1914-18: Voices & Images Of the Great War

By Lyn Macdonald

Michael Joseph. 346 pp. $24.95

THIS VOLUME of letters, verse, short memoir pieces, newspaper accounts, photographs and advertising from the Great War period is, like the warning that prefaces Wilfred Owen's war poems, "not about heroes." It is about scared soldiers and swollen feet, fallen friends and rat-infested trenches.

Voices & Images of the Great War is Lyn Macdonald's fifth scrapbook history on the First World War. Her previous works have treated respectively the outbreak of the war, the role of medical teams at the front, and the Somme and Passchendaele campaigns. Here, using material from her own and other archives, she has assembled a more complete picture of the years 1914-18, from the first mobilizations to the uneasy quiet of the Armistice.

Because Macdonald has chosen the whole scope of the war for this volume, she is better able to convey a sense of the great changes it wrought in everything from the class system in Europe to the shape of the sonnet in England to drinking hours in London. The great distinction between this book and other accounts of the Great War is Macdonald's technique: rather than tell, she shows, letting the images and vernacular of the period speak for themselves.

Though the British experience on the Western Front is her focus, a great variety of perspectives is included in this book -- from officer and enlisted ranks, from the home and the trench, from Germans and Americans and Australians at Gallipoli. Macdonald seeks especially to bring the ordinary infantryman into the spotlight and thus temper the perception of the war as an exclusive playing field for the fair-haired generation of Rupert Brooke.

"There are few literary gems {here}, not much 'fine' poetry and not many of the 'great' names culled from the considerable literary heritage of the Great War," she writes in her introduction. "They have had their say. This is the turn of Tommy Atkins, Heinz Schmidt and Digger Smith, Bill Brown from Calgary, Jack Robinson from Christchurch, Joe Soap from Kansas. And this was their war."

The opening pages provide glimpses into the giddy optimism of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and the popular culture that initially sustained it. There are parades, songs sung on troop ships and caricatures of the Hun at the gate. A Perrier label advertises "the table water of the Allies," and a recruiting poster appeals to the women of England, "When the War is over and your husband or your son is asked, 'What did you do in the great War?' -- is he to hang his head because you would not let him go? Send your men to-day to join our glorious Army. God Save the King!"

Macdonald then lays out what greeted this Bank Holiday enthusiasm on European shores -- mud and mustard gas, the unmitigated misery of Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. The British slogan of the war may have been "Honour, Justice, Truth and Right," but words such as "brutality," "murder," "butchery" and "assassination" begin to appear almost immediately in descriptions of the trench warfare.

Soldiers in this book are seen for the most part trying to survive one day to the next and not measuring the larger effects of the war. Occasionally a comment or anecdote illuminates the changing historical landscape -- one man writes, "We hadn't any great generals. There was no scope for the great general" -- but Macdonald conveys the crumbling of the old world more dramatically through skillful juxtaposition of the persistent public euphemisms of the British war leaders and press with the increasing bitterness of the infantrymen in the trenches.

The section on the Somme reveals this incongruity. While those who went over the top into the brutal circus of July 1, 1916, angrily record the "absolute slaughter" and scorn the newspaper accounts of "tremendous victories . . . for armchair patriots," a lieutenant-colonel writes condolence letters from the same front praising the fallen for their "spirit," "gallantry," and "courage." On a sidebar to these pages is reproduced a handout from a memorial service in England that illustrates the windy -- and utterly inappropriate -- sentimentality at home. The month is August, the British are well on their way to the 150,000 fatalities of a campaign whose object was a dozen miles of turf, and the text reads, "Each one we lose is a lost hero! Every one who steps into the breach to fill the gap becomes a hero too!" NOT IGNORED in this volume is the literary culture that this Shakespearean allusion represents. For despite its sparing use of the well-known war poets, Macdonald's book is nonetheless full of verse. Most of these poetic efforts are short barbs directed at the kaiser or ditties on military life. Others are serious and controlled works. Frequent use of dramatic imagery (calling the war a "show," comparing the beginning of a battle to a curtain rising) and one letter from a soldier asking that his issues of Punch be held at home because of the numerous copies available at the front also attest to the much-documented literary atmosphere of the war.

The role that Macdonald takes as editor is unobtrusive and undogmatic, but at times this minimal presence is a problem. Most of the first-hand descriptions from soldiers are undated, which often leaves one wondering whether an item was written at the front or from a memory of the front 20 years later. Neither are most selections labeled as letter, diary entry or memoir. Each of these forms carries a different agenda, and Macdonald would have done well to let the reader know which was which. One can also detect subtle examples of editorializing. Paul Fussell found enough homoerotic material in the war poetry to include an entire chapter on it in The Great War and Modern Memory; there is not even a whiff of it here.

The sum impression of this book is overwhelmingly sad. Nowhere is this feeling more strongly felt than in the final pages recounting the Armistice and its aftermath, where the collapse of cultural confidence and the distrust of old institutions is registered by the ironic separation between the public and private closures to the war.

While Field Marshal Haig was still pounding out rhetoric on the "indomitable spirit" of a "splendid Army" and King George was rolling out the rug of Empire to lead a procession to Westminster Abbey dedicating the tomb of the unknown warrior, the survivors of the war were not thinking of glory or national ritual. "We trekked out of the wood on this dreary day in silence," writes one man of Armistice day. "{We} could not bring ourselves to raise even a cheer." Another remembers his unit scoffing at a bugle call a few days later: "We said, 'No . . . we're not going to parade any more.' "

Bruce Brown is a researcher for the national staff of The Washington Post.