Anne Robinson, Karen Saxby
For years, those who attempted to understand the devastation of World War I looked to the collections of diplomatic documents, the stirring speeches, and the partisan memoirs of the leading participants. However, those accounts offered little by way of the intimate history, or the individual experiences of those involved in the Great War. In Commitment and Sacrifice, Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee provide just such an "intimate look" by bringing
together previously unpublished diaries of five participants in the First World War and restoring to publication the diary of a sixth that has long been out of print.
The six diaries address the war on the Western front and the Mediterranean, as well as behind the lines on the home front. Together, these diarists form a diverse group: John French, a British sapper who dug precarious tunnels beneath the trenches of the Western Front; Henri Desagneaux, a French infantry officer embroiled in years of bloody combat; Philip T. Cate, an idealistic American volunteer ambulance driver who sought to save lives rather than take them; Willy Wolff, a German businessman
caught in England upon the war's outbreak and interned there for the duration; James Douglas Hutchison, a New Zealand artilleryman fighting thousands of miles from home; and Felix Kaufmann, a German machine gunner, captured and held as a prisoner of war.
Through the personal reflections of these young men, we are transported into many of the iconic episodes of the war, from the upheaval of mobilization through the great battles of Gallipoli, Verdun, and the Somme, as well as the less familiar "other ordeal" of internment and captivity. As members of the so-called Generation of 1914 (each was between nineteen and twenty-four years old), they shared an unwavering commitment to their countries' cause, and possessed a steadfast determination to
persevere despite often appalling circumstances.
Collectively, these diaries illuminate the sacrifices of war, whether willingly volunteered or stoically endured. That the diarists had the desire and the ingenuity to record their experiences, whether for their families, posterity, or simply their own personal satisfaction, gives readers the ability to eavesdrop on horrors long past. A century later, we are fortunate that they were both willing and able to set pencil to paper.