Saturday, 11 October 2014

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August - September 1914 by Barroux Review


Apparently the artist Barroux found this diary of an unknown French soldier from WW1 as he was walking past a house having a clear out - the diary was amid the junk headed for a landfill! He took it home, illustrated the diary and this is the book: Line of FIre: Diary of an Unknown Soldier. 

The diary covers the first two months of the conflict from France’s declaration of war to September 1914. The diary is sparse with only a line or two to describe the soldier’s day but, as Michael Morpurgo (author of War Horse) points out in his introduction, the soldier was no Sassoon or Owens, trying to make art from his experiences, he was simply describing his everyday lot. As a result we get a very clear-cut view of his day to day life. 

The first half of the book reads a bit like a description of the world’s worst package holiday. The soldier signs up, is transported near the front to fight the Prussians, but spends most of the time doing exercises, digging trenches, and looking for food and a decent place to spend the night. He occasionally mentions his family and that he receives bad news and then good news from them but we never know exactly what that means. 

Gradually he mentions scenes of bombed out towns, empty shells littering fields, impromptu graves, and the sounds and lights of explosions keeping him up at night, so we experience his progress getting closer to the front at the same pace that he does. 

There’s a very humanistic scene when he finally sees battle and discovers he’s been shot in the arm. He holds out a bandage pack out to a fellow soldier he doesn’t know, who’s also not a medic, who immediately sees to his arm, even with shells and mortars flying around them. And yet its told in a very matter of fact tone which makes it all the more touching. 

The diary ends abruptly in September 1914 with the soldier recovering from his wounds and feeling depressed that the German army has gotten so close to his home town. Did he die shortly after? Did he lose interest in keeping a diary? Did he see out the war and live happily ever after? We’ll never know. Barroux does mention that accompanying the diary was a notebook of songs that continues until May 1917 so, assuming it also belonged to the same soldier, perhaps the soldier made it that long. 

Barroux’s art is quite child-like - triangles for noses, a dot and a line for eyes, blanks for mouths - and the pencil and ink sepia tone adds a poignant sense of time to it. I’ve never seen Barroux’s art before so I don’t know if he’s intentionally keeping things as spare as the writing but the style perfectly suits the material. 

It’s 100 years ago this year that WW1 began and yet forgotten mementos from that war still pop up and its unknown ghosts continue to speak to us in voices as fresh and human as any you’d hear today. I wouldn’t say Line of Fire is an amazing first hand account of the war, mostly because of the brevity of the writing, but it is a good example of living history and it does remind us of the mundanity of war as much as its horrors. Line of Fire is a brief but insightful look into the day-to-day life of a WW1 soldier.

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August - September 1914

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