Nick's Reviews > Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin

Sapper Martin by Richard Van Emden
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Sep 23, 11

Read from September 14 to 22, 2011

It is rare to find a memoir by a Sapper (Royal Engineer) from the First World War. The only other book I have seen is called "My Sapper Venture" by an officer in a different division from Sapper Martin.

The Royal Engineers had a very different view of the war from the infantryman. Sapper Martin was a signalman in the 122nd Infantry Brigade HQ, of the 41st Division. The 41st Division had a reputation as one of the aggressive Divisions of the British Army. Sapper Martin noted another soldier referred to the 41st Division as being "the blood and lust division".

The book is very well written and minimally edited. It is based on the 11 volumes of diaries that Sapper Martin wrote during the war, and then re-wrote (re-transcribed?) after the war. They were discovered after his death. Sapper Martin comes over as a thoughtful, mature character. He was in his early 30's. He makes some disparaging comments about "newly pipped" officers, some neat character sketches of his comrades, and occasional purple passages about the war, the "stay-at-homes" and army bureaucracy. He is always, like all soldiers concerned about his billets, his lack of blankets, his grub, parcels from home and the weather. And sometimes the enemy.

At times he did comment on the stupidity of the war, but I would allege that he did not believe the war was futile. This sort of modernist view of World War 1 cannot easily be projected backwards onto its participants. I remember his comments at perhaps the most grim time of the war for the British Army during the retreat in March 1918. He and his signallers are formed up and marched out to form a line of rifleman as a last line of ad-hoc defence. There is no complaint about this and he records that one of his comrades says something to the effect - "this is where we are staying, and we are not retreating". He also records there were another 14 lines like that in the area - of men despite the pain, the uncomfortable nature of war, despite missing home, despite the poor rations, poor billets, bullying officers, these men were prepared to dig-in and fight. Brave lads. Their fight was not futile to them.

There is a lot of detail in the book about the running of a signal office, the problems of maintaining communications between the Infantry Battalions in an advance and the Brigade and then back to the Divisions.

An excellent read. Hopefully both for the WW1 buff and the general reader.
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