Amid the array of books marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, this is a real find: a full-length, contemporaneous diary kept by a soldier who served throughout the entire conflict, initially joining up in 1914 as a volunteer private and later commissioned as an officer.
Harry Drinkwater, a cobbler’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, joined a Birmingham ‘Pals’ battalion after being rejected by the regular army for being too short. Shipped to the western front after training in November 1915, he was immediately plunged into the realities of war. As he wrote: “Heard a fearful crash and found the next dugout to ours blown to blazes and Sergeant Horton with it. He had been our physical drill instructor since the beginning. He was a fellow I liked. As soon as I heard the crash I made my way out, and, with the help of Sergeant Wassell dug him out; he was very near a ‘gonner’. Wassell and I carried him to the rear. Before we could get him anywhere near a dressing station he had departed this life. He was our first casualty, and our first experience of death.”
Drinkwater was to have plenty more experience during the next three blood- drenched years. Shells dropped all around him, decimating groups he had just left; bullets whistled past his ears; mines erupted in flames beneath his feet. Poison gas wafted on the breeze, his friends dropping one by one. But from the Somme and Passchendaele to the Italian front and the German offensives of spring 1918, Drinkwater remained miraculously unscathed.
And, through it all, he recorded his war in a series of notebooks hidden in his tunic pocket. Keeping such journals was strictly forbidden, which makes this diary, published here for the first time, a very rare and invaluable picture of one man’s war. ‘Drinks,’ as he was known, comes across as an attractive everyman: horrified by the suffering around him, but determined despite everything to do his duty for his comrades and his country.
The end of Drinkwater’s war came in June 1918, when he was chosen to lead an apparently suicidal trench raid to take an enemy prisoner. He successfully fulfilled his mission but was wounded, the injury bad enough to take him home to recover. To his dismay, he was again passed fit for active service. Stoically standing on the cliffs of Dover waiting to return to France, he saw the port below erupt in joy at the Armistice. Drinkwater is honest enough to tell us that he felt only relief.
An unvarnished, unflinching account of this most terrible of struggles, Harry’s War joins the ranks of the many literary classics produced by the conflict: we are unlikely to see its like, or that of its heroic author, who died in 1978, again.
Nigel Jones is author of Peace and War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014)