Last week’s TV programme I Was There , featuring snippets from interviews made fifty years ago for the BBC Great War series, was gripping viewing (despite the bombastic music and the editorialising inter-titles). Even better is the internet resource which presents fourteen of the interviews in their entirety.
In the past I have written here and elsewhere less than flatteringly about Henry Williamson; I can see the point of J. B. Priestley’s description of one of his books as ‘a great oozing slab of self-pity, bearing the wet trade-mark of Henry Williamson’.
In his interview, though, he’s at his best, explaining very vividly what it was like to be a soldier during the first months of the war, and gradually realising the scope of the damage inflicted on men at Mons and elsewhere. He describes the Christmas truce, the event that had such a powerful effect on his imagination that later he was deeply sympathetic to all Germans – including Hitler. for a taster of his interview, look at this clip, where he talks about caring for the horses in wartime.
Even better is the interview with Charles Carrington, author of two of the best volumes of war memoirs – A Subaltern’s War (1929, under the pseudonym Charles Edmonds) and Soldier from the Wars Returning (1965).
Carrington speaks about the first year of the war, when he was in ‘cushy’ trenches as being like a camping trip with the boys, though with an extra spice of danger. As time went on, though, war was no longer an exciting break from real life, but became life itself:
At any rate from 1917 onwards, there was something unreal about leave. I got myself into a state of mind where it was the trenches that were the real world, and London, and my family that was unreal, that I couldn’t understand or accustom myself to…’
Carrington is one of the most thoughtful of ex-soldiers, and his whole interview is well worth listening to.
So far the only interviews out of the fourteen that I’ve watched are these two, with the writers. Judging by the snippets offered in the programme, several of the others will also be deeply interesting. The BBC site says that they will all be available on the iPlayer system for another year.