In the Trenches: Those Who Were There

Rachel Bilton (Ed.)

Pen & Sword, 2016, £12.99, paperback, 195 pp, ills, short index, no refs, ISBN 978-1-47386-713-0

Book Review by Dennis Williams

In the Trenches: Those Who Were There (reviewed here) and Prisoners & Escape: Those Who Were There (reviewed above), form part of a proposed trilogy, feature collections of stories drawn from experiences of the First World War; written - as the publisher notes - when ‘ images were fresh in their minds’.

In the Trenches: Those Who Were There provides brief portraits of 12 of the 17 authors, but no information on sources, history of previous publication or details when the chapters were written. Together with the lack of a preface, contextualisation, or sourcing, the work depends entirely on the quality of the authorship across the continuum of literary merit. Some are anecdotal, perhaps the result of an interview, others read like essays or commentary.

The the opening chapter, A P G Vivian’s ‘General for a Day’, comes across as a ‘boy’s own’ yarn. 'A First Visit to the Trenches' by author/artist Wilfred Ewart runs to only five pages (leaving this reviewer wanting to know more about his experience). Others centre on time spent in the French Foreign Legion, or in tank warfare during 1918. Settings range across the Western Front and on to such theatres as Gallipoli, Salonika, and Kut. The 40 page centrepiece is by R H Mottram, author of the Spanish Farm trilogy. Titled ‘A Personal Record’, it reads in terms of its form and structure as more of an essay drawn from his wartime experiences in the army.

Although the stories are enjoyable, the book offers no new insights or fresh perspectives on events – merely an edited collection of tales and experiences, and the work is titled In the Trenches, much of the action takes place outside them and across the world.

Whilst enjoyable, as a break from more rigorous reading or research, the stories made no great demands, and provide tangible elements about the First World War experience. The paperback and a train journey made for fine companions. It was a pleasure to engage briefly with the writers in the moment.

Mottram describes why he felt he had a responsibility to write about his war experiences: “While I never did anything remarkable, or had any ambition for rank, I seem to have remembered more than most men.” That provides as good a raison d’être, not only for his fine essay, but all the stories here under one cover.