As its title suggests, 1915: The Death of Innocence by Lyn MacDonald is a book that is focused on the second calendar year of World War I. It is not however, an overall look at WW1 in 1915, it is more narrowly focused on the British in 1915. It doesn’t really go into detail on the French, German, Russian, Italian, or Turkish parts in the war except as allies and opponents. Neither does it go into detail on battles in which the British didn’t participate in. What 1915 does do is explore how the attitude towards, outlook on, and opinion of the British on the war changed over the course of the year through heavy use of primary source material. I enjoyed reading 1915; it is a compelling read and hard to put down but at the end I feel it fell somewhat short.
McDonald’s take on 1915, as I mentioned above, is not a military history of 1915, it is more a social and oral history of the year. She uses her narrative to weave together excerpts from interviews, letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs to show how the British experience in 1915 changed their views on the war. You can’t show that through the experiences of the high command and staff officers, so the vast majority of the excerpts MacDonald uses come from line officers, NCOs, and the common soldier – the Tommy. The excerpts graphically describe conditions in the trenches, behind the lines, and training to go to war. Through the eyes of Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Tommies, you see what happened during and the results of fighting in the battles of Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, the Dardanelles, and Loos. It’s interesting to see how the compared and contrasted between the Regular Army, the Territorial Army, and Kitchener’s New Army. As you read the book, you see the changes in the soldiers’ outlook through the year; the outlook changes from one of enthusiasm and optimism to resignation and acceptance of the long slog ahead.
My main problem is that the end of the book leaves you hanging. The title includes “The Death of Innocence” but while you see innocence dying throughout the book, there is really only one paragraph of conclusion. I would have liked to have seen a bit of analysis. It would have been nice to tie things up and draw conclusions from the variety of experiences we read about. Regardless, this is a book well worth reading in conjunction with general and military histories of the war. Use those books to understand the war as a whole and the place of the battles in the war and use this book to help understand the experience of the men fighting the war. Had things been tied up better at the end in a conclusions chapter I could have given it five stars but I have no issue giving it four stars. I’m now interested to find out if there are books in a similar vein about the experiences of the other combatant countries’ soldiers.