SUBSIM Book Review: Private Beatson’s War

Private Beatson's War has an extensive introduction that summarizes events leading up to WWI

Authors: James Beatson, Shaun Springer, Stuart Humphreys
 Pen & Sword
Year: 2009
Reviewer: Neal Stevens

The centennial of the Great War of 1914-1918, commonly referred to as World War I, is only four-and-a-half years away. The war has been scrutinized and recorded, overshadowed by WWII, and is very soon to pass into that category of historic event no living human being can personally recount. That’s why for historians, first-hand narratives are precious. They present the events as the author witnessed them, with no hindsight or foreknowledge to warp their view. James Beatson (Edinburgh, Scotland) was the author of such a narrative. A member of the 9th Battalion, Royal Scots, Private Beatson recorded his observations, experiences, and thoughts in a diary that opens a rare window into the past, told as it happened.

Private Beatson’s War has an extensive introduction that summarizes events leading up to WWI, and provides a biography of Beatson’s family and upbringing. The diary was retained as a family treasure by Beatson’s niece, until it was purchased in auction in 2006 by one of the editors.

Beatson’s diary begins with the crossing of the English Channel in February 1915, on the way to the trenches that will come to symbolize the struggle and claim millions of lives. The first entry, appropriately enough for a submarine website, mentions the undersea raiders.

Today the sun is bright but cold still. Dredgers, minesweepers (this line means that I got a blow from a block which some fool upset which about finished this diary and me) and small craft churn up and down. Hospital ships are anchored here and there. Last night as we sailed past them a low cheer was raised on both sides, low because strict orders were given for silence. A seaplane has whirred overhead once or twice, searching like a hawk for some submarine rat.

Beatson was well-educated, his writing style is understated and quite literate.  He recounts many small details of the war that are never captured in history books–popping away at aeros in a brilliant blue sky; dreams of fresh oatmeal cookies; the diligence with which French girls maintain their hair, even under duress. After a church service where the chaplain strives to rekindle an Arthurian spirit among the troops, Beatson reserves his praise for the joyous chance to have a bath. These are the thoughts of an observer, but the diary also includes some moving perspectives.

The force of the latest 24 inch Austrian mortar, by an effort no greater than the picking up of a pin, uprooted a town eleven miles off with his first shot. The cataclysm evoked by a gunner utterly transcends his own muscles, perceptions or emotions. To dare serve a Krupp or Armstrong gun, one should be as tall as an Alp, as good as an angel, as wise as a god. A man lives up to the extreme height of his moral and physical nature when he dares to loose an arrow from the bowstring. It is true that men who loose titanic forces like a joke, coolly, are themselves broken down by an inferno similar to that of their own cold creation.

A particularly long passage was recorded on Aug, 21-22, one that is addressed to a dead German officer whose own war diary was published in a British Army magazine . Beatson conducts a quiet dialogue with his adversary.

It’s a miserable morning, drenching downpour. I was on duty with the guard till the early morning and passed the time reading the diary of a Prussian officer, published in a magazine. Here I found a man I could love. In a note at the beginning we are told there is no clue as to the officer’s real name or regiment, only the name Heinrich in the corner of the first page. So Heinrich let it be. Though you fight for a hellish system and your revolver might have finished me, I respect you…. Are you dead Heinrich? Fate has labeled you a Prussian and me British, but I would do a long pilgrimage to lay flowers on the grave that holds your body.

The terrors of war have been written about and portrayed on film endlessly, but nothing can match the impact of the casual mention of gruesome events that evidently have become commonplace to the soldier on the Western Front:

In a communication trench I crept through the skeleton of a Frenchman that was lying beneath the water, the white bones sticking out of his tunic, poor chap. ‘Our Father which art in Heaven.’ Scots, French, Germans, Austrians, Russians and the rest, return to ‘our’ Mother Earth, groaning and cursing.

There’s a solemn air in reading the book knowing Beatson would not survive the war, would not return to his wife, and would not live a long life. James Beatson died along side 8,000 other men at the Battle of Somme on July 23, 1916. So many years ago, James Beatson lived, felt dawn, saw the sunset glow. Private Beatson’s War keeps his memory alive and should be considered a gift.


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