Conflict of youth

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Personal diaries offer a poignant and individual view of how war affects people's lives. Sarah Wallis and Svetlana Palmer look at how the First World War affected children on both sides

Departing from traditional histories, A War in Words tells the story of the First World War from the viewpoints of its predominantly young participants and eyewitnesses as they recorded it in their diaries and letters.

Yves Congar, a 10-year-old French schoolboy living in the town of Sedan in north-eastern France, started to keep a diary in the summer of 1914. His is one of two children's diaries which feature in the book.

In a narrative which follows the course of the war, each chapter focuses on one important episode told from opposite sides of the conflict and from one of its diverse fronts.

The diaries of two children, one French and one German, relate their wartime experiences and recur throughout the book.

With war looming, in the summer of 1914, Yves Congar writes of his keenness to be a soldier, and draws pictures of imaginary battles. Just three weeks into the war, real soldiers arrive on his doorstep when German troops occupy Sedan:

25th August 1914 Tuesday, cruel Tuesday

"We are just getting up when mother comes up to me and says: 'Put your soldiers away, the Germans are coming.' I go outside after putting them away and I hear shooting and I see a plane in the sky. It feels so weird and everything is unfamiliar, but we'll get used to it."

Within six months, Yves is learning to cope with the humiliations of living under German occupation by refusing to be a passive witness: 12th March 1915 "Yesterday I was walking to Granny's house with Robert (Yves' brother) and, because I like to taunt the Germans, I set to work in the rue de Menil. I see one and Robert goes 'Pchiiiiteiiite' at him. I thought he was spitting at him so, as a medal of honour, I decorate the righthand side of his chest with a nice big gob. He stares at me for a long time but because he is only a simple private he doesn't say anything."

At the time Yves started his diary, the 12-year-old German schoolgirl Piete Kuhr begins a diary in the East Prussian town of Schneidemuehl, just a few miles out of reach of Russian troops on the Eastern Front:

4th August 1914

"The 149th infantry is stationed in our town, Schneidemuehl. They are going to be sent to the Western Front. The soldiers wore new grey uniforms and black spiked helmets. They were looking serious. I had expected them to be laughing and rejoicing.

"A trumpet call rang out. A soldier as big as a tree came past me. I stretched out my hand over the fence and muttered, 'Farewell!' He smiled at me and shook my hand. I gazed after him. Gradually the train began to move.

I went home by a roundabout way. I held my hand out in front of me, the one that the soldier had squeezed. As I went up our poorly lit steps, I stared at the palm of my hand. Then I quickly kissed it."

Piete lives with her brother and grandmother. Her mother, the family's main breadwinner, asks Piete to send the diary entries to her in Berlin, where she runs a music school, as a way of keeping in touch.

In her diary, Piete conveys a vivid picture of school and family life as everything from her games to her adolescent angst is influenced by the war around her.

26th December 1914

"A few days ago a 13-year-old girl, a baker's daughter, was expelled from our school because she is going to have a child by a first lieutenant.

"She is a big, strapping girl with blond pigtails. None of us had noticed anything. The whole school was in turmoil."

When Piete herself attracts the attention of a first lieutenant training in Schneidemuehl, she stops sending the entries to her mother, keeping her diary private for the rest of the war.

The 28 diaries and letter collections featured in A War in Words, most of them never published in English before, come from men, women and children of 14 nationalities, including British, French, Italian, German, Australian and Turkish accounts. Also among them are the letters of the future Nazi leader, Rudolf Hess, and the testimony of a young Guinean volunteer, Kande Kamara.

A War in Words by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (Simon amp; Schuster pound;14.99) is based on their collection of personal diaries and letters. It accompanies the current 10-part Channel 4 series The First World War, which runs to November 22.

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