The Soldier's War, By Richard van Emden

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The Independent Culture

How much more vivid is this account of the Great War from letters and diaries than any orthodox history. The reports from Tommies and officers range from the baffling spectacle of sudden attack at the outbreak of war ("my men started curling up on the ground") and class subservience under fire ("I avenged Mr Davidson and felt pleased") to the vindictive quashing of the second Christmas truce of 1915.

"Our sergeants were reduced in rank to private soldiers... all leave was cancelled." These communiqués from hell bear out the view in one letter that only those with a sense of humour could emerge sane.

A private relates how a cry from an amateur astronomer, "Come and see Cassiopeia", prompted a rush of Tommies hoping to see a French girl. A rich haul of unpublished snapshots reinforces a compelling work.

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