Wednesday, 11 November 2009

FACTUAL REVIEW: Sapper Martin - Richard Van Emden, Albert John Martin


Albert John ('Jack') Martin was a thirty-two-year-old clerk at the Admiralty when he was called up to serve in the army in September 1916. These diaries, written in secret, hidden from his colleagues and only discovered by his family after his return home, present the Great War with heartbreaking clarity, written in a voice as compelling and distinctive as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon and all the more extraordinary given that it is not an officer's but that of a private. From his arrival in France and his participation in the Somme, through offensives at Ypres and eventual demobilisation after the Armistice, we see wartime life as it really was for the ordinary Tommy. In these journals, introduced and edited by bestselling First World War historian Richard van Emden, we witness the cheerful Albert Martin getting to grips with life in the trenches and, together with his comrades in the Royal Engineers, confronting the ever-present threat of injury and death. We also see the mundane reality of life at the front line - the arguments with superiors, the joy brought by the arrival of packages from loved ones at home and the appalling conditions in which that attritional war was fought.


During the first world war the sapper came into their own in this often missed and short life expectancy job on the front line. Here we get the view of the common man, who tells the tale of life in the trenches, the monotony, the repetition and existence in some of the worst trenches that the troops had to face. From the Somme to Ypres this vivid account is the type of history that I want to read. I don’t like the generalisation of the war from the Generals or a Historians, I want it from the front line, from those who viewed the full horror and lived to tell the cost of not only friends and family but also of the moral boosts from home with their simple gifts alongside their letters. A true tale of courage, honour and above all bravery of the common man in the adversity of warfare. Van Emden has done a stirling job of condensing the war diaries of Albert and yet retained the voice of the common man.

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