Fragments of Autobiography
By Guy Chapman
Pen and Sword, 2019
Guy Chapman’s work has long been regarded as one of the classic memoirs of the First World War. Chapman joined the Royal Fusiliers and was sent overseas in 1915 as a junior officer, serving through until the armistice bar one period in hospital after being gassed in 1917. He felt unprepared by his training and the first part of the book details how he effectively learned ‘on the job’ once in the trenches. He highlights how inexperienced they were as officers and how quickly they had to adapt to trench life and learn how to live in the trenches and lead their men. I struggled a bit with Chapman’s writing style in the first part of the book, finding it a bit dry and stilted, but that is perhaps more reflective of his education and the style of prose employed.
However, Chapman’s work comes to life when describing some of his experiences in the lines. His descriptions of Third Ypres portray some of the confusion and hellish conditions that were experienced. I was struck by the rawness of his account. His time in the line may have hardened him to the death and destruction, as there is something matter of fact and detached about the way he describes the deaths he witnessed (“The shell had not hit him, but he was shattered and perforated by the concrete”).
Chapman does not disguise his naivety or his weak points and failures, and his account is at times self-deprecating and full of humorous observations.
Overall this is a long-overdue reprint and another ‘must-read’ for those seeking to understand the war through the eyes of those who lived it.
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