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.