This extraordinary memoir catalogues the experience of the author as he underwent four years in the western front trenches without even being wounded – an outcome that he himself rates as a twenty thousand to one shot.
Private (he refused many offers of promotion) Frank Richards was born in 1883 and, according to Google, was already working in the Welsh coal mines by his early teens. When he reached eighteen, he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served in India, (the subject of another, later memoir called Soldier Sahib), finishing his tour in 1914, when his service ended. Back home and in the reserves, he was recalled to the colours as soon as war broke out, arriving in time for the very first battles before a trench had been dug, and it was still possible to be charged by Uhlans.
What follows is a description of life as a private soldier, better than any I have ever read. Richards writes beautifully with the same laconicism and humour displayed by the great cartoonist Bruce Bairns, and replete with all the grousing we associate with the life of an enlisted man. He was encouraged to write his book by Robert Graves under whom he served, and who came across him when censoring his men’s letters home. The terseness and the humour struck Graves and later, after Richards had finished his book, Graves wrote a foreword where he describes this. It is said that he also helped with punctuation and grammar, maybe, but that does not detract from the achievement.
Throughout Old Soldiers Never Die, the officers and men whom the author dislikes are given nicknames such as Buffalo Bill, Deadwood Dick, and the Peer. Those he admires are allowed their names such as Graves and Sassoon (another Welch Fusilier, whom Richards considered should have won the VC). When men die, they are deemed to have “gone west” and if they display the understandable reluctance to go “over the top”, then they are never called anything other than “windy”.
The author never misses a chance to get hold of as much “ving blong” as he can, and his pursuit of French women is nothing short of relentless. Yet because he has the misfortune to be involved in nearly all the major engagements, the book doubles as a first-rate history of the war’s progress seen from an intelligent man’s perspective.
As so often happens with veterans, his life after the war seems to have been a bit rickety. There is scant information about his post-war life, with various suggestions of him liking a drink and a bet, of him marrying late and of having a daughter. I can only think that it was more eventful than that, because he was that sort of man, as he hints at in the book, and as his decorations bear witness.
Either way please read this; it will uplift you, make you laugh, and, yes inspire as well.