Some years ago a close relative who was also
a good friend asked me to read the draft he had prepared
of his adventures since volunteering from Jersey for the
British Army in 1939. He had been at Dunkirk, St Malo, the
Western Desert, Sicily, Italy (including Monte Cassino)
and Burma and had campaign medals right across his chest.
Despite being in the thick of almost all the major theatres
of war except D-Day, what he had written was boring, boring.
I tried to put my critique nicely but in the end it would
have been unfair not to have been honest. The manuscript
remained just that - a collection of school exercise books
- and I lost a friend but kept a relative.
Thus it was that I approached Ian Ronayne's
newly published book with some trepidation. Not because
I feared for Ian's writing style - I had already had a preview
of a chapter and knew his words would flow easily. I am
a fan of Richard Holmes and Bruce Catton, historians who
invoke in their writing the techniques of thriller writers
whose skill is to hold your and keep you wanting to turn
the pages. But while history is often thrilling, unlike
the conventional thriller, we know the ending before we
read the first page. The true skill of the history writer
is to keep us enthralled along a road where we already know
the destination. This Ian achieves with the apparent ease
of someone already well-practised.
In the published histories of the Great War,
the role of the Channel Islands is not writ large. Even
in the Islands themselves, despite the ubiquitous war memorials
commemorating the 'glorious dead', the unique experience
of the Second World War, when the enemy was not so much
at the door as in the front parlour, is overwhelming. However,
along with the rest of the British Empire, the impact on
Island families from the loss of a loved husband, son, brother
or lover, was far greater in the first global conflict than
the second. That Jerseymen (and the book that records the
role of Jerseywomen has yet to be written) flocked to the
colours when they need not have done has now been meticulously
and often movingly recorded.
Against the vast backcloth of the Western
Front and the emotions evoked by the fate of many 'Pals'
battalions, the Jersey 'Pals' have earned, so far, little
recognition. Unlike their Guernsey counterparts, there was
no Royal Jersey Light Infantry, and the fates of the Jerseymen
were very much linked with that of the Royal Irish Rifles.
Ian answers a question so often asked. Why the Royal Irish
Rifles? What special link was there between this island
and that Ireland? The answer is very prosaic. The Royal
Irish Rifles were short of men and would have taken them
Ian fills in a lot of detail and in particular explores
the relationship between the Island and its men at the Front.
What he paints is a much more complex picture than has hitherto
been the case. What we learn is that there was much more
to a group of volunteers going happily to war singing that
it was a long way to Tipperary. The island's attitude towards
its potential heroes was at best ambivalent and at worst
very much a case of out of sight, out of mind. Why this
should have been so is explored in considerable detail.
Much of the book is written in a distinctly 'novelish' style.
I was particularly impressed with the prologue in which
Ian displays techniques that would certainly grace the opening
pages of a novel and I suspect that behind the historian
is a novelist waiting to show himself.
Ultimately most war histories are stories of tragedies and
this is one of them. It is also the story of a group of
young men (and in the case of their CO, not so young) who
deserve the recognition that Ian's work has now finally
Altogether more than twelve thousand men from these Islands
fought in the Great War, many with considerable distinction.
Indeed the proportion of men who rallied to the colours
(and, more tragically, their losses) was greater from the
Islands than from any other community in Britain. This is
often overlooked. While Ian's book does not address this
particular wider aspect, it does give its reader a much
greater insight into why this might have been. The Jersey
Pals, whose story 'Ours' is, were a relatively small cog
in that larger wheel.
In his Foreword His Excellency Lt General Andrew Ridgway
writes that this book will ensure that the memory of the
Jersey Company in the Great War and the bravery and devotion
of this loyal band of 'Jersey Pals' will live on forever.
In his introduction Ian suggests that he had not expected
to have to write the book because surely it had been written
already. I am glad he did and his work deserves a wider
readership than it is likely to get.