The Decisive Year in Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs
By Richard van Emden
Pen & Sword, 2018
As Richard van Emden acknowledges, the actions of 1918 have seemingly been ‘lost’ in public awareness, as if the Somme and Passchendaele define the First World War and nothing came before or after. Yet some of the highest casualties were experienced in 1918, during the German Spring Offensive and the last push of the 100 days to victory.
This final year of the war provides the background to van Emden’s latest tome, the last in his series of ‘Soldiers’ own words and photographs’ following similar works covering 1916 and 1917.
Whilst this a traditional book in the sense that there is text (and very good it is too!), it is the pictures that really define it. The majority have not previously been published and for this alone make this volume a must-have. The photographs are evocative, sometimes showing the mundane, sometimes taken in the midst of shelling or shortly after an action. One extremely powerful German image shows two dead British soldiers in a trench; one still has blood dripping from his forehead, his rifle discarded beside him with bayonet attached. In this respect the book does not shy away from showing the grim reality of war and the casualties that were still being incurred by both sides right up until the Armistice was declared.
To accompany the photos van Emden has curated a selection of relevant recollections, snippets of information that together provide us with an idea of what living through the last year of the war was like – and I stress year, for in the seven chapters van Emden focuses on the whole year, not just the main events between March and November. For the book does not end with the Armistice but also covers demobilisation and occupation; a particular favourite picture of mine shows a group of relaxed British officers looking slightly the worse for wear whilst stationed in Cologne!
With 1918 van Emden has crafted another compelling account of the war; a soldiers’ account, rather than a comprehensive overview of the campaigns and battles of 1918, but one of the best titles on the final year of the war to have been published in the twilight of the centenary period.
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1918: The Decisive Year in Soldiers own Words and Photographs (National Archives)