WFA member John Sneddon is to donate the proceeds of his new book, The Devil's Carnival, to the Fusiliers' Museum of Northumbria. And, as it is published by the WFA's own publishing arm, Reveille Press, the WFA will also gain a donation per copy to our charitable endeavours.
We hope to carry a review of John's book here on the WFA website before too long.
A sample section is also available as a PDF.
John writes about his new book:
My major interests in the First World War are the events of the first twelve months. Not for me the great attrition battles of 1916 or 1917 but the more intimate, and surprisingly more deadly, battles fought by the British army between August 1914 and August 1915. In pursuit of this interest I haunt regimental museums and archives for original material on the soldiers of 1914; diaries; letters; reports; and the like relating to the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Experience had demonstrated that such source material is thin on the ground when compared with the volume of paper normally available relating to the legions of the ‘New Armies' that followed them to France and Belgium. But perhaps this is not surprising. The original BEF was to fight almost continuously for four months with most battalions losing about 90% of their original members as casualties of one sort or another. Sometimes, however, it is possible to strike it lucky, and this book is a labour of love, and remembrance, arising from one such piece of luck.
In 1999, in pursuit of my interest, I arranged to visit to The Fusilier's Museum of Northumberland, situated in the Abbot's Tower in the great medieval fortress of Alnwick Castle to look at the archives of the Northumberland Fusiliers. To my surprise I found a rich collection of contemporary accounts of the 1st Battalion during the first four months of the war. Firstly there was a copy of the War Diary, complete with its appendices listing the casualties killed in action, wounded or missing, all by rank, name and number. There was the diary of Lieutenant F E Watkins, the battalion machine gun officer who, before censorship throttled the flow of information from the front, sent his home to be published in monthly instalments in the "St Georges Gazette". Another was an unsigned typewritten manuscript entitled "European War 1914". Subsequent research identified it as an account of the experiences of Captain E B Gordon, Commander of "Z" Company, who joined his Battalion in France in October 1914. The greatest treasure however was two hard covered notebooks in which Captain Beauchamp Tudor St John recounted, in great detail, his experiences from the outbreak of the war on 4 August until he was severely wounded in the abortive attack of the village of Wytschaete on 1 November 1914.
My original intention was to publish St John's journal on its own but with the other diaries available it was possible to look at the experiences of the battalion from three different perspectives so this book has grown into the story of the 1st Battalion and its trials and tribulations, as seen through the eyes of these three officers. The details contained in these diaries make the story of the 1st Battalion utterly absorbing for there are few other contemporary documents, perhaps with the exception of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards, that give us this level of insight to what it was like to be in a fighting battalion coming to grips with the reality of war. Our three diarists cover all the fighting of the 1st Battalion from the Battle of Mons, Le Câteau, the Great Retreat, First Battle of the Marne, the Aisne and the transfer to Flanders in late September. Here they fought throughout the almost forgotten Battle of La Bassée in which the British II Corps fought alongside the French Tenth Army to halt the German offensives along the valley of the river Lys and was to suffer grievously in the bitter fighting in and around the French village of Neuve Chapelle. After almost twelve days of non-stop combat the battalion was reduced to less than 200 and withdrawn from the battle to rest and re-equip. That was not to happen. With less than twenty-four hours rest they were ordered to march to Kemmel to support the Cavalry defending the Messines ridge. When the British lost the village of Wytschaete on the night of 31 October, two companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers were ordered to support the 1st Battalion The Lincolnshire Regiment in retaking the village. Neither battalion made any headway and lost heavily, including Captain St John receiving a near fatal wound through his neck.
After three days rest the remnants of the 1st Battalion were ordered to Ypres where they came under the command of General Douglas Haig, GOC I Corps. Here they fought in the dying weeks of the Battles of First Ypres including beating off attacks by the famed Prussian Guard during the last great German offensive of 1914 on 11 November. By December, after rest and refitting, the ranks filled with older, poorly trained reservists and volunteers, they were in at the birth of trench warfare during one of the coldest, wettest, winters Europe had experienced in decades.
The popular media defines, and regurgitates, many of our common beliefs and mythologies about the First World War, as does the fragmented manner in which the war is dealt with in the National Curriculum in History for 11-16 year-olds with its concentration on the perceived interpretation of the conflict through the eyes of a small number of war poets. After almost a century many still see the First World War only in terms of a grim hell of static warfare in which unwilling soldiers lived a troglodyte existence in deep trenches and dugouts sheltering from an unending artillery bombardment amid a forest of barbed wire. Here, surrounded by a landscape of mud and water-filled shell holes, the soldiers suffered and grumbled until finally succumbing to death, wounds or shell-shock.
