First World War letters home from a young Sapper officer in France & Salonika
Andrew Baines & Joanna Palmer (eds.)
Helion & Company, 2015
The recent discovery of a distant relation who served in Salonika had piqued my interest in learning more about the campaign which, although not ‘forgotten’ (a term often bandied about in the mainstream media about many aspects of the war), is certainly less well-known and studied than its ubiquitous big brother the western front. I was therefore very interested to read this book and learn some more about the campaign.
John Baines was well educated and entered the Royal Engineers before the war, training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. At the start of the war he was sent to France, serving there until he was shot through the hand in July 1915. After several months recuperating at home he returned to the western front, before being posted to Salonika towards the end of 1916.
The approach taken is an interesting one; the right hand pages of the book are given over to John Baines’ letters and diary entries, whilst the left have been used by the editors (his grandchildren) to provide a variety of contextual information. This includes relevant war diary entries, photos, maps, sketches, newspaper reports, and biographies of those mentioned in John’s writing.
Whilst this approach can be a little disconcerting at first and breaks up the ‘flow’ of a more conventional layout, in actual fact it adds a great deal to the story and provides a more-rounded account than one based solely on the personal accounts. One can simply read the letter and diary pages to follow the course of John’ war, and dip into the contextual information as and when desired.
The letters themselves are almost trivial in nature, yet taken together they help build up an intimate picture of Baines’s life during the war. Through it we learn about how he seemingly enjoyed being posted to Salonika at first, but as the fighting and disease continues this shows through in his writing. In addition after he is married, his future and his hopes and fears about his unborn child come through.
Although I did not learn a huge amount about the Salonika campaign from this book, I took away a sense of how different it was from the western front, and how this posed different challenges that the men had to contend with and adapt to.
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Dearest Mother: First World War Letters Home from a Young Sapper Officer in France and Salonika