RICHARD S. GRAYSON (editor)
On the outbreak of war in 1914, John ‘Max’ Staniforth was a student at Oxford University, and while most of his contemporaries applied for temporary commissions in the Army, because of an Irish family connection he took the unusual choice of enlisting in the Connaught Rangers as a private soldier. Shortly afterwards, however, he accepted a commission into the 7th Battalion, the Leinster Regiment, part of the 16th (Irish) Division. The Irish connection for this Yorkshire-born soldier was to continue throughout the war, and yet the focus of interest remains that of an infantry officer in a battalion of Kitchener’s New Army.
Staniforth wrote to his parents on an almost weekly basis and these letters – ably edited by Richard Grayson – tell the story of a young man undergoing training in Ireland before transfer to France and front-line service. What soon becomes clear in these letters home is Staniforth’s close yet open relationship with his parents, which allows him to describe the war with a frankness rare in many similar British accounts of the war. Most of this is everyday life at the front; his role as as a signals officer provides interesting detail of the tricky business of maintaining telephone communications in the trenches. Staniforth’s baptism of fire came with the attacks on Ginchy and Guillemont in September 1916, one of the more successful phases in the Battle of the Somme.
After a period out of the line, Staniforth was back in action during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). His letters illustrating the hellish conditions of the battle during July and August are exceptional, drawing favourable comparison with the classic accounts from Edwin Campion Vaughn and Charles Edmonds. Staniforth describes the relentless rain that transformed the battleground into a featureless quagmire and the equally relentless German artillery fire that had the men cowering in water-filled shell holes, the battalion headquarters finding a semblance of shelter in a captured German pill box. One short quotation gives some idea of these conditions: Staniforth walks over to the entrance to a dressing station, where ‘the wounded lay sick on stretchers in the slush, just as they had been brought out of the fighting. As I passed I was just in time to see an officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who was lying groaning in the rain waiting for his turn, grope blindly for his revolver and blow his brains out. Poor devil, he was shot through the stomach, and I suppose the agony was too much for him.’
At the beginning of 1918, the reorganization of the Army into three-battalion brigades saw the disbandment of the 7th Leinsters, Staniforth transferring to the 2nd Battalion. Chronic dental problems and administrative duties kept him out of the front-line during the great German spring offensive, and once back at the front in May he was sufficiently affected by a gas attack to be withdrawn to England for the remainder of the war. From these letters, the author emerges as an attractive character: brave conscientious and modest, and with a good sense of humour. The publication of this book is most timely, making a fine contribution to the literature of the Great War.
Pen & Sword, 272 pages, £25 (h/b)