Denis Winter’s Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War is a historical book in which first hand accounts by British soldiers during World War One provide the backbone for our journey through the conflict. This type of approach helps us get away from the “big picture” and gives us a glimpse of real living history seen through the eyes of the men that fought the war. The structuring that Winter employs is well thought out and adds to the effect of personal connection and participation in the war. Graphic detail and thorough depiction of the lives of the average British soldier, not only make it educational but interesting and enjoyable to read as well.
Winter structures Death’s Men both chronologically and thematically. This approach allows him to show how Kitchener’s Men1 progressed from being new recruits to frontline soldiers and, if they were fortunate, to returning home as veterans after 1918. This progression of the soldiers can be seen in three different sections of the book, the Pre-Conflict, Conflict, and Post-Conflict periods.
The Pre-Conflict section is about the formation, training, and preparation of the new Kitchener Armies. The recruitment of men was the first seen on such a massive scale in Britain’s history. In the first five months of the war alone, over one million men volunteered for the army. This large influx of new troops during the beginning stages of the war had a number of problems associated with it. The troops needed equipment, food, and quarters of which scarce amounts could be mustered in such short a time. Training of the soldiers was done during this period of which discipline, breaking, and de-emphasis on individuality was at the forefront of this training. This was done in order to reform and remold men into the troops the army saw fit as “trained”.
This would later allow the soldiers to complete such tasks as bayonet charges against fortified machine guns and entrenched infantrymen. The task and problems of having enough trained officers to lead such charges was also dealt with, in which the issues of class and education come into discussion. It is evident that in order to be an officer, he must be from a certain class of people. Public school and University students were the main candidates for the officer corps, for they were thought to possess the necessary leadership skills to command men in battle. When the public school officers were killed, their replacements from the “other ranks” were just as good and acted in much the same way as the public schoolers once had.4 When both the new regular soldier and officer were shipped off to France, they were met with obstacles even before they arrived at the front. They were confronted with long marches to the trenches after their train rides in which they experienced “pain, fatigue and companionship.” But “Fear was still to come.”
The middle section on the Conflict itself was the largest of the three sections, and rightly so for it contains the most important information in the book. The description of the trench networks and life within them is very detailed. All the aspects of their lives on the front, and in the trenches, is very vivid for it is the first hand accounts of the conditions the men were under. Life was hard and lived by the moment, Constant threat of death from shells, mortars, grenades, machine guns and snipers. The living conditions were usually of the lowest quality as well, with little to keep a man warm, dry, clean, or free of lice and other vermin. The hardships of the trench were difficult to bear for many, and an artillery bombardment while stuck in a dug-out would test nerves of even the strongest soul. Winter does not neglect the psychological effects of this modern war on the men fighting it, and devotes an entire chapter to it.
It was found that the psychological damages to the solders were more extensive and sever than anyone had previously seen in any other war. In comparison to the past where battles took hours or days, these British soldiers in the trenches were “hardly ever out of danger,”7 from the constant threat of death. Rest and home leave were the only reprieves from the grind of front line battle, and even then they were only temporary breaks in the fighting. Leave wasn’t something granted very often to the ‘other ranks’ for they were busy in the trenches and trying to advance forward in one of the many battles of the war. It was shown that casualties of these attacks were very high, and after the battle, the survivors would be mourning for their friends lost, and longing to go home.
The last section of the book deals with the Post-Conflict in which the soldiers find it very difficult to get back to normal civilian life. Also included are how the soldiers feel about the Germans and the war as a whole. It was interesting to see that even though they would be killing each other the day before, on days like Christmas men from both sides could go out and play a game of football in no-mans-land.8 The trouble of getting home once the fighting was over was one of the many rough spots in the process of demobilization. 9 months after the end of the war there were still over one million men still in service.
Once home, many soldiers had a hard time fitting in again and finding work, all the while coping with the ordeals that they had endured. They had come back from the war with changed personalities and perceptions of the world around them. Society as a whole was not welcoming of the ‘Kitchener Men’ for a variety of reasons, the veterans were not paid very much in their pensions after the war and on many occasions massed and protested for what they felt they deserved. If they had been injured permanently during the war their pensions were barely equal to what an unskilled worker would receive.10 the many grievances of the war were well displayed by the returning soldiers. Many of them felt that they had wasted their time and had fought in a useless war. The soldiers searched for the purpose in the war, and what they had done was worth while.
Winter’s purpose in this book is to show that the war was hard for those men who fought in it. He accomplishes this by combining vivid detail, with many personal stories from the men who fought in the trenches. The majority of history is taught from the overall view of the period. This book gives a new perspective on war as it goes away from the “big picture” seen in text books and other materials, and replaces it with an organized collection of experiences and thoughts from the ordinary British soldier. All the horrors of the war were revealed in a way that text books can not describe, bodies decomposing into nothingness in no-mans-land, the agony of mustard and chlorine gas, and men torn apart by high-explosive shrapnel shells ‘”In the main communication trench we passed a man carrying a sandbag full of something.
Thefts of rations and minor stores from the line are increasing. I therefore ask, “What have you in that bag?” “Rifleman Grundy, sir,” came the unexpected reply.’ The views of the soldiers were a new perspective but it was still just one view of the experience of the war. It would have been interesting to see a chapter comparing the soldiers of France, Germany, Austria, and Russia to those of the British in this book. This would provide a valuable comparison in which the overall picture of all the fighting men in the war would be seen. It was not only the British that endured the hardships of the war, but their depiction by Winter was none the less done with thorough attention to detail.
The horrors that were displayed in the book, and the effect that these conditions of war had on the soldiers, added to de-glorify the fighting and the war as a whole. Men were casually thrown away on useless attacks, in which they were moved like expendable chess pieces into the guns of the German machine gunners. The wasting of human life is not something that is seen as glorious or honourable, and the civilians at home losing their sons and fathers were not content with the bloody cost of the war. The success that Winter has in presenting the de-glorification of war is very well done by making the reader feel a sense of empathy and loss.
Through all of these hardships, Winter invokes a sense of connection and emotion to the various soldiers that share their experiences in the book. When a soldier is almost freezing to death on sentry duty, Winter tries to convey that feeling to the reader through use of vivid description and detail. Even with the cover, it communicates to us of the face of warfare, one that is tired, and aged beyond his years.
Death’s Men is a welcome change from the usual “big picture” accounts of conflicts. In the way Winter has written his book, it brings more humanity to the Great War, in a way that no text book can. The human side of many wars is marginalized compared to the grander scheme of the conflict. The war’s causes, ideals, and results of the conflict are brought to the forefront, while the stories of the soldiers are forgotten along with the soldiers themselves. Thankfully, Winter tells of the personal stories of the Kitchener men to be preserved for the future as an example of the human side of war.
– Denis Winter , Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London: Penguin books 1979)
1 Denis Winter , Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London: Penguin books 1979) pg 23