Whatever grain of truth such descriptions may contain they describe a type of warfare totally unknown to the soldiers of 1914. In Flanders, during October and November, battles were fought in a countryside untouched by war, among villages, farms, fields, hedgerows and woods where, until the onset of winter, deep foliage obscured the view of attackers and defenders alike. When the infantry dug trenches they were not part of some elaborate field defences but temporary holes and scrapes, either dug for local defence and protection from enemy fire, or as a jumping off position for a renewed attack. In such country the experience of the individual soldier was limited, and confined, to actions within a few yards. As we will see in Captain Gordon's fight at Neuve Chapelle, he and his men were fighting for their lives against sustained infantry and artillery attack while less than 200 yards away Captain St John's were sitting in their trenches in relative calm. It is this focus of individual experience that breathes life into these diaries for, in the words of Georges Kimpflin,
"The fighter has a short view but because his views are narrow they are sharp; because they are restricted they are clear. He doesn't see a lot, but what he does see he sees plainly. Because his own eyes, and not those of others, informs him, he sees what is. ".
For my generation, who were born and grew up when many who fought in the war were still alive, our first encounter of the mythologizing of the ‘lions led by donkeys' slant on military history was Joan Littlewood's musical ‘Oh, What a Lovely War', not the original stage production in Stratford East, seen by few, but the later film, that, and Alan Clark's polemic about the failed battles of 1915, The Donkeys, first published in 1961. For my children's generation the Great War will always be seen through the jaundiced eye of Edmund Blackadder, the historically inaccurate, but brilliant, doings of successive Blackadders from the late Medieval period to (presumably) the First Day of the Somme.
It is unfortunate that this "take" on the War, as expressed in these, and other popular works propagated through the medium of books, film, TV, and the spoken word, is in danger of swamping our understanding of the events that constitute the history of the First World War. I hope this book does not suffer the same fate for it is a very personal account based upon the writings of just three men who wrote down their impressions of the chaos of war very soon after the events in which they participated.
My interest in these diary entries is sharpened by my belief that the way in which the soldiers of 1914 internalised their experiences of war was very different from that of the men in the large armies of civilian soldiers that followed them. To start with they were fighting with weapons and tactics with which they were familiar through their pre-war training. This envisaged a war of movement and manoeuvre to bring the enemy to battle where the infantry, supported by their artillery and machine guns, strove to win the firefight and defeat the enemy by driving them from their positions. For most of the period covered by our story, continuous trench lines, from which the combatants shot and shelled each other, did not yet exist, or when they appeared, as they did by late December, they were in their very infancy. Also it is often forgotten that, in the opening months of the war, all armies were fighting with their best troops. For the British this was their small, long-service, professional army; for the Germans, Russians, and the French, it was their youngest, fittest and most recently trained conscripts backed up by a core of their professional soldiers, all supported by reserve forces consisting of previously trained soldiers withdrawn from civilian life.
This is reflected in the picture of the Northumberland Fusiliers that emerges from the diaries. This is one of a highly professional battalion, led by experienced officers who took their duties seriously, and went to war confident in their own abilities, and those of their men, to defeat the enemy. They were hardened to the dangers and discomforts of campaigning for many, particularly among the officers, NCOs and reservists, already knew what battle was like, either from the Boer War, or small actions against dissident tribesmen on the North-West Frontier or in Africa.
But 1914 was also a year of great killing. One of the paradoxes of the war is that battle casualties were highest during the ‘war of movement' in 1914 and 1918 rather than in the great attrition battles of 1916 and 1917 that so fixate the public imagination. In round numbers for 1914 the French suffered 300,000 killed, with many more hundreds of thousands wounded or prisoner. Germany, fighting on two fronts, suffered 840,000 casualties of whom 150,000 were killed in action. The British Expeditionary Force had about 96,000 casualties, dead, wounded, prisoner or missing, almost exactly the same number of combat troops as landed in France four months earlier.
By December 1914 most of the original members of the 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, and their reinforcements, had been killed or wounded. Yet their sacrifice was not to be in vain for it was these almost forgotten battles of 1914, in which they fought so gallantly, that were to totally disrupt the German war plans in the west, leading inexorably to their defeat on the Western Front four grim years later.
 The St George's Gazette is the Regimental Journal of the Northumberland Fusiliers and at this time was published monthly.
 Craster, J M "Fifteen Rounds a Minute". The Grenadiers at War, August to December 1914. London: Macmillan 1976.
 Although not historically, or geographically, accurate the term Flanders is used to describe those areas of France and Belgium, from Le Bassée to Ypres, in which were located the trenches of the BEF in 1914 and 1915
 Georges Kimpflin. Le premier soufflé. P14. Quoted in Bryan miller "Drumfire. The Champagne Offensive. The French War Effort and the Death of Percée in 1915. MA Thesis. University of Colorado, Boulder 2001.
 A full count would have to take into consideration the casualties of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire; Russia; the Indian troops fighting in France; not forgetting the Balkan states such Serbia, invaded by Austria at the outbreak of war.