Ten years ago, the Imperial War Museum asked me to collect together interviews from their sound archive of veterans of the First World War. Over the next eighteen months I listened to hundreds of taped interviews, poignant testimonies from brave men and women who had lived through this horrific experience. I edited these accounts, covering all ranks from Generals to Private soldiers, and this resulted in Forgotten Voices of the Great War.
The book went straight into the Sunday Times Top Ten and stayed there for many weeks. I think people liked the fact that it was not a chronological, authored history of the conflict, but one based entirely on the words of those who had actually been there. This, I think, brought the book to life. Many had never spoken about the war before, and this made these interviews at times extremely emotional.
One of my great pleasures was to meet a number of these remarkable veterans, often in their small room in a residential home. Surrounding them were pictures of them in their prime, a reminder that they were not always old men and that they had been put through tests of courage and strength in the most appalling of circumstances, unimaginable to us today.
The great characteristic of all of them was that of defiance. They all believed that they would win. Defeat was unthinkable. They did not feel they were fighting for King and Country, but for their friends around them. Many felt guilty that they had survived, when their closest friends had not. For some, the experience of the war overshadowed their lives to the extent that the years afterwards had little meaning. Many spoke of the dark nights, when it would all return to them, and how it was impossible to explain their feelings to those who had not also been there.
Two lines come back to me from these veterans. I asked one about Passchendaele, and he replied: ‘Passchendaele was like hell with the lid off.’ I then asked another, who was at the time 104 years old, whether he had had lice and he replied, ‘Oh no no, they had me.’
The one question I would never ask is whether they had killed someone. When anyone asks a soldier this, his reply should be, ‘I can only tell you if you’ve done it yourself. And if you have, you know not to ask.’
Two years later, I turned my attention to the veterans of the next great conflict, for Forgotten Voices of the Second World War. This was a very different war, not fought in trenches and one which involved millions of civilians. It was therefore important to capture not just the stories of the military but the often untold lives of those on the home front.
As a child, I’d always been haunted by one particular photograph of a Japanese prisoner of war, Jack Sharpe, sitting on his bed at Changi. More like a skeleton than a human being. By some amazing good fortune, I met this man at a reunion. He had been captured at Singapore in December 1941, when he weighed eleven stone. Somehow, he had survived four years of horrific treatment and terrifying illnesses, and at the time the picture was taken he weighed just four stone.
Forgotten Voices of the Second World War is dedicated to the late Jack Sharpe, whose courage and tenacity in the face of the enemy overcame the most appalling of circumstances. His spirit, and the spirit of so many like him, is embodied in this book.
Max Arthur is an acclaimed historian and author. See The Telegraph from 12-18th November for more from Forgotten Voices.