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Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War


sjustice
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Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War. By Denis Winter. London: Allen Lane 1978, Penguin Books 1979. 283 pp.

Those of us who didn’t personally experience World War One can only wonder what it really must have been like as a soldier on the Western Front. In “Death’s Men” Denis Winter seeks to provide an answer by removing the generalship and strategy and plunging us into the personal and brutal struggle of the men in the trenches, from recruitment to homecoming.

The inclusion of a solitary map makes it clear that this book does not discuss the plans and movements of armies and divisions presented in numerous publications. Likewise a consideration of the photograph collection brings to mind a progression through the war with only casual reference to names, time and location. Here is where “Death’s Men” may also be set apart from later books of the genre, for example Lyn Macdonald’s “1915: The Death of Innocence” (London: Headline 1993. 625pp) and event-centric “Somme” (London: Michael Joseph 1983. 366pp), or Richard van Emden’s works, like “Boy Soldiers of the Great War” (London: Headline 2005. 340pp). Whereas these excellent works make direct use of personal memoirs to chronicle specific events and individual stories, “Death’s Men” presents these primary sources to the reader to illustrate the whole process of becoming and being a soldier.

With the motivation and recruitment of Kitchener’s men, Winter starts to pull us through the Great War with the men, living with the realities of daily life in and out of the line, in the here-and-now. The first chapter cover the formation of the New Army, it’s training and arrival in France. The social and class history of patriotism, poverty and obedience described here, in many ways make it possible for us to accept events unfolding later, and the sometimes inexplicable reaction of men to adversity. On the march to the line, not fighting fit, the men already have a firmly established hate-love relationship with the army; “Experience thus far had been of anxiety and pain, fatigue and companionship. Fear was yet to come”. (79)

The greater part of “Death’s Men” covers existence in the trenches for the British Expeditionary Force. Here we are also introduced to the men of the Dominion armies and the effects of total, industrial warfare. With minute attention to detail, Winter weaves his narrative through and around the words of the fighting men and their support. We are shown the surprising tedium of trench life and stoical adherence to routine and order. Boredom and death, with no way to procure absolute safety, is the reality of existence for weeks and months on end. Home leave may be years in the coming and provide cold comfort, while for Other Ranks, “rest” is back-breaking labour, but a release from the tension. Hard work but not without distractions; in 1917 the complaint most likely to hospitalise a man, not involving enemy action, was V.D. Overall the reader is left in no doubt that while the immediate carnage is enormous, even the strongest survivor is worn down both physically and mentally by the continual flexing of worn muscle and nerve.

Finally, the Armistice. The mobile warfare and rapid advance which characterises the final months comes to an end too soon for many. After years of defeat or limited success in the trenches, final victory has been denied them. Back in Blighty, the survivors will continue to suffer from their time in France and Flanders. Unemployed able survivors and the many thousands of long-term infirm alike feel themselves a burden on an ungrateful nation. Most demobilised men feel the sharp loss of their only positive experience; comradeship. Who will mark their suffering and remember the sacrifice?

As a seasoned historian and teacher, Winter makes good use of primary evidence; particularly (then) newly released War Office documents, and a vast repository of other unpublished and published memoirs and diaries. The lack of side or footnotes makes it difficult to track the attribution of some quotations and the index of contributors does not, as a rule, identify them precisely. Though this can be frustrating it contributes to overall pacing and the immersive experience. In the context of the subject and sheer volume of facts and recollections portrayed, the inability to place a name is poignantly appropriate. In “Death’s Men” Denis Winter has constructed a seminal work on the life of the soldier of the B.E.F. and the civilians they were and became.

SMJ

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Simon,

Sounds like a worthwhile read on the aspect of WW1 (i.e. the soldier's experience) that interests me most.

Also quite well endorsed by readers on Amazon.

I've now put it on my 'wish list'.

Many thanks,

David

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi David,

Sorry I missed a reply to this. I hope you do get to own and read this book. This was Denis Winter's first effort and it does shine as an example of "war through the eyes of...". More than that, it shows Winter had a rare and real talent & empathy for living social and military history. It's a shame that he got so sidetracked in later works, but this is a gem.

I recommend it to all.

Kind Regards,

SMJ

Simon,

Sounds like a worthwhile read on the aspect of WW1 (i.e. the soldier's experience) that interests me most.

Also quite well endorsed by readers on Amazon.

I've now put it on my 'wish list'.

Many thanks,

David

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Simon,

Coincidentally just got out of the bath having read the introduction and Chapter 1. It reads very well.

