Max Hastings shares his list of the five best war memoirs:
The Letters of Private Wheeler
Edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart (1951)
My father was editing a now long-defunct British publication, The Strand Magazine, when one day in 1948 a reader sent him a big bundle of ancient letters, penned in an early 19th-century scrawl. They proved a treasure trove, published as “The Letters of Private Wheeler,” the finest ranker’s memoir of the Napoleonic wars. If anybody today asks me what life and death were like for an ordinary infantryman in a Western army of the 18th and 19th centuries, the horrors endured by men firing upon each other in battle hour after hour at ranges of often less than 50 yards, I refer them to William Wheeler.
The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith (1903)
It seems extraordinary to most civilians that any soldier could enjoy any war, but many did and indeed still do. Sir Harry Smith was a Norfolk surgeon’s son who joined the Rifle Brigade in 1805 and served through a host of campaigns thereafter, including Spain, New Orleans, Waterloo, assorted Indian and South African wars. His brainless, shamelessly joyous reminiscences of a thousand camps, marches, skirmishes and great battles show the soldier as adventurer. Sensitive enough to deplore, during the War of 1812, the “barbarous” burning of the White House, Smith was nonetheless among those who ate the dinner that he and his comrades found on President Madison’s table.
Lady Under Fire on the Western Front
Edited by Andrew and Nicola Hallam (2010)
This work offers an unusual perspective on World War I, delivered through the letters of 25-year-old Lady Dorothie Feilding, who served as an ambulance driver in Belgium and France between 1914 and 1917. Although Feilding deplored the conflict’s horrors, she relished the opportunity to join the select few in her generation of privileged European girls who were freed from the dreary confinement of the social round at home.
By Cecil Lewis (1936)
One of the best fliers’ memoirs ever written. It is hard for our generation, for whom flight is a commonplace, to grasp the soaring sense of liberation that pioneer airmen in World War I gained from escaping the bondage of earth. Most thought it a fair exchange that, in return for wings, they endured perils statistically greater even than those of trench officers.
A Writer at War
By Vasily Grossman (2005)
Vasily Grossman was a celebrated Russian war correspondent, but his dispatches about the Red Army’s experience during World War II were rigorously censored. By contrast, Grossman’s notebooks, published as “A Writer at War,” frankly depict the chaos, anguish, incompetence, heroism, cowardice and ultimate triumph of Russia’s struggle.