By Charles Barrington
My motivation was the fact that my grandfather was involved in this seismic period of history, but I knew nothing about his actual role and experiences when I knew him as a child.
I started with a single sheet of foolscap from the Army Records Office in Glasgow, from which I was able to trace his career back in time, and forward into the period after the war until he retired. I used the records in the Royal Artillery Museum Library (Firepower), now sadly closed to the public, and they led me to his unit war diaries in the National Archives, where I found his war diary for the entire period from July 1915 up to the Armistice.
I had never really understood the different phases of the First World War, and the book has taught me a huge amount about the BEF campaign in 1914, the stalemate before and after the Somme, the huge German assault in March 1918 (Operation Michael), and the pursuit to the Armistice line later that year.
The book seeks to understand why we find it so hard to comprehend the First World War, given the enormous changes in society since then. It also challenges the common view that the war was ‘futile’, and looks more deeply at the effect it had on those who survived, rather than the usual point of view, which is only to consider those who did not.
One of the key features is the use of unique family photographs from before and after the war. They bring the story to life.
Perhaps the chapter on the way society was changing before the war offers a new insight into the frame of mind of those who went to fight. It was not the glorious sun-drenched summer we all remember from the newsreels – there were real changes afoot, the implications of which did not become clear until well after the war had ended.
The newspaper article describing the wedding of my grandparents in 1913 is a brilliant illustration of the fashions of the time – a prize insight for students of design.
I now plan to research the lives of Allenby and Smith-Dorrien, both of whom deserve updated biographies. I am also writing a book of children’s stories!
I want the book to be read by non-historians (especially children) to show that ‘history’ is all about people and the role they play in the wider world.
I have never been a soldier, but both my grandfathers, my father, and my godfather all served in the two world wars. The book is partly to help me understand their world and what they lived through: unimaginable to us in the sheltered and politically correct world we now live in.
What Did You Do in the Great War, Grandfather? is now available on our website here.