Book Review: A Tommy’s life in the Trenches: Private Fergus Mackain, William Mackain-Bremner, John Place.


Paperback: 128 pages

Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445658291

That moment when you’re under fire and you throw something to a pal in a neighbouring foxhole and it lands short. Nobody talks about that the awful decision between gnawing hunger and certain death that must then be made. Yet here in the tradition of the wipers times Private Fergus Mackain brings such moments of… “you know you’ve served in Flanders when” moments to a modern audience.

He could easily have been using Facebook or twitter, Hashtag, only Tommies will get this. The simple truths of Mackain’s comics are just one of the many surprisingly familiar themes that runs through this wonderful collection of wartime cartoons, drawn by a serving soldier.

Soldiers often cope with their lot through humour, and while it seems distasteful to make a joke out of the horror of war, just like sleeping and eating, the tommies of the Great War took their laughs where they could get them. Often it must be said, truth is to be found in what people can laugh at, rather than what makes them cry.

It’s not trivialising war, soldier humour is often dark, it’s not glorifying war, because it’s making fun of it. The soldiers aren’t the subject of ridicule here. And wether it is through tears, or laughter a vent for emotion is a much healthier expression in any age. Even in one where the men were so in control, the author’s only experience of witnessing open weeping was when a soldier let his newly cleaned rifle slip into a flooded trench.

No, ladies and gents, manly tears it seems were not as common on the western front as the movies would have us believe. Mackain was a trained commercial artist, and his artistic style reflects that training in this richly illustrated book. Evoking not just the trenches and the army, but popular illustration as well. Advertising or comic art like this was very common in the first portion of the 20th century, which is why, history buff and art lover alike should adore this collection of pictures and captions.

Finding out what tommies could laugh at gives a modern mind a very untrod path into the psychology of the Great War mind. No one wants to seem as if they are making merchandise by laughing at, or even with suffering, it would be a brave soul who would try to honestly bring this facet of the war to the fore. And I would hazard that the misery of the trenches will ensure that it never really happens.

Yet, there was laughter and comradeship in the Great War and those stuck in the same muddy, horrific boat needed these touches of humanity to get them through to another day. It’s a part of the WW1 experience that needs to be understood, and as always, the view of participant is the best way to present it

In this book we see a world gone by in many ways. I dare say it would make a superb Christmas gift for anyone interested in the western front, or the culture of the Great War. A pretty original stocking stuffer indeed. In short it’s just brilliant.