Voices From the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy, 1943 – 1945 by Peter Hart

This is the first book I’ve read in the Voices from the Front series. It’s based on an Oral History project that recorded the memories of many old Durham veterans. Peter Hart has been the Oral History specialist at the Imperial War Museum for many years, so is probably better placed to write a book like this than anyone else.

I’m glad that such a prominent book has been written about this Battalion for two reasons. Firstly, the 16th Durham Light Infantry were a service Battalion, and hence largely made up of soldiers who were conscripted into the Army during the wartime. Secondly, the Battalion served in Italy rather than in North West Europe, and the Italian campaign has received a chronic lack of attention from Historians over the years.

Excerpts from oral history interviews are interwoven with commentary on the overall history of the war, which provides good context. The interviews with junior officers and other ranks are particularly welcome, as these are two sections of the Army whose experiences are often maligned. And the experiences of the 16th Durhams were quite remarkable – unusually for a conscript Battalion, the unit seems to have developed a very strong espirit-du-corps, forged through tought fighting up the spine of Italy.

What I really find interesting are the little human stories that really give us an idea of what it was like to fight as a foot soldier in the Second World War, and not necessarily the stories about fighting. Its thoughts about uniforms and rations, officer-men relations, the locals and even fireworks displays on VE Day that really make a book like this stand out.

I cannot help but think how blessed we historians would be if a book like this was written about every Army unit during the Second World War. Oral History is a fantastic way of capturing not only the memories of an important generation, but also the essence and tone of their life experiences. The Voices from the Front series is very commendably indeed.

Voices from the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy 1943-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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8 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

8 responses to “Voices From the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy, 1943 – 1945 by Peter Hart

  1. John Erickson

    This sounds like a great read. I personally prefer the “average soldier” histories, though I am biased from my re-enacting days. My father has some wonderful tales from his time in Korea, and he was never in the fighting. (He went through at least 2 front-line units, but always ended up in the rear echelons.) My personal favourite was an evening spent with a German WW2 vet, who railed on for over an hour about “doughs shtinkink bisickles!”. (That’s as close as I can come with the accent.) He also had a story about how flare pistols can be lethal, but I won’t inflict the details on y’all.

    • James Daly

      Its definitely that kinda book John. In fact, these Oral History books like this would be great for re-enactors to get as close as possible a feel for the sights, sounds, smells, language, moods etc of soldiers on campaign.

    • John Erickson

      Um… You’ve never visited re-enactors on a hot summer day, have you? No one wants us to re-create the smells, trust me! (Wool + 30degrees C + No Showers) Seriously, if you ever get the chance, chat up a Vietnam vet, and ask about what happened to their food over time. As time went by, especially among US Special Forces, chow started including more Vietnamese dishes. The NVA and VC could actually smell US soldiers by their sweat, which smelled radically different due to the food choices. An interesting (but unappetizing) sidelight! ;)

      • James Daly

        Them there’s the distinctive ‘german soldier’ smell from the second world war, probably something to do with wet feldgrau I imagine. I also remember that in the first gulf war the Iraqis were analysing faeces to check the food content, the idea bring you can tell if the erm owner was western or Arab by their diet.

      • John Erickson

        I don’t think the German smell was from the uniform. Between the mandatory sausage ration, and the brown bread that became more sawdust as the war went on, you get a pretty potent downwind mix. Pitch in some beer, or worse yet, vodka from the Eastern front (along with the local water that had more lifeforms in it than “Star Trek”‘s Federation) and, well, the Tiger tank wasn’t the most lethal weapon in the German Army!

        • James Daly

          was cheese a part of the Wehrmacht diet at all? German cream cheese can be very pungent.

        • John Erickson

          It varied. The early ration was some variety of hard cheese, like a cheddar (I don’t remember all the details – I did late-war time period). A lot of the cheese ration came from France after 1940, and the personnel gathering rations weren’t too particular about what they sent the soldiers, as long as it could “travel”. There was some really hideous goat cheese they scrounged in Russia – try mixing blue, limburger, hard sharp cheddar, and dried out mashed potatoes together. Nasty!

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