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Posted on Jul 21, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The War Diaries – Book Review

By Richard N Story

wardiaries.jpgBook Review: The War Diaries: An Anthology of Daily Wartime Diary Entries Throughout History
Alan and Irene Taylor, hardback, 2005

On February 12th a man recorded in his diary: . . . We see the American Disney film Snow White, a magnificent artistic achievement. A fairy tale for grownups, thought out into the last detail made with a great love of humanity and nature. An artistic delight! This represents just one entry for February 12th in The War Diaries edited by Irene & Alan Taylor and published by Canongate Books.

The book is fairly straight forward being divided into chapters which correspond to the months and then each chapter is further subdivided for each day of the month. Each daily entry is placed into chronological order with the earliest year followed by the entries from later on in history. The editors take care and try to select interesting accounts from all walks of life during the various wars. The book is extensively researched and documented. However one flaw that I saw was that a few people seemed to get more page time than others. Virginia Woolf feels like she gets a ton of page time as does Lady Cynthia Asquith while others such as Sir Arthur Fremantle only feature for the first three days of July for his coverage of the Battle of Gettysburg. It can be granted that those were the most historically significant days of the Fremantle diary, but surely more could have been found? And while most of the entries are interesting; the book is not consistently interesting nor can it be read from end to end.

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Despite these flaws there are good things about the book which includes some nice touches as an inclusion of a primer to the wars covered and mini-biographies of those chronicled in the book. Ultimately the book is more a social look at war rather than a military look. This is brought out immediately by the editor’s introduction: War blights everything it touches, laying waste to whatever fall into its path. It is pervasive in its destructiveness, indiscriminate in its cruelty, random in its brutality. When a country goes to war every one of its citizens is enlisted, whether they take part in the fighting or not. It is always there, insidious, polluting, inextinguishable, degrading. While nobody can argue the thrust of this argument, but by using that as the sole focus can blind an editor into selecting only those entries that match the self imposed criteria. There are many good diaries for the men and women on the sharp end of the spear but there inclusion was often missed for an entry from a socialite or political activist. To be far to the editors it is not known what permissions to excerpt were denied the editors. To me the inclusion of excerpts from Elijah Hunt Rhodes or other soldiers would help balance the predominantly ‘Home Front’ view of war. Perhaps the best use of the book would be as a daily reading through the year of the price of war on everyday life. With a list price of $32.50 it is hard to recommend the book to military historians, but would represent good value to social historians or anybody wanting to look behind the screen at life during times of war. And the author of the quote used at the beginning of the review? It was none other than Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.

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