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War is War: By Ex-Private X by A.M. Burrage…

War is War: By Ex-Private X by A.M. Burrage (30-Apr-2010) Hardcover (edition 1702)

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Title:War is War: By Ex-Private X by A.M. Burrage (30-Apr-2010) Hardcover
Info:Pen & Sword Military; Reprint edition (30 April 2010) (1702)
Collections:Your library
Tags:memoir, wwi, trench warfare, british army, a m burrage

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War is War: By Ex-Private X by A.M. Burrage (30-Apr-2010) Hardcover

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WAR IS WAR is a fascinating look inside the trenches of WWI, written by a 28 year-old private, who was quite the exception in the enlisted ranks of the time. A.M. Burrage was a professional writer by trade, who served in the Artists Rifles but failed to earn a commission. So he ended up in the front lines with the rank and file men, and in fact was right in the thick of things in some of the fiercest battles of the war, including Passchendale, made famous by the war poets of the time, and, many years later, by Pat Barker's REGENERATION trilogy of novels.

In fact, Burrage continued to write his stories and submit them to the popular magazines of the day while he was literally in the front-line trenches. Throughout his narrative, even in the most trying of times, Burrage displays a wickedly wry sense of humor and a kind of early wisdom that shines through on nearly every page. He also refuses to resort to commonplace profanity or obscenity in his writings, although he acknowledges using it, knowing that any soldier who doesn't swear cannot be trusted. Remaining true to his literary bent, Burrage took Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES in his kit and read it through repeatedly. He also read Robert Browning's poetry, noting -

"Browning helped me to believe that memories of the old comfortable life were not merely the memories of dreams. There were still English homes, and beds, and garden chairs, green lawns and clusters of flowers, food which did not look as if it came out of a pig-trough, ripe-lipped dainty girls, people who did not qualify every noun with a filthy adjective. Some of us would win back to these delights. Surely they could not kill us all."

Burrage tells you at the outset what an inept and bad soldier he was, how cowardly and fearful he felt much of the time. Nevertheless he did his best, first as a reluctant rifleman, and later as a stretcher-bearer. He was hospitalized twice, the first time for "trench fever," a disabling flu-like ailment transmitted by lice - and everyone in the trenches was lice-ridden. The second and last time he was shot near the kidney, which turned out to be a minor wound, but at the same time he was crippled by trench foot, which turned out to be his "blighty," sending him back to England.

Ruthlessly frank in his description of war and the commonality of death, Burrage tells us, "When a man is killed, we rush to him to see if he's got any food in his haversack, or, that priceless possession, a safety-razor."

Or, about the realization of what his real job is, and the reality of war -

"... the job of the infantry isn't to kill. It is the artillery and the machine-gun corps who do the killing. We are merely there to be killed. We are the little flags which the General sticks on the war-map to show the position of the front-line … We find for ourselves the truth we have already been told - that there is no romance in the war. It is an inglorious hotchpotch of misery ad dreariness, varied occasionally by short spells of stark dreadfulness."

Years later, he is disdainful, if not angry, at the war 'experts,' who wrote about war from afar, even one of his favorite writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, gets trashed -

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his HISTORY OF THE WAR, dismissed us with the remark that we 'seemed to find some difficulty in getting forward.' The difficulty consisted mainly of being killed in heaps … he should have left the war to the soldiers. You cannot write about the war by merely reading the newspaper reports and looking at maps."

WAR IS WAR, which was written nearly a hundred years ago is, I think, as a first-hand account, one of the best of the memoirs of the Great War. I was often reminded of a WWI novel I read a few years back, Frederick Manning's HER PRIVATES WE, a caustic, ribald and disturbing account of the horrors of trench warfare. Hemingway praised it as one of the best of its kind. I'm so pleased that the English publisher, Pen & Sword Military Books, has brought Burrage's book back into print. Very highly recommended, especially for historians and war buffs.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA ( )
  TimBazzett | May 18, 2019 |
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