Posted 15 March 2012 - 06:20 PM
As an enthusiastic but ignorant devotee of all matters relating to the Great War, I became aware that this book is part of the canon. It is often mentioned alongside the work of Graves, Sassoon, Richards, Carrington, Coppard and so on, as a "classic of Great War literature."
Having just finished it, I thought I would try to say why I think this book not only sits comfortably in such distinguished company, but even that it deserves a certain preeminence.
The author is clearly remarkably well-educated and extremely intelligent. His style seems slightly curious. There is a fair sprinkling of literary allusion which is, as far as I can tell, apposite. There are no cliches in Chapman's writing. Occasionally his English seems slightly archaic and his turn of phrase odd, but I think this is not affectation, it is the upshot of the rigour of his education and of his having practised law and as an historian. Judged merely as a piece of prose, this book possesses great merit. His style is addictive and whenever I put this book down, I couldn't wait to get back to it. He is very observant and is well able to distinguish fact from opinion, hearsay from what he actually saw and heard.
Consequently, he inspires great confidence in the reader that this account is reliable. The book is not impressionistic and the author does not play around with facts in order to heighten the narrative. There is a quality in the character of Guy Chapman, as it emerges in the book, that he shares with George Coppard - that everything he says can be implicitly believed.
The combination of an alert and critical eye, a strong sensibility and an idiosyncratic style, brought to bear on the astonishing raw material that was his experience of the War - all of these things combine to produce an effect that is uncanny. It is actually quite a disturbing book.
The biographical arc of the story is conventional. It starts with his enlistment and finishes when he enters Germany with the occupying forces in December 1918. Accounts of battles and life in and out of the line are vivid, heightened greatly by Chapman's ability to select the particular incident or conversation that epitomises an experience. He spends some time, under compulsion, as a junior on the divisional staff and loathes it, and is mightily relieved to return to the battalion. He is an unsentimental commentator and dislikes with equal vehemence shirkers and incompetents, of whom he seems to encounter a good many. His shock at the callousness he sees and hears is conveyed powerfully, the more so for being understated. This is not a simplistic tale of a man becoming disillusioned, embittered or cynical. Rather, his sense of himself is corroded: by the loss of his friends and comrades, and of his individuality as the industrial character of the War becomes apparent. He grows to loathe the England of the later war years, and feels that his only home is the battalion. This is all pretty conventional stuff. It is Chapman's forte that he is able to describe how the war erodes his humanity, as it were by attrition, so that at the end of the book he appears to have lost everything except his life. The battalion has been disbanded, most of the people he knew are dead. The War seems to have been an experience without meaning.
Chapman's relationship with his men (he was a platoon, then a company commander) seems to have been a mixture of love, respect and exasperation. He savours the more characterful officers and other ranks he knew with superb written sketches. He describes brilliantly how it feels to be on the march with the battalion and how the sense of being one of many men unified in step can lift one out of oneself and be exhilarating. He is clear-sighted though and knows that such moments are rare.
The Armistice finds Chapman almost indifferent. It seems that he had not expected to survive and was therefore caught out. His sense of sadness at the end of 1918 seems to have been intense, enhanced by the prosaic but pressing need to find an alternative future,
now that the War is over. In fact, he elects to stay in the Army of Occupation.
In summary, I rate this book very highly indeed.