Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Private 12768 - John Jackson

I started reading this last November, I really am hopeless at themed reading though, for whatever reason they never are the books for the moment, and by the time I'd finished it, it was Christmas and didn't feel like the book to write about. I bought 'Private 12768' when it came out in 2005  after reading a review of it somewhere. It's the First World War memoir of John Jackson, based on his diaries and written in 1926. As far as I can tell it wasn't published before 2005.

Today of all days is the right time to give John Jackson some thought again though. He isn't precisely the First World War soldier we think of now. He joined up in September 1914, served all through the war with only a small gap for relatively minor injuries. After the war he returned to his job on the railways, married, and seems to have adjusted well to life back out of the army. It may have helped that he had not joined up straight from school. More than that he describes his wartime experience as his great adventure. He's clear enough about how foul it could be in the trenches but he seems to have taken it all in his stride.

So many of the memories or narratives I've read concerning the First World War have been overwhelmingly negative about the experience that Jackson's pride in his regiment, respect for his officers, and belief in the reason for fighting seem almost subversive but his attitude is one that must have been shared by thousands of his comrades. He doesn't romanticise his experience, doesn't glamourise war, and makes quite clear the depth of loss and sacrifice, but he ties bring alive the concept of fighting for king and country and something of what that meant to these men.

Leicester's war memorial is solar aligned so that the sun rises through it on November 11th. It's a Lutyens arch and he chose the site specifically to be able to do this (originally I believe the council had a spot in the city centre in mind). Standing there waiting for the sun to come up on a November morning with only a few dog walkers around to share the moment with is unexpectedly uplifting. It's a touch of optimism, a promise that not only will we remember them, but that we should make sure it wasn't all for nothing.

John Jackson's memoir is worth reading, and should be as well known as 'Goodnye to all That', 'Memoires of a Fox-Hunting Man', or 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. The disillusionment of Graves and Sasoon and their contemporaries is more than understandable but it's only part of the story.


  1. I haven't read any soldiers' memoirs from the Great War, though I have Goodbye to All That on the TBR shelves - and was just looking at it today. But this one sounds so interesting, a contrast to what I've read about the soldiers' experiences.

  2. I read a history of the WI a couple of years ago which touched on the work they did to improve the health of the working classes after WW1. It was because the country wanted to be sure they would have men fit to be soldiers and so many men had been totally unfit but it must have meant a better life for so many people. I don't want to sound like I'm in any way defending WW1 or the lives it consumed but the view that it was futile and pointless bothers me, it seems very disrespectful to those who died to let it have been pointless. It precipitated big changes in society and for many those were a good thing. Reading Jackson makes me think more of that, though he never glosses over how awful it was either.

  3. I've been really interested in reading about World War I lately, and this looks like an excellent memoir. Thanks for your review. I'll be on the lookout for Private 12768!

  4. It's an account worth seeking out, it's just a slightly different perspective and changed my understanding of it a bit.