Book Review: The Second World War Through Soldiers’ Eyes – British Army Life 1939-1945 by James Goulty

Review by Andy Cockeram

The Second World War Through Soldiers’ Eyes

 British Army Life 1939-1945

 Written by James Goulty

Published by Pen and Sword   195 pages.


Military historian James Goulty has written a very readable book telling of the experiences of British soldiers in many facets of the Second World War.  From many first-hand sources including interviews and documents, many connected with his own home area of the north-east of England, Goulty has given an excellent insight of what it was like for men and women to serve.

Calling it the ‘citizens army’,  the vast majority were not professional or career soldiers but were volunteers or called up or conscripted,  James Goulty tells often in the exact words of those who served their experiences from that moment of call up, through rigorous training to,  in many cases deployment in front line areas of combat across the globe.    Aside from the minority who served on the front line in the Great War, this was a completely new experience, far outside their normal comfort zone, whilst with the haunting backdrop of the human cost of the World War less than a quarter of a century earlier.

Training was tough, sometimes brutal aimed at teaching the green recruits not just how to fight but how to survive.   As the war went on and British manpower resources became slimmer, the cycle from training to front line service became shorter as gaps in divisional strength had to be filled.

Not only does it portray the fear of fighting, but the uncomfortable conditions which they had to exist in.  Worse still was the fear of captivity and the unknown experience of being held captive as a PoW, with no inkling of how long before release or whether they  would indeed make it home at the end of hostilities.  For those captured at Dunkirk, thousands spent 6 years in what must have seemed like an interminable captivity.   For those captured in the far east by the Japanese, the horrors endured by PoWs under captors, who did not recognise the Geneva Convention, saw PoW death rates five times higher through malnutrition, disease and barbaric mistreatment than those under German captivity.

For others there was the emotional worry while they were away serving overseas, of what was happening to loved ones whether because of bombing of Britain’s towns and cities or whether their wives and girlfriends  would stay loyal and faithful to them over several years.   Many didn’t meet their young children until their release.   Goulty also tells of the remarkable work of the medical services in trying to save the wounded, often with life changing injuries and horrible disfigurement.  Divorce rates tripled between 1944 and 1949 as the combination of years apart, physical and mental injuries and the re-adjustment to peacetime became too large a gap to bridge for many.   

Often the hugely important role of service women is overlooked.  Thousands served overseas whether in the ATS or the various medical services, from the RAMC, FANY and other branches, treating close to or just behind the front line battlefield injuries and diseases often of an horrific nature, while living in danger in the same primitive and basic conditions as the fighting soldiers. 

Overall James Goulty has given an excellent insight to what it was like at the various stages and circumstances of British Army service in World War Two.   The use of first hand materials and quotes only goes to give greater feeling and strength.   A book I would definitely recommend. 

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