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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Soldier's Sketchbook: The Illustrated First World War Diary of R. H. Rabjohn, by John Wilson. Penguin, 2017. $22.99 ages 12 and up

"Huge German bombers called Gothas flew over, seemingly whenever they wished. Shells exploded all around. Survival or death was largely a matter of luck, and sometimes Russell's diary reads like a catalogue of his friends dying."

There are many books about World War I. John Wilson is an exemplary historian and writer. In this book he bases the writing on a memoir written by Russell Hughes Rabjohn, A Diary: A Story of My Experience in France, and Belgium, during the World War, 1914-1918 (1970), and on sketches he did while serving Canada during that war.

It is a unique look at the conditions, the fighting, and the horrific effects the war had for so many. Russell recorded his thoughts and images even though it was against all protocols and orders. A trained artist, he carried a sketchbook onto the battleground and was able to maintain a record of what he experienced. The thoughts and images he recorded are integral to the work John Wilson has done to bring his story to young readers today.

Mr. Wilson looks at the diaries in six parts: training, Vimy, Ypres, Vimy again, the last hundred days and the road home. In a note about them, he mentions the freedom that having a sketchbook with him afforded Russell:

" ... he used this freedom to capture his experiences -
the defeated look of a downed German pilot; the ruined
buildings and devastated landscapes of the war zone;
the endless digging and repairing of trenches; and the
jubilant mood in the streets when the Armistice is
finally signed."

Each section begins with 'background information' to describe the war's current events and encompass the young soldier's entries and images. Russell's war began on February 22, 1916 with training. At 18, he could join the Canadian Army and he did. His diary entries begin on Thursday, September 7, 1916 while still in training. Placing his entries alongside Mr. Wilson's explanatory, descriptive text gives readers a real sense of the hardships, the soul-destroying action, the toll it took not only on humans, but on animals, nature, and the towns and homes destroyed. He gives historical context to a young soldier's writing.

Vivid and honest, it is a book that is unique in the canon of First World War literature. These edited diaries, enhanced dramatically with first-hand, heartbreaking images of the devastation, provide an invaluable resource for those with an abiding interest.

Back matter includes a First World War timeline, an index and suggestions for further reading. 

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