History in Review
Commitment and Sacrifice
Personal Diaries from the Great War.
By Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee.
(Oxford University Press, New York: 2015. Pg. 352. 13 Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-19-933607-4
Reviewed by Richard S. Rodgers - August 18, 2015
What was it like to fight in the trenches of France during World War One? Or what was it like to rush, day after day, into the face of withering fire on the fields of Gallipoli? Did German POWs feel relieved to be out of the war, or were they eager to escape and rejoin the fight? Why would anyone volunteer to drive an ambulance in a war zone? How did officers find the strength to order their men 'over the top' and all too often to certain death? How did soldiers relax and how did internees handle the monotony of camp life? These and many more questions are examined in Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War, one of the many books published to commemorate the centenary of the War to End all Wars.
In Commitment and Sacrifice, the book's authors, Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee, have given six long dead men the chance to speak to a new generation, in their own words, about their experiences during the First World War via their diary entries. The six diarists whose writings are included in this book are:
The book contains their war diaries, in English translation when required, along with annotations provided by the book's authors that help to put the events chronicles into context, explain terminology, and to clarify references to events that may be unfamiliar to modern readers. The authors, who are both university professors, have also provided an introduction to the book, as a whole, as well as an introduction to each diarist and the events surrounding their keeping of a diary.
- John French, a British sapper and a Cornish Tin Miner in his prewar life.
- Phillip T. Cate, an American ambulance driver who volunteered to serve on the Western Front.
- Willy Wolff, a German-Jewish business man who was interned in Britain as an enemy alien.
- James D. Hutchison, an ANZAC artilleryman who had tried to enlist as soon as war was declared. He was turned down because he was thought to be too young. He tried again, and was accepted as an orderly. Not content with this role, he managed to get an assignment as an artilleryman and went on to see service in Gallipoli, and later on the Western Front in France.
- Henri Desagneaux, a French infantry officer who served throughout the war and saw action in Verdun, on the Somme and at Chemin des Dames.
- Felix Kaufmann, a German machine-gunner who was captured and sent to a POW camp in France, where he remained until his release in 1920.
The diaries, and the annotations, make this a remarkable book, both as a general source of information on what life was like for both prisoners and combatants, but also how the men in question viewed the war and their role in it. Commitment and Sacrifice is an important book that will enthrall students, historians, and general readers alike and which will help all readers to better understand the First World War from the unique perspective of six very different men who lived through it. Commitment and Sacrifice is deserving of a place in both public and school libraries and it is ideal for use as a supplemental text in classes on the First World War.
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