This is a really tremendous piece of literature. It is also a first-hand account of history as well as a tremendous look at war from an insider’s view.
The Honorable Ralph G.A. Hamilton was an artillery officer who served on the Western Front 1915 to 1918. Hamilton kept a meticulous diary sometimes chronicling the daily chores of the soldiers in his command, sometimes detailing the fighting and shelling between his troupes and the ‘Hun’ and sometimes we get insight into the inner workings of the chain of command.
Hamilton doesn’t hold back, neither on his lack of patience for incompetence, nor the graphic descriptions of grisly realities of war. On occasion he manages to make me smile – though not often, given the circumstances.
17th January (Sunday)
I had a horrid job this morning. I took the squadron to have a bath in the brewery. This is a dreadful ceremony, and much resented by most of the men. Huge tubs in which beer is made during the week are filled with hot water and used as baths. Never will I drink beer in France again.
Although it’s been a hundred years, I may also think twice about ordering a beer in France!
Hamilton’s awe at the vagaries of war are scattered throughout the book (“To-day I have seen a wonderful but terrible sight. A real aeroplane battle in the blue sky, just above my head.”)
One thing we learn through Hamilton’s diary is that the politics of war have changed much in the last century. The men on the line often see things more clearly than the commanders at the back:
General Philpotts came round to-day. Apparently this place has some fascination for generals; they can’t keep away from it! He discovered what I have known all along– that we are not under cover from the ridge, so far as our flashes are concerned.
Blame is always carefully passed on down the “chain of responsibility” and sometimes praise is also.
One thing seems quite clear, and that is that the gas experts do not know what gas the Germans are using.
About this point we met the new divisional commander and the C.R.A., both raging at having been kept waiting over an hour. However, I produced my orders, and it was all right. It seems that they forgot to send out an order last night saying that we should be inspected at a different place. … It was a great pity that the inspection did not take place at the beginning of the march, as a couple of hours on the chalky road had not made anything look any cleaner. The generals were very pleased with the whole turn-out, as well they might be, after all the trouble taken.
Sometimes Hamilton manages to write about the wounded with a detached observance and sometimes he gets passionate about what happens. And sometimes, as is the case with his ordering a round of artillery on a downed Ally plane, a little bit of both:
The infantry have ‘phoned to say that after our salvos last night fearful screams and cries were heard, so we must have killed some at least.
I managed to cut my thumb down to the bone in opening a can of bully beef. Fortunately Caddick is a doctor, and he was able to tie me up at once.
I afterwards found that a 5.9 had landed in one of my ammunition pits and blown up 400-odd rounds of high-explosive shells. Something hit me an awful whack on the side of my steel helmet, and the blast of the explosion blew me down the stairs and right into the tunnel. The remaining events of the day are more or less a confused blur to me, as I was knocked quite silly by the concussion. As soon as the 5.9’s had wrecked the place they put in some gas-shells, which got into the slit and made the men working there unconscious. I have a confused recollection of pulling a man out of the slit by his heels who had dropped down unconscious from the fumes, and I gather that soon afterwards I collapsed myself. I eventually found myself on my bed in the tunnel, with various people, including the doctor, giving me brandy. I had a violent pain in my head and felt ghastly ill. They got all the men out in just over three hours, and, strange to say, all were alive. Gunner Alexander, my clerk, is badly wounded in the head, shoulder, and arm, and about eight or nine more are suffering from the gas or shell shock. I have recommended Sergeant Meecham for immediate reward, as he appears to have behaved in a most gallant manner; had it not been for him, the men would have died.
My wound is rather troublesome, the glands under the arm are swelling and the wound itself is inflamed, but it does not worry me so much as the inoculation I had against tetanus. I am so stiff all over my chest that I can hardly move.
The Hun shot down one of our planes, which fell in the German lines. Our observers reported that there were at least a hundred Huns crowded round it, examining it. Fortunately, two of my batteries could reach the plane, so I gave a zero- time, synchronised watches and ordered ten rounds of gun-fire, i.e. the most rapid rate of fire possible. The observers reported that the shells burst right on the crowd, which fled in all directions. With any luck we must have got a good bag. I am always sorry for our airmen on these occasions, but we have strict orders to bombard any of our planes that we can reach if they fall in the Boche lines. If the airman is not wounded, he probably has time to get away before we begin.
And though the diary manages to be generally very even-keeled, Hamilton does share some disgust from time to time: “After a tiring march of ten miles over vile Belgian roads…” and “I hate the district with a hate beyond words.”
I was surprised by his account of an incident in his battery: ”
I found a very regrettable incident has happened in my battery. “A telephonist on duty was caught asleep. I shall have to try him by court martial, and it is more than likely he will be shot.”
But it is his accounts of the actual war … the combat of the moment … that is perhaps the most powerful
ZILLEBEKE, 7TH JUNE, 1917
At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust. (6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours.
(Midnight.) It is really getting intolerable, more and more German batteries are concentrating on this bit of country, and shells are arriving at from ten to twenty a minute. The dug-out is rocking with the concussion, and the place is full of fumes and earth that has been blown through the door and window. The corner of my mess had been hit and the trench outside in several places. The servants’ shelter has been blown in and they were buried. We have no protection except a row of sandbags that might just keep out shrapnel. It is only a matter of time before we are hit.
Hamilton wasn’t writing fiction, but the diary reads with a crescendo of action and a cast of characters that would make most fiction writers envious. This is a long book and has been reprinted quite a bit, but it is well worth reading.
I have often felt that books and movies of war often come across as glorifying war – not intentionally, perhaps, but at least in terms of fictional telling, there is always the need for someone to rise up and overcome obstacles. But this diary neither glorifies nor condemns the actions. It is presented as plainly and clearly as I’ve ever seen, which makes it all the more fascinating.
Looking for a good book? The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven, the Hon Ralph G.A. Hamilton, is a remarkable read and is perfect for fans of non-fiction, history, or military history reading.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven 1914-1918
author: Hon Ralph G. A. Hamilton
publisher: Albion Press
Kindle Edition, 538 pages