Peter Hart. Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 440 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-046493-6.
Reviewed by Julie Powell (Ohio State University)
Published on H-War (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Peter Hart’s Voices from the Front tells the story of the First World War from the perspective of the British soldiers who lived it. As the title suggests, Hart’s narrative relies substantially on oral histories, which he collected in the 1980s and 1990s on behalf of the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. The author’s stated aim is to create a “deeply personal” account that “reflect[s] the stories told personally to” him and to “bring individuals back to centre-stage” (pp. xi, x). The book, without doubt, was a labor of love. Voices from the Front begins in 1914 and ends in 1918, following the Armistice. The account focuses on the western front and proceeds chronologically with chapters dedicated to each year of combat. These sections are moreover interspersed with thematic chapters that examine, in order, war readiness, the peripheral eastern campaigns, naval warfare, and war in the air. Hart’s history is one of breadth, not depth.
Hart’s book is more expository than argumentative. There is no thesis to speak of and he does not engage directly with larger historiographical debates. Since the work was not guided by a central research question, there is not enough evidence mustered on behalf of any one aspect of the war for the oral interviews to be more than anecdotal. Though, to be sure, there are themes that resonate throughout the work; the inexperience of the troops, the futility of battle, and the absolute horror of combat on the western front loom large. In this sense, the book, which retreads the ground of such scholars as Eric J. Leed (No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I ) and Joanna Bourke (Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War ), provides readers with nothing analytically new. It does, however, give rich texture to well-worn narratives.
Reviews of Hart’s book on Amazon are glowing, as they should be. His account of the First World War is eminently readable and, for the historical novice, a perfect introduction to the conflict. The prolific author of military histories presents a well-balanced work that marries tactical histories of the war with an exploration of war experience that has been central to the cultural military historian’s task since the 1970s. Tactical and cultural military histories do not always come together so neatly—if they come together at all—and Hart, to his credit, carries it off admirably. The book, moreover, is methodologically sound. As he rightly suggests, oral history is most useful when it is employed to get at personal experience—to “give a sense of what it was like to be in an attack, rather than the fine details of what actually happened” (p. xiv). This is exactly how the author employs it.
While the book is geared toward a popular audience, it is not without value for the professional historian of the First World War. Hart’s interview excerpts are well suited for adoption into any lecture on the conflict and they are easily accessible as a result of the author’s thorough contextualization and the work’s chronological organization. Historians frequently talk of the war as a theater for new technologies and the colorful account of Second Lieutenant Montague Cleeve, of the 36th Siege Artillery Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery, gives a sense of what that meant practically. He tells of the difficult task of moving and camouflaging the new, monstrous howitzers and notes that the guns required cover in ten-foot deep holes masked with grass-threaded wire netting. “When [the guns] were there,” he recalls, “they were very well concealed, so much so that a French farmer with his cow walked straight into the net and both fell in. We had the most appalling job getting this beastly cow out” (p. 141). The account of Sergeant Alfred West of the 1/1st Monmouthshire Regiment brings to life the tediousness that characterized trench life between assaults. He remembers that bored soldiers would each pluck a louse from their lice-ridden kit, place it on a penny, and take bets on whose louse would be the first to surmount the edge of the coin: “And the excitement that that caused you would never have believed. I used to wonder what the hell the Germans used to think of us.... I’ve seen these lice going all round and round on these pennies for quarter of an hour or more before one just goes over. That was great fun!” (p. 204).
Voices from the Front also provides researchers with a tantalizing survey of the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive’s holdings. It seems there is something for everyone. Scholars of memory should be particularly intrigued but those who work on gender, technology, and environment will also have their interest piqued. One suspects, in fact, that a secondary aim of the book was to draw attention to the archive itself. As Hart points out in his preface, “previous authors have done little more than skim lightly over the surface of these treasures” (p. ix). Perhaps now this will change. It was once suggested to me that some books open doors to inquiry and other books close them. For historical novices and professionals alike, Hart’s book is an example of the former.
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Julie Powell. Review of Hart, Peter, Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War.
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