Fascinating guide to the Great War

Great war mud
Great war mud

The first British shots of the titanic conflict that was the First World War and cost nine million lives were fired by a Sussex man.

On August 22 1914, Corporal Ernest Thomas, of the 4th Irish Dragoon Guards, was on patrol on the Mons-Charlois Road in Belgium when a German cavalry patrol approached.

Corporal Thomas, who came from Brighton, fired upon the patrol at 400 yards range and hit a German officer.

It’s one curious fact to emerge in a fascinating new book by Ringmer writer Geoff Bridger.

The Great War Handbook is packed with information and will prove an essential guide for family historians and students of the conflict.

It answers many of the basic questions newcomers ask when confronted by this enormous and challenging subject – not only what happened and why, but what the Great War was like for ordinary soldiers who were caught up in it.

Mr Bridger, who has established a wide reputation as a leading authority on the subject, describes the conditions they endured, the deadly risks they ran, their daily routines and the small roles they played in the complex military machine they were part of.

His comprehensive survey covers every aspect of the soldier’s life, from recruitment and training to the experience of battle and its appalling aftermath.

On battle hardening he writes: “It really is amazing how quickly the men became accustomed to the most frightful sights, sounds and smells imaginable. The overpowering stench of death from unburied human and animal bodies surely pervaded the entire war zone.

“The noise of explosions not only shattered eardrums but rocked brains within their skulls, inflicting untold damage. And as for the sights of mangled bodies on an almost daily basis, it really does make one wonder how men coped and remained sane.

“It took just two weeks for the novice soldier to become so accustomed to death that he scarcely gave it another thought. Even the death of a best mate was seen as inevitable and to be avenged if possible, rather than mourned.

“There was so much carnage there was no time for pity. It is no wonder the men smoked so much.”

Mr Bridger was Chairman of the Sussex branch of the Western Front Association and has published books and articles on different aspects of Great War history.

He is editor of the widely acclaimed Soldiers Died in the Great War, a CD-ROM containing more than 700,000 records.