Review: The Irish Guards in the Great War (Kipling)


The Irish Guards in the Great War, Volume I: The First Battalion.

If you get around to reading only one unit diary from the First World War, let it be this one.

It’s Rudyard Kipling, you say, so how can you go wrong? True, although the work is not without its warts. He uses stage-Irish dialect, which is anathema to me, although it was a common writing technique at the time (and even some modern Irish authors have been known to indulge in that sort of paddywhackery). And the coolness with which he mentions killings of Germans feels uncomfortably as if he might have believed that the only good Hun was a dead one; but he did lose his son in the war (and never had a grave to grieve over), and again, we can’t justify taking the work out of the context of its time.

The great man makes his magic with details from post-war on-site observations, remarks from interviewees, and excerpts from letters, all of which grow together seamlessly to flesh out the bare bones of a military unit’s diary. I’m a veteran, and I have experience with that kind of record-keeping, so I can attest that it would take some talent to bring a logbook to life the way Kipling does.

There are times when he has his tongue so deeply lodged in his cheek, it’s a wonder that he didn’t bite it off. But the folks who subscribe to the theory of the successful-intentional-war-of-attrition-strategy* may have some difficulty justifying the incompetent generalship that is exposed by the testimony of facts and figures detailed in the diary that documented every yard of defeat and put a name to every death: a grim tally that was continually repeated for years throughout the British Army across the Western Front.

Both volumes of this work are available free online, presumably transcribed from an ancient original. My copy is a reprint, probably transferred from digital to paper with minimal editorial attention, which would explain the punctuation errors and formatting glitches that occasionally mar the text.

I have trouble reading books on screens, so I’ll refer to my paperback and use the ‘find’ function in the digital documents, to copy and paste from this book into my research notes. I generally don’t have trouble with marking most texts that I acquire for research, but despite this one’s flaws, Kipling’s rendition reads so beautifully that I just don’t feel like interrupting the experience with marginalia.

My interpretation of this claim is that it was simply face-saving spin, like Montgomery’s “90 percent successful” Operation Market-Garden, in 1944.

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Filed under Book Reviews, First World War, Great War, History, Uncategorized, World War I

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