As We Were began as an essay, and ended up being 223 of them. Indeed, its first iteration was as a blog – centuryjournal.com – but its conclusion has finally arrived in the form of four sturdy paperback volumes, in a rather smart slipcase, totalling over 2,200 pages.
Because we were writing about the First World War, these colossal dimensions are, I hope, excusable. I was determined from the start to try to embrace civilians and military, men and women, and all theatres of war, as even-handedly as historical judgement allowed. Margaret-Louise O’Keeffe, co-author and researcher, has a genius at teasing out quixotic detail.
Our readers have learned that, in the essay for any single week, they will probably get a blast of war at sea and very possibly in the air. Front line fighting may well come from, say, the Isonzo front, or Galicia or Mesopotamia, as well as from Flanders. Domestic dramas may surface from Junker estates, or Dublin rebels, or Grantham prostitutes.
These will typically be relayed via letters and diaries - perhaps from a lovesick Italian soldier, or an intemperate Austrian doctor, or the Tsarina of Russia or Raymond Asquith, or about two hundred others. Like a long-running and highly successful drama series, the cast keeps changing, but a few old favourites recur.
As essayist of this enterprise, you can’t just rely on a diet of high emotion, although – God knows – there was an inexhaustible supply of stories which engendered it. History is better served, anyway, when you step back from the narrowly didactic. Even in a week which contains a lot of shooting, people need to eat and drink, bicker, laugh with their friends, whinge about their bosses, have sex (or, more probably, at least think about it). They are more recognisable for that – hence the title As We Were.
Yet we remain in absolute awe of what they did, and humbled by having had it all so much easier. At every stage, we have sought to stay alert to the greater story of war. To make any sense of the sufferings it inflicted, we have tried hard to abjure the weedy and infantile fiction that it spawned – above all that lions were led by donkeys, and that the war was futile. Haig emerges, in my understanding, as one of the great leaders of any time.
For all the war’s terrors, humour and hilarity were never eclipsed - or at least not for long. Nor were the ties of good fellowship. Just as well, too: these, more than anything, were what drove young men over the top.