When Lyn Macdonald published her first World War I history, They Called It Passchendaele, in 1978, it had all the hallmarks of a labour of love. Six books later the project has become a debt of honour.
To The Last Man follows the usual Macdonald format. She relies on archival data to provide the skeleton of the narrative, and uses eyewitness accounts of veterans involved in the action to provide the flesh and blood. The result, as ever, is a compassionate and often disturbing account that brings the reader as close to understanding the minds of those who had to endure the mud, the snipers, the noise, the chaos, the boredom, the loneliness, the shelling, the bravery and the terror as we are likely to get.
Television and newspapers have only just discovered the power of the eyewitness foot soldier, having hitherto relied on self-serving politicians and generals for their history. However, the media has not learnt the difference between using the veterans' own words to make a producer or writer's point and allowing them to speak for themselves. Because she's been at it for so long and has had time to build relationships with the old soldiers, Macdonald has, and it is this that makes this book so special. She points out that we have become accustomed to talking of the "horrors" of World War I and to talking of the soldiers as "victims", but that none of the survivors ever used the word "horror" to describe their experiences and that to describe them as "victims" is demeaning. These men were not innocent dupes; they may have hated the war, despised their generals and been scared stiff, but they did believe in a cause and drew a sense of achievement from what they had endured.
. Macdonald has only one more book to write--that taking us to the end of the war. By the time it comes out there will almost certainly be no survivors left. I think that both Macdonald and the veterans would agree there is a poetic symmetry about that. --John Crace