Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee, Frans Coetzee. Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries of the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Illustrations. 352 pp. $36.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-933607-4.
Reviewed by Alex Nordlund (University of Georgia)
Published on H-War (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The diaries of soldiers who fought in the First World War remain a major avenue for understanding the everyday experience of war and soldiering. In many ways more unfiltered, less literary, and far more reactive to immediate events and circumstances surrounding the writers than letters home or postwar testimonies, diaries offer the imagery of war experience “as it happened” to the ongoing historical narrative placing soldiers as the ultimate “witnesses” to the horrors of war. Despite attempts by military authorities to discourage—if not outright ban—these sources, soldiers nonetheless persisted in cataloging their wartime experiences and general happenings in these pocket diaries, showing a complicated view of war mixed with not just horror and trauma but also, joy, fun, and even boredom.
In Commitment and Sacrifice, Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee have compiled a collection of diaries from men of varying armies, nationalities, and wartime circumstances during the First World War. Offering an overview of the ways that soldiers’ private writing have shaped the history of the conflict, the editors propose that these diaries collectively tell a story of the “education of young men” akin to a coming of age, the “acquisition of the requisite skills” for surviving their education (war), and the “endurance” of these men confronted with such an ordeal over time (pp. 6, 7, 9). Essentially, the primary objective the editors wish to convey using these diaries revolves around the ways men of various origins and circumstances survived the novel hardships, suffering, and trauma provoked by the First World War, making the experience analogous to an “education,” where soldiers, internees, and prisoners had to find ways to cope with or overcome hardships to survive.
In terms of the content of the diaries chosen and edited, Shevin-Coetzee and Coetzee do a remarkable job of ensuring a multifaceted approach to wartime diaries. Of particular interest are the diaries written by Willy Wolff, a German internee in Britain, and Felix Kaufmann, a German prisoner of war in France. The diary of American ambulance driver Philip Cate also provides a unique look into the internal motivations of neutrals volunteering for foreign service, and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldier James Hutchinson offers several allusions to the global dimensions of the war. To readers familiar with the history of the conflict, the other diaries will offer further insight into the individual experiences of soldiers on the western front—sadly, with the exception of Hutchinson at Gallipoli, Salonika, the Middle East, and other fronts do not feature here. Diaries from civilians on the home front beyond the internee experience of Wolff would have added further diversity to this collection, but they do not necessarily fit into the more “direct” experience with the hardships of war sought by the editors.
While all of these diary excerpts provide vivid, private accounts of war from the perspective of “the man who was there,” it nonetheless remains debatable whether these diaries are representative of the “average” soldier’s experience and written reflections. Despite Shevin-Coetzee and Coetzee insisting that diaries were not “censored,” were discouraged by authorities, and are a richer source than letters and other records, diaries themselves are often fraught with self-censorship, which is even found in one of the diaries within this collection. Additionally, there is often avoidance and, more generally, a lack of detail and internalization commonly observed in diaries, as not every man could find poetic inspiration from war like Hutchinson. Indeed, in many diaries beyond these samples, daily entries often appear as little more than weather reports. While the sheer amount of self-reflection and description in these diaries beyond these “weather reports” is fascinating, they are surely not representative of the wider whole. In their overview of common features within these sources, the editors do stress the ongoing importance of other written media to the long-term emotional survival of these soldier-diarists, notably, letters and parcels from home.
These methodological critiques aside, Commitment and Sacrifice offers casual readers, instructors, and students a diverse range of exceptional—and readable—wartime diaries, all of which would be valuable introductions to the First World War. Of further value are the “internet resources” offered in the later pages of the work, which would be of use to both instructors and students interested in expanding their knowledge of the conflict. After all, it would prove rather difficult to introduce students to less literary diaries than these and get them to buy into their importance. These critical observations aside, Shevin-Coetzee and Coetzee exhibit an impressive knowledge of the historiography and literature of the conflict to provide a foundation for reading these diaries and understanding how they convey the “experience” side of the conflict, especially for frontline soldiers, internees, and prisoners of war.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Alex Nordlund. Review of Shevin-Coetzee, Marilyn; Coetzee, Frans, Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries of the Great War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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