Now I need to find the discipline to put it down until I've finished 'Battle Tactics of the Western Front' - which is another very worthwhile book.

Thanks again for the recommendation.

David

PS. Now back to the dramas of my wife ringing every 10 minutes as she continues to find her way home through the floods to Oxford. 6.5 hours so far since leaving Swindon (normally a 45 minute journey

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I agree... it lived in a pocket of my combat trousers during an exercise in Germany in 1980 and helped while away the tedium of two weeks in a slit trench guarding a bridge..

An excellent read indeed (as is his book in a similar vein on the RFC) and as noted, as shame he subsequently lost the plot. This book still stands up.

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Just to echo the other Pals. It was one of the first Great War books I read - I think the paperback Penguin edition, more years ago than I care to recall. It's an excellent example of its type. Yes, shame he got such a "thing" about generals later on.

Chris C

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What do our members think of Winter's argument that the Colonials made better soldiers than the British because they were allowed to keep their individuality and thereby showed some initiative?

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It's a theory and possibly part of the reason for their being recognised as good attack troops. I don't think it is as straight forward as that, though. I'm sure there were good British soldiers and bad colonial ones also.

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What do our members think of Winter's argument that the Colonials made better soldiers than the British because they were allowed to keep their individuality and thereby showed some initiative?

Two claims are made in Death's Men. Winter's assertion regarding the general physical superiority of Colonial infantry compared to the New Army divisions is a sound one. On arrival at the Front, an average Kitchener Man was the product of poor diet and social conditions in Edwardian Britain and somewhat less fit than his Colonial counterpart of similar status.

The individuality and initiative argument is more complicated and Winter does make some contentious points in the somewhat extended passage contained in his chapter on "Training of Other Ranks" [also managing to sneak in his first swipe at John Terraine and Haig's generalship). However, particularly in the the opening days of the Somme offensive, the absence of the traditional doctrines of the British Army did the Colonial troops no harm at all.

In the face of an ascendant defence, the loss of officers and unit cohesion within seconds and in the absence of a Plan B, the ability not only to think of a Plan B, but the decision to JFDI was a virtue.

What do you think of his argument, Gyrene?

SMJ

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Considering how Winter's views of Haig stirs up such emotion I thought there would have been more responses than two.

I think the Colonials were better than the volunteer Kitchener divisions. However, the performance of the original BEF shows that as a whole the Brits weren't necessarily inferior. I think the Colonials had something to prove whereas the British had already established their military traditions. I believe there's more to it than simply individuality. I think we need to examine the society in which a soldier comes from and the type of war he's engaged in. The Boers are a good example, IMO. Is it any surprise that some of the best soldiers in the world have come from former British colonies?

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  • 2 months later...

If you liked 'Death's Men', may I recommend 'The Broken Years' by Bill Gammage for a similar study on the men of the Australian Imperial Force. Written several years earlier than Winter's, Bill's work is now considered 'classical' amongst Australia's First World War historiography. At a time when military history was being neglected in the post-Vietnam period, Bill surveyed thousands of letters penned on the front line to produce truly revealing and evocative study of ordinary Australians at war.

Cheers,

Aaron.

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I think this is a useful book. Well illustrated, including one horrendous photo of a victim of shellfire literally torn in half by a shell.

I bought it in paperback last year and yesterday got the hardback at a boot sale for a £1.

Recommended.

Gunner Bailey

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I think this is a useful book. Well illustrated, including one horrendous photo of a victim of shellfire literally torn in half by a shell.

I bought it in paperback last year and yesterday got the hardback at a boot sale for a £1.

Recommended.

Gunner Bailey

Bargain. I am very familiar with the image GB is talking about and in the context of the book it is used very powerfully to hammer home the human nature of (in particular, this) war and struggle. We are used to the images of blasted earth from the Great War, but men destroyed by shellfire is usually a picture left to the imagination. When depicted this graphically it is very evocative. Notwithstanding the problems Winter has in presenting a balanced operational view (in particular), this is a fine social study and I thought all the illustrations used in Death's Men were carefully chosen and appropriate to the text (unlike many works). They certainly made a difference to my thoughts on the book.

Cheers,

SMJ

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I bought the paperback as a very early Great War reference.

There is much of merit.

The drift to polemics is bearable, but I prefer my history either balanced, or with adequate footnotes or references so that opinion can be sifted from fact.

I have not blown the dust off the book for years, neither would I bin it.

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  • 3 months later...

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