The Devil's Own War: The Diary of Herbert Hart
Edited by John Crawford (Exisle Publishing, RRP $39.99)REVIEWED BY JOSEPH BEAUMONT
When feisty Carterton lawyer Herbert Hart left New Zealand in 1914 to serve as a major with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, he never dreamed he would return home as a much-decorated brigadier-general.
Capable, personable and decisive, his swift rise through the ranks saw him command the Wellington Battalion during the closing stages of the Gallipoli campaign then serve as a battalion and brigade commander on the Western Front, notably at the Somme and Passchendale, from 1916 until the end of the "war to end all wars".
Like many of his countrymen Hart kept a diary of his experiences, now regarded as one of the most important personal sources relating to the NZEF. A born diarist, it is his factual, understated style that makes his eyewitness account of the war all the more powerful. Horrific details of day-to-day fighting in France, the injuries his men suffered (Hart too was wounded) and the deaths of comrades are revealed. Shocking too are his observations about the effects of millions of rats inhabiting the trenches, and the bitterly cold winters.
Thanks to Hart's rank we are also privy to the remarkable organisation and logistics that lay behind every battle, not to mention a discreet letting off of steam when the brass got it wrong.
There are poetic moments, too, as when the author describes a spring garden bursting forth in the grounds of his billet, or, when driving from X to Y on military business, he sees a French farmer working the fields in a tranquil landscape, just a few kilometres from the front.
Balancing the high tension (and occasional boredom) of combat are his descriptions of leave in France, England and Scotland; the surprise here is how in many respects life away from the front – dinners, the theatre, parties – carried on as usual.
Edited by NZ Defence Force historian John Crawford, The Devil's Own War was released in hardback in October last year to mark the 90th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that signalled the end of World War I. If you missed it the first time around, do take the opportunity to buy and read the paperback edition of one of our most important wartime diaries.
- The Southland Times