“I survived, didn’t I?” is a very special memoir. It was first recommended to me by a Leger tour guide, Peter Williams, on the battlefields of the Somme. The reason he suggested it so adamantly was, specifically, chapter 3 which sees Charlie “Ginger” Byrne in action in the area that you would now know as Newfoundland Park.
It makes me sad to say that this book is not particularly well written and can, at some parts, quite difficult to read. The manner in which it is written is very much from mouth to paper and the fluidity of the writing suffers for this but it does offer a fresh and unadulterated insight into a teenage soldier’s experiences in the Great War. What makes up for the style twice over is the humour of Charlie Byrne who retains his quick humour even in the depths of hell. After making his way back from the line, where he’d rescued an injured soldier and escaped death himself, he answered an inquiry as to what is was like up there in his typical style. He said:
“Smashing place. Hot and cold water laid on. Pretty waitresses running about. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
The third chapter alone is worth the price of the book for it is devoted to Byrne’s time around the 29th Division area on July 1st and then more specifically around Y Ravine. Charlie’s vivid recollections recall him lying prone in a shallow shell hole in No-Man’s Land after taking cover when his Machine Gun crew were cut down by German Machine Guns near Y Ravine. Byrne then spent the rest of the day prone just below a few inches of earth, with bullets flying above his head, kicking up dust around him and smashing the ammunition boxes he was carrying into pieces. Again, there are no tales of daring heroes or gallant charges in this chapter but adds to a sort of earthly honesty to the narrative. Ginger himself said
“I couldn’t see me charging the whole German army (‘cos that’s what it sounded like) all on my tod. I couldn’t see me winning the battle by my bloody self.”
I thoroughly recommend this book for tour guides or battlefield visitors because this is one of those special books in which you can literally pinpoint the section of battlefield to which the text refers. Ginger’s description of the battlefield after the Newfoundlanders had advanced gives great context to the already moving and synonymous story of that brave battalion on the 1st of July 1916.
It’s trench-eye view of the war also discusses wiring parties, his experience of Gas attacks near Ypres and many other intriguing topics as well as having a section recalling Ginger’s return to Newfoundland Park in the 70s. A visit that stayed with him until his dying day.
You can buy a copy of “I survived, didn’t I?” from the publisher, Pen and Sword, HERE! It is currently on offer for £8 (08/08/14)