hart skilfully uses the transcriptions of the recordings to tell a history of the war, binding them together with his own narrative. Unlike Chapman who, fixated by the fighting, concentrated upon combat, Peter Hart seeks to give a more rounded picture.  He deals not only with the fighting but also the ‘down times’ and examines the immediate post war in his fascinating chapter, “Aftermath of War.”

It is difficult to choose a favourite part or chapter and there are twelve chapters.  The quality of the personal memories are quite remarkable and Peter Hart shows his calibre and skill as an oral historian by his choice and use of the accounts.  I found the ‘Q’ Ship pieces fascinating and there are some of the best descriptions of Jutland that I have read.  It is all here, the beginning of the war, the war in the East, on the Western Front, war in the air, on the sea and life in the trenches, the German Spring Offensive, the 100 Days and the End.  I looked forward to the chapter “Aftermath of War” because too many historians have stopped at 11 November 1918 but not Peter Hart, he continues the tale.  The war did not end at the Armistice.  The war continued to be fought day after day, quietly and alone.  Some died of their wounds long after they had come home, others lived on to talk to Peter Hart who preserved their memories and ultimately put them into this fine book.

In Voices From The Front the reader feels initially as if one is in the room with the veterans and the historian, listening as their tales unfold.  Then the vivid memories, re-living the moment, transport the reader to a point in time.  This is a powerful, evocative and, surprisingly for me, an emotional book.  There is something very personal about this book. I believe that there is good deal of the historian in this book because not only is it an oral history of the war, it is a history of Peter Hart’s interviews. The tales are told without fear of the censor and with honesty and even with the passage of time one has the impression that these stories have not become embellished. These are genuine, no holds barred, accounts.  Some amusing, some serious, some harrowing, all poignant.

I waited for this book with great anticipation and when I had finished reading it I wanted to go back to the start and read it all over again.  I am a fan of Peter Hart’s work and I am glad to say that I spent a mad week with him in Gallipoli last year, but I cannot say that I “know” him.  What I can say is, Peter Hart is an oral historian at the top of his game and this book is proof of that. He lets the people who were there in the Great War tell their stories.  You can’t get much more authentic than that.  Many of us have been fortunate enough to talk to veterans of the Great War, World War Two and latter wars.  There will be those who follow us that certainly don’t have the chance to talk to a Great War veteran and soon the opportunity to talk World War Two veterans will pass.  Therefore, Peter Hart’s book and the recordings, now that the Great War veterans have left us, are hugely valuable resources.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and I highly recommend it.  If you have to buy a book about the Great War this year, as a gift or for yourself, buy this one.  It you’re reading this review then you probably have an interest in in the Great War.   Buy this book, not just because it is by Pete Hart but because it is first-class and a tribute to the survivors of the Great War, who are now gone. It is far better than anything on the shelf at the moment.  For my money Peter Hart is the finest historian that it has been my pleasure to meet and to read.  Go on, buy it.

Reviewed by Dr Wayne Osborne for War History Online.

VOICES FROM THE FRONT

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An Oral History of the Great War
By Peter Hart.

Profile Books Ltd, 2015
Hardback, 424 pages
ISBN 978 1 78125 474 5
eISBN 978 1 78 283 172 3