Book Review: Drawing Fire by Private Len Smith

Drawing Fire is the diary and drawings of a private who served in World War I. He signed up in September 1914, and served in France from sometime early in 1915 through to the end of the war. I heard about the book on Radio 4, and put it on my wish list, from where it became a birthday present.

I’ve read and heard about WWI, but this was the clearest telling of life in the trenches I’ve come across. What makes the book is his matter-of-fact tone, and self-deprecating approach. In the early part of the diary he repeatedly recounts attacks where those around him are seriously wounded, and more often killed. Amazingly Len suffers just scratches, or nothing at all. At one point I caught myself thinking it was getting a bit repetitive, but realised that was part of the strength of the book. He really brings home the relentless and mindless nature of trench warfare.

And through it all he manages to remain chirpy for most of the time. So much so that at times it read like a pastiche of the working man at war: references to Blighty, seemingly blind acceptance of the right of the war, and admiration of officers, even when apparently getting themselves needlessly killed. But it’s clear that the cliché is based on the truth of men like Len. This was a different era, with different attitudes. I couldn’t imagine a modern-day soldier writing a book like this with a similar tone.

Len’s artwork and photographs pepper the book, helping to bring it to life, and further reinforcing the feeling of reading someone’s personal diary.

My main thought reflecting on this book after finishing it, is how shocking it is to read about the repeated mindless loss of life, day after day, and how inured to it Len became. And how incredibly lucky he was to live through it all.

I found myself wanting to know more: there’s no mention of his life before or after the war, and even his wedding during the war only gets a brief mention. I wanted to know more about the war, and to understand his context better, but that’s not the point of the book. It’s one man’s experience through the war, and his thoughts and observations.

It’s very easy and quick to read, as a result of the conversational writing style. About my only nitpick is that there aren’t page numbers in the main body of the book, and that’s minor.

I’ve already given a copy of this as a present, and will no doubt give more. It definitely goes onto my top 100 non-fiction books.

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