Ten years ago I was detailed to go for the Independent on a visit to Flanders organised by the historian Lyn Macdonald to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Armistice. I spent three days with Macdonald and a dozen veterans of the Great War, based in the drab little town of Béthune (much favoured in 1915 for the friendliness of the local women) and making excursions into the battlefields of Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge, where, in 1915, the British Expeditionary Force proved to its French allies that it meant business by mounting its first major offensives. These had results that became familiar: initial gains, subsequent reverses, high casualties, stalemate.
Standing with the yellowish mud of Aubers Ridge curling over my shoes, I talked to a veteran who described how he had stood there – just there, where I was standing – when his best friend had been blown to pieces beside him, ‘each bit the size of a leg of mutton’. He buried his friend in a sandbag and stuck a wooden cross in the ground. He presumed that the grave was never found and that his friend, like so many others, was lost. That afternoon, in a moment of rare sunlight, we were standing in one of the eerily beautiful war cemeteries when my veteran companion gave a sudden start: he was face to face with his friend’s grave. At some stage since 1915 he had been found and reburied beneath a proper white headstone. ‘Oh, I say,’ gasped the elderly survivor, when eventually he could speak. ‘Oh, I say.’
Lyn Macdonald had organised the reunion. Over the next few days, guided by her intimate knowledge and inspired by the companionship of my new friends, I felt that terrible, distant event emerge from where I had mentally filed it under ‘history’ and take on a living, breathing shape. These people were not ‘historical’; I could feel the warm pulse of one old man’s hand as he clasped my arm: their lives and those of my own family were intimately connected with what had taken place here. Such men saw what no one had looked on before: the mechanised slaughter of tens of thousands of human beings. One of Lyn Macdonald’s achievements, over seven books and twenty years, has been to give a voice to those whose memory of these events is on the point of disappearing. It is for this aspect of her work that she will always be remembered and admired.
However, there is more to Macdonald than a tape recorder and a stout pair of shoes. She is a considerable scholar of the war, enormously learned about cap badges, units, movements, ranks and so forth, as well as having an easy grasp of the large historical and political picture which comes to historians through daily familiarity.
Eye-witness accounts in her books are always linked with a detailed narrative of her own, which is easy to read, dependable and imbued with sympathy for the soldiers. Some people may find that in her prose America is once too often ‘Uncle Sam’ and will wish that New Zealanders were not so invariably ‘Kiwis’, though this chumminess is not a high price to pay for her expertise. Hers is not academic history in that it does not set out to reinterpret events: its purpose is to deepen rather than to change our understanding of them. It is popular history, but it can laugh off academic sneers because it is both better written and more reliable than most books of greater theoretical pretension. This does not mean that we don’t need continual reinterpretation; it just means that we need Lyn Macdonald, too.
To the Last Man, which deals with the early months of 1918, could be subtitled ‘the darkness before dawn’. Movement had at last come to the stagnant Western Front, but it was the Germans who were doing the advancing. The BEF was no longer made up of the keen young officers and volunteers of the early days, but largely of conscripts and survivors – men who were if not disillusioned, then at least unillusioned, as you and I would have been in the wake of Passchendaele a few months earlier.
Yet what comes through clearly, and perhaps surprisingly, from the stories Macdonald has gathered is the continuing sense of purpose of those who were fighting. They frequently complain of their conditions, of damp, fatigue and cold, but they seldom see themselves as dupes or victims of some lunatic conspiracy on the part of their social or military superiors. They like one another, on the whole; they still have a sense of fellowship, of purpose and, most notably, of humour.
There are many colonial, French and American witnesses, as well as a greatly increased quota of Germans. One feels, nevertheless, that it is with British troops that Macdonald has a particular sympathy, and we leave them after a disastrous few months as they regroup around Amiens. The Spring Offensive has been held; now they must wait for the effects of the tanks and the Americans.
I hope and trust that there will be another volume in Macdonald’s indispensable series. Hers is a formidable achievement. I would like to be a humble foot soldier in the great battalion of those who salute her.