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Book Reviews

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Reviewed by Colonel P.J. Williams

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Edited by Anne Nason
London: Preface Publishing, 2008
367 pages, $25.00 (softcover)
ISBN 978-1-84809-067-5

With each passing year, the number of surviving First World War veterans dwindles to the very low single digits. Arguably however, this has been accompanied by a greatly increased public interest in this conflict, fuelled in part perhaps by the release of the film Passchendaele to great acclaim last year, as well as 90th anniversary commemorations of the “War to end all Wars.”  This public interest has been met to a large extent by the publication of personal accounts by those involved. The recently discovered and published letters of British Lieutenant-Colonel Edward William Hermon are a case in point, and they represent a particularly poignant and personal narrative of life on the Western Front in what was then known as The Great War.

The letters in this account, from Hermon to his wife Ethel and their five children, (collectively known as “The Chugs”) number some 200 written during the war. Hermon was killed on 9 April 1917, while leading his battalion during the Arras Offensive. He was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his services. As he fell in battle, his final words to his adjutant were: “Go on.” The letters were kept by Ethel after the war, were eventually passed on to daughter Mary, then ultimately to granddaughter Anne Nason in 1991 upon Mary’s death. Anne subsequently decided the time was right for publication of the letters, which she hopes will serve as a testament to the love between Edward and Ethel, as well as to the courage of the ordinary British soldier.

Edward William Hermon was born in 1878. While he was a student at Oxford, the Boer War broke out and he enlisted in the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars. Family commitments prevented him from following his regiment to India after this conflict, and so he became a reserve officer and a member of King Edward’s Horse (KEH). At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Hermon was a squadron commander. The letters begin on 31 July 1914, when the imminence of war was very tangible.

As an officer, Hermon was expected to censor his own letters. Nevertheless, without transgressing the principles of what we would today call Operational Security (OPSEC), the letters give us an extremely vivid picture of the life of a line regimental officer during the First World War. Throughout this series of correspondence, Hermon strives to present a confident front to his family as he writes home, and only rarely does he offer to describe the more horrendous aspects of the war. Even then, this was done at Ethel’s request.

There were two things that struck this reviewer about the letters. First, despite his command responsibilities (he eventually became the commanding officer of an infantry battalion), he remained quite diligent with his writing. Second, this was a correspondence trail characterized by what we would categorize today as having a “very quick turn around.” Despite his relative distance from his family, who lived in Sussex in southeastern England, he would often receive responses to his letters within a week. The fact that this was occurring in the midst of a war, when mail had to leave the combat zone, cross the Channel by water, make it to his home, and have a prompt reply returned to the front is a great credit to the logistical system that supported the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Hermon took great advantage of this system, and so we are treated with numerous requests to Ethel for everything from foodstuffs, to lacrosse sticks (to better remove enemy grenades from trenches), to a small pistol and ammunition for close-quarter work in the trenches. The latter duly arrived within weeks, Hermon’s issue weapon having been considered too heavy. Newspapers from England normally arrived by the next morning, in time for Edward to review events with his morning tea. In this manner, he was able to remain remarkably well-informed about war activities on other fronts, such as Gallipoli, the Middle East, and Russia.

Throughout this account, the written text is accompanied by illustrations in Edward’s own hand of everything from trench construction to bomb craters to Nissen huts. Hermon was also held in great regard by his soldiers, and, undoubtedly, one of his most-prized possessions was a caricature made by his troops and posted in the canteen, entitled, “This is the man who is good enough for us.” Edward had hoped to command the KEH, but events proved otherwise and a rival for the position was sent out from England. Hermon subsequently became the commanding officer of a battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. His last letter home was written just two days before he was killed. With respect to the coming offensive, he closes that letter by saying: “My dear old lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it in these next few days as I’m likely to be busy so far as I can see.” He then offers a final note of love to Ethel and “The Chugs.”

In the modern information era, such dedicated letter writers as Edward, and, indeed, Ethel, (whose correspondence the reviewer would have dearly loved to read as well), are relatively uncommon. Instead, we are forced to rely on blogs, You Tube and other sources on the Internet to get personal accounts, all with attendant concerns with respect to OPSEC. At a time when the Canadian Forces is experiencing its most intense operational tempo in decades, this is somewhat concerning for the future historian, hoping to analyze our current campaigns from the perspective of participants who have led forces during this turbulent time. Whereas in the past, historians could, for example, consult the “Patton Papers” to study their subject, this is unlikely to be the case in future, as such papers may not actually exist – at least not in the hard copy form beloved of archivists and researchers. One hopes that in the decades ahead, when classified documents related to our campaigns in Afghanistan, the Arabian Sea, and elsewhere are made public, that these will be supplemented by the lively, personal entries of those who, like Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Hermon, DSO, decided to put pen to paper. This book is highly recommended.

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Colonel Williams, an artillery officer, recently served as Deputy J5, Headquarters Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command (HQ CEFCOM) in Ottawa.

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