Six Weeks: the short and gallant life of the British officer in the First World War

The stiff upper-lip spirit of the public schools that provided the bulk of the subalterns who died in such droves in the Great War’s trenches is much mocked today. But Jonathan Lewis-Stempel’s superb study of them and their antique attitudes has othing but awed admiration for their heroic stoicism.

Culled from letters home, diaries, poems, and anecdotes, and woven together with great narrative skill, they present an incomparable portrait of a generation that laid their lives on the line for those derided and outmoded concepts: Home, Empire, King, and Country.

Noting that almost all the best memoirs of the trenches were written, not by generals, nor by private soldiers (with one or two notable exceptions) but by the junior officers, and noting further that those same subalterns suffered much higher casualty-rates than the men they led, Lewis-Stempel selects the cream of those writings. The result is the most moving single book on the Great War that I have ever read – and I have read many.

Lewis-Stempel takes us through all the stages of a subaltern’s life: from joining up, through basic training, and then the cross-Channel draft to France – which usually took seven hours and involved cattle-truck overcrowding and copious vomiting. So dire was this experience that reaching the trenches was something of a relief. The relief did not last long. Even in ‘quiet’ sectors between battles, there was a constant daily toll of death from snipers, random shellfire, or absurd accidents.

Colourful characters like the aristocratic poet and sportsman Julian Grenfell revelled in conditions which made more sensitive souls cringe: ‘I adore war,’ he wrote home. ‘It is like a big picnic, but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy.’

Lewis-Stempel makes the point that the War was the last hurrah of the British aristocracy, who were wiped out in numbers not seen since the fratricidal Wars of the Roses.

Review by Nigel Jones

Jonathan Lewis-Stempel

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.00

ISBN 978-0297860068

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