The First World War was a traumatic experience for all involved. It was a time of devastation which still haunts the world today, nearly a hundred years on from its end. Nearly one million British Army Soldiers were ‘killed in action’ (The Long, Long Trail) and over two million were ‘wounded in action’. Walter was one of the latter, he was wounded in the war, and like ‘64%’ of wounded soldiers he ‘returned to duty’.
Many people who survived the war were left with permanent scarring, often though the scarring could not be seen. This is because many people suffered from shell shock, ‘a force which killed without injuring…[that] seemed to unseat the mind itself, and to deprive a man of all his faculties which yet not a scratch could be detected upon his skin’ (Bonikowski, 17). This meant that many people just could not talk about the war and their experiences as they were too traumatic. Alongside this, many soldiers struggled to talk about their experiences because few people could relate to what they had been through. Soldiers lost friends and family in the war, therefore a lot of the time when they went home they were surrounded by those who had always remained on home soil. Thus, they were surrounded by people who would never understand their experiences.
Unlike R.W.Morris’ (b.1895) memoirs, Walter’s recollections of the war are extensive. More than half of his 100 page memoir is dedicated to his experiences at this time. We do not know for sure whether Walter openly discussed the war or not. However, this attention to detail in Walter’s memoirs could be explained by the idea of the soldiers not being able to talk about their experiences to those around them, in the years following the war. Through Walter’s listing of his ancestry at the beginning of his memoirs, we already have the idea that he could have been writing his memoirs to inform future generations about life in the early 20th century (see purpose & audience post for more on this). Therefore, if Walter had not openly discussed the war, he could have seen his memoirs as his last opportunity to express all that he had experienced during the terrible time, in his own words.
The Great War has been discussed in many forms of literature, from poetry to plays to novels. However, Beecham claims that ‘there never was a unitary British narrative of the First World War’. Therefore, from Wilfred Owen to R.C Sherriff, writers have had different opinions and emotions regarding the events of the First World War. When looking at Walter’s memoir though, when he talks about the war, we see that Walter remains factual and he does not digress with emotions. Even when he describes a time where he is injured, he says ‘there seemed to be a lot of blood, I thought the jugular vein must be severed, if so I knew I had only minutes to live’ (60). As readers, we are therefore not given insight about how Walter felt at the time, or how he feels years later looking back on his experiences. Thus, when reading Walter’s memoirs, we do not get the sense that he is divulging in an act of catharsis but is a composed man telling his experiences.
What I found interesting about Walter’s memoirs is that the section regarding the war is told through a combination of his own memory and through diary entries that he wrote during WW1. Throughout this section, Walter quotes and unquotes his ‘Somme’ and his ‘Ypres’ diary. Interrupting himself only when a section of his diary sparks a memory, causing Walter to expand on his entries. This I found was extremely effective in the telling of Walter’s story. This is because ‘an autobiographer…is liable to forget, misremember, remember selectively, embellish, invent, and rearrange events in the interest of creating an engaging story’ (Rose, 52). Therefore, by including his diaries, the reader is given an account of the war that could be viewed as being far more accurate than those simply remembering their experiences. This is because the diaries were written at the time of the event, therefore the reader could expect them to be a more accurate representation of the historic event.
In his memoirs, Walter divulges his reasons for signing up to the war, and surprisingly it is not patriotism that led him to make the decision. David Silbey claims that ‘the war itself apparently offered little reason to volunteer’ because ‘Britain was never directly threatened’ therefore patriotism was not always at the forefront of every volunteers mind. This can be seen through Walter’s justification for signing up to the war. Walter signed up in October 1914, when he decided that he was ‘a bit ‘fed up’ with cleaning bikes and pushing prams’ (41) at the ‘Marchants’ cycle shop. Thus, Walter’s memoir demonstrates the idea that sometimes people volunteered in the war for more personal reasons than protecting their country. In Walter’s case, he simply wanted a change in his work life. When he signed up Walter explains how he was asked whether he wanted to ‘be a driver or a sapper (41)’. Walter remembers that his reply was ‘if drivers have to ride horses I shall be a Sapper as I have never ridden a horse or know anything about them’ (41). Thus, Walter became a Sapper and his registered trade was ‘motor and cycle mechanic’ (41). This was due to his experience at the ‘Marchants’, and luckily for Walter this experience gave him the potential to earn more money.
This one day in October was to go on to determine the next four years…or you could say the rest, of Walter’s life. Walter experienced many ups and down during his time in the war, and details many of them effectively in his memoir. In War and Memory (2) I discuss more of Walter’s personal experiences of The Great War…
Bonikowski, Wyatt. (2013) Shell Shock and the modernist imagination: The Death drive in post-world war 1 British fiction. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing
Beecham, RG 2015, ‘Fiction and Memoir of Britain’s Great War: Disillusioned or Disparate?’, European Review of History, 22, 5, pp. 791-813, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 25 January 2017
Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520
Rose, Jonathon. ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’ (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)
Silbey, David. 2015. The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914 – 1916. London: Routledge
The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in The Great War of 1914- 1918. N.d. Web: http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm Accessed 29 March 2017.
Walter J.E Elliott in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:227
Image 1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/gallery_tactics_03.shtml
Image 2: https://gallipolicampaign.wikispaces.com/Introduction+to+soldiers+experiences