The Great War Handbook: A Guide for Family Historians & Students of the Conflict
By Geoff Bridger
In 2014 a four-year commemoration will begin to mark the centenary of a conflict which changed the world forever, leaving more than 16 million dead. In many ways, World War I needs little introduction. It is familiar to us not only through historical sources, but films, novels and plays. Bird Song, War Horse, All Quiet On The Western Front, Parade’s End and the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are among the many works which has left us with indelible imagery of the war that was supposed to end all wars.
How much, though, do you really know about the events which would shape the 20th century? Can you explain how the assassination of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo led to millions of British men spending the next four years in trench warfare in northern France and Belgium? Do you know the difference between shrapnel and shell splinter? Or how the trench system actually worked? Or what was in a soldier’s ration?
If these questions draw a few blanks, it is worth getting hold of Geoff Bridger’s The Great War Handbook, now available in paperback. Designed as a guide for people embarking on family history research, it will serve well for anyone wanting to get a better grasp of what life in the trenches was actually like. Bridger has extensive knowledge of the conflict with particular expertise in army life and the experience of the ordinary soldier, having written books and articles on the subject over many years. The book is illustrated with photographs and documents given to him by some of the many veterans he has interviewed over the years.
While a handbook may sound like a dry text-book, the book is packed with compelling information. Often, it is the smallest details that conjure up the most vivid imagery of a soldier’s experience. For those serving in Gallipoli, flies covered every mouthful of food so dysentery was prevalent with some soldiers so weak that they fell into the latrines and drowned. Pals Battalions were formed because it was thought men would enlist more readily if they could serve with people they knew, but this had particularly devastating consequences for communities at home if a Pals Battalion suffered heavy casualties in battle. German troops were demoralised when they came across British supply dumps because their provisions were so poor by comparison. Medical treatment was limited in an age before antibiotics, while blood transfusions were in their infancy and not possible on the battlefield so a great number of wounded soldiers bled to death from relatively simple wounds.
A careful reading of the text reveals a whole plethora of potential pitfalls a novice researcher needs to avoid. Some concern confusing terminology: ‘corps’ has different meanings in different contexts; men ‘chatting’ were actually inspecting their uniforms for lice; while ‘bombs’ refer to hand grenades. It’s important to understand the rules soldiers had to abide by: a wounded soldier would be given a Field Service Post Card to write home, but he could only say how well he was! There are numerous shortcomings in official records as accurate data wasn’t always available, and there is naturally an element of human error in the paperwork. There were numerous duplications in the service numbers issued to soldiers, while some served under assumed names or lied about their age.
Bridger conveys well the extent of the army machine behind the trenches. Huge resources were needed to requisition and transport more than three million tons of food, five millions tons of fodder, nearly ten million tons of ammunition and a million tons of railway materials that were shipped to France from Britain during the war. Millions of men, whether volunteers or conscripted, had to be supplied; it wasn’t possible to clothe and arm the huge influx of men in 1914 to current specifications so around 500,000 recruits wore improvised uniforms during training known as ‘Kitchener’s Blues’. Millions of forms had to be printed and supplied to officers across the front. As well as frontline soldiers, there were medical staff to deal with casualties, sappers to dig tunnels and trenches and signal companies to maintain communications. Accommodation had to be constructed, railways and canals built and maintained and ships loaded and unloaded. There were moments of sheer terror for soldiers in the face of enemy action, but long periods of boredom and discomfort in between, and when troops were rotated away from the frontline, there were uniforms to be cleaned and numerous jobs requiring seemingly limitless manpower.
Naturally, a book of this nature is forced to gloss over many details. Every page summarises a subject that could sustain a book in its own right. Bridger is careful to flag up those times when he is generalising, although the frequency with which he uses phrases such as “further details are not appropriate for this book” can be irritating, and at times he seems over-insistent on qualifying his text. It is surely quite clear to any reader that more specialist books will need to be consulted for further detail on any particular subject, but it is surprising that the bibliography isn’t more detailed as there is such a wealth of material available for readers inspired by this book to find out more. Similarly his guide to visiting the battlefields has quite a lot of practical ‘tourist’ information that feels superfluous, while more detail on the actual sites and museums might have been helpful.
While the book refers to the navy as well as the army, and covers all the theatres of war, there’s no doubt that its focus is heavily biased towards the trench warfare of northern France and Belgium. For those interested in understanding what life was really like for the average soldier on that font, this book will be an invaluable starting point.
Geoff Bridger’s book is available to buy from Amazon: The Great War Handbook: A Guide for Historians & Students of the Conflict.
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