REVIEW BY ANDREW MULHOLLAND
Britain’s ‘poor bloody infantry’ did most of her fighting and dying during World War II. For all the glamour of the SAS or the prestige of the Grenadier Guards, it was the humble county regiments who bore the brunt and held the line. My grandfather and maybe yours. How they did that, beyond the sweep of strategy and generalship, is the subject of this book. Through the personal recollections of those who fought, recorded on tape by Peter Hart and his colleagues at the Imperial War Museum, it assembles a portrait of one of these units: the 16th Durham Light Infantry (DLI). The DLI story – the boredom, horror, humour, and everything else that went with life at the front – resonates because of this authenticity.
Hart, with his background at the museum and his considerable skills as an author and editor, has established himself as a specialist in this form of history. He cut his teeth with a series of accounts from the Great War, while previous work has covered life in tank and artillery units in World War II (see MHM June/July 2021).
The DLI had a proud history extending back to the 18th century. More prosaically, the scramble for new units following the debacle of Dunkirk led to the formation of its 16th battalion during the summer of 1940. It was to see action in Tunisia, Italy, Greece, Palestine, and Austria before disbandment in 1946. This variety of experience was common in Britain’s over-stretched forces, and makes for an intriguing read.
The power of the book’s narrative lies in its vivid first-hand accounts. This applies as much to those lighter moments as it does to the shock of combat and violence. When you read it in the language of those who were actually there, it places you right there too – under shell-fire or digging latrines. Furthermore, because the book confines itself to a single unit, its personalities emerge, and the reader follows the lives of the individual soldiers from one episode to another. They develop, with real strengths and weaknesses, becoming very human. In this sense, the book is an exercise in experiential learning, more so than watching a film.
This is at its most obvious in the accounts of battle. A private describes smashing an enemy’s head during hand-to-hand combat – then, only minutes later, his shock, shame, and revulsion. A lieutenant recalls the moment he was shot through the neck. But the insights of these men cover every aspect of the military experience during this period. Recruitment, training, eating, travelling, sex, celebration, the sorrow, the tedium, the mental illness. The reader becomes a member of the battalion, for better and also for worse.
There is no attempt to gloss over or glamorise. From combat-refusal through the maltreatment of prisoners to tactical ineptitude, the negative side of this unit’s story is laid out for the reader as well as the good. The ambition is accuracy, to set down how these men felt about the important events of which they were part.
It is an emotional ride for sure, but it is replete with military detail that will be of interest to many. This is primary source material, ideal for those studying the period from a more technical or tactical standpoint. Exactly how was a British infantry night patrol organised during 1944? Numbers, weapons, planning, and execution are all meticulously described. As are the tactics of cooperating with tanks, or street fighting. Zooming out, the book provides insights into battle-planning and the campaigns themselves, all from the perspective of those who had to deliver the goods on the ground.
The author stitches this material together in an unobtrusive way, leaving us with content which is perhaps 90% direct quotation, but intervening in order to contextualise and carry the story forward. A series of haunting photographs and some useful maps complete the book. Hart’s own commentary is deftly done and extremely useful, given the deployment of this battalion right across the Mediterranean theatre. Following this story reveals much about British and Allied organisational decision-making as well. Thus the battalion is pulled out of the line after its North African baptism, in recognition of its greatly reduced combat-effectiveness. It is not simply about casualties and replacements. Slowly, it is reintroduced in a reserve and then a full line capacity.
Its role evolves in response to broader strategic demands. So we follow a fair amount of switching around, as it is loaned out to different brigades and, on one occasion, a different division. Most of its conventional Second World War infantry fighting takes place in Italy, against the Germans. This is the central section of the book, providing new insights into what will be nonetheless familiar ground to many. This is less true of the DLI’s other, late-war postings. These include quasi-policing operations in Greece and Palestine, with all their political and social complexities, presenting very new challenges to troops more accustomed to a straight-up fight with the Wehrmacht. Then there is Vienna, where they share garrison duties with the Russians, evoking the ambiguities and tensions of Graham Greene’s novel The Third Man.
These late-war deployments have a very modern feel. It’s almost as if they are foreshadowing a different, more ambiguous role for the British Army, which would later play out in places like Kenya and Northern Ireland. Reading of how such challenges were addressed in 1944-1946 is therefore intriguing for anyone interested in the army’s development. There is a lot here, then, beyond the human stories that propel the narrative.
Mostly aimed at those interested in Britain’s role during World War II, this is powerful stuff, with broader appeal for many military-history fans. For there are universal truths about front-line soldiering that are, of course, still relevant today.
Peter Hart Profile Books, £30 (hbk) ISBN 978-1800810709