Charles Abel Smith has ably edited his great-grandfather Wilfrid Abel Smith’s diaries and letters from the Western Front, which begin in September 1914, when he took command of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, and end in May 1915, when he died of wounds he suffered at the Battle of Festubert. Like all memoirs of the trenches, it leaves one with a sense of baffled wonder. How did men endure it for so long?
Colonel Abel Smith’s command coincided with what Churchill described as ‘The First Shock’ – the months from August to December 1914, when the Allied and German armies collided, groped unsuccessfully for a flank to turn and reached stalemate in a line of trenches stretching from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier.
Like all the contending participants, the Grenadiers ran slap into the stark realities of industrialised warfare. It is a commonplace now, but it was little appreciated at the time, that rapid reinforcement, plus the massive firepower of small arms and artillery, made a decisive victory beyond the reach