The Booziest Book I Read This Year
Why the World War I diary Some Desperate Glory is still an important book to read.
The booziest book I read this past year—outside of bartender’s guides, of which we suddenly have a surfeit—is also the bloodiest, the bleakest, and the most terrifying. On Jan. 4, 1917, Edward Campion Vaughan boarded a train in London’s Waterloo Station. He had just turned 19 and he was going to France.
1917 was not a good year to go to France, especially for a well-educated, genteel young man. Running from the English Channel to the Swiss border like a bleeding machete slash across the body of France was a double line of trenches, with the Germans on one side and the French and the British on the other and death on a scale the world had never seen before. England was using its genteel young men to lead small groups of other, less genteel young men forward into a pitiless, all-devouring hurricane of machine gun bullets and scything shell fragments in the hope that the survivors would be able to wrest a short stretch of the German trenches from their survivors and hold it against the inevitable counterattacks long enough to bind their wounds and do it again.
According to the poet and novelist Robert Graves, who was there, a “subaltern”—a junior officer, like Vaughan—could count on “a mere six weeks” of trench service before being killed or wounded so badly he had to be evacuated. Graves’s figure has been disputed. Vaughan, however, kept a diary of the eight months he spent in France, and if anything it proves Graves an optimist: At the diary’s conclusion, after Vaughan’s company is destroyed in the battle of Passchendaele—fought in a nightmarish mud swamp that inspired the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings—he is the only surviving officer out of five. The battalion his company belonged to has only five out of 33 junior officers left.
Published in 1981 as Some Desperate Glory: the World War I Diary of a British Officer, Vaughan’s diary is a meticulous chronicle of one teenager’s trip through hell. It also depicts its author doing something any of us would do to cope with the terror and the horror that suffused life in the trenches. Drinking.
A great many books have described life in the trenches. One aspect that is almost always touched on lightly is how much the young officers drank. The enlisted men received a daily rum ration when they were in combat. The officers, however, were on their own. Vaughan’s book is nearly unique in that it shows us exactly what that meant. It meant that, or so it seems from the diary, every time two or more officers got together, out came tumblers of whisky, a flask of brandy, shots of straight gin, bottles of warm Champagne, cheap wine, Belgian beer, rum punch made on a camp stove, and still more. They drank in trembling, shell-pounded dugouts, in shellholes, in trench corners, in cellars of tumbledown houses, anywhere and everywhere. At night, they “sat round on [their] valises drinking whisky.” But they didn’t wait until the day was done to take a drink. As they knew all too well, for many, the day, and their lives, might end at any minute; better to take that drink now.
Some, of course, drank too much and too often. They were viewed more with pity than condemnation: as Vaughan writes about one such officer, “this was an excellent fellow… but always so tight that he could not be kept in the battalion.”
It requires no imagination to understand why they drank. They drank, as Vaughan did after witnessing another unit pounded to bits by shellfire, to “dispel the images.” They drank to celebrate surviving another stint in the line and they drank to get through the next one. They drank on the job because they couldn’t do the job unless they drank. Then they drank to forget the job they had just done. When Vaughan pulls his company out of the line after an attack, there are 15 men left of the original 90. “So this was the end of ‘D’ Company,” he writes.
“Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future.”
That was the last entry in his diary. Vaughan survived the war, only to die in a botched operation in 1931.
I read Some Desperate Glory early this year but I’ve been thinking of it quite a bit since Nov. 8, and especially when our—gulp!—president-elect does or says something disgusting, distressing, or disheartening. That happens a lot, and it gets me to contemplating day drinking; to thinking about what a nice tot of, say, Highland Park Ice 17-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch or Plantation Vintage 2001 Jamaican Rum would do for my spirits, right now. And, judging by what I hear from my friends, from acquaintances at holiday parties and on Twitter, and from random strangers standing in line with me at the Cozy Soup and Burger, Richard’s Shoe Repair, and a half-dozen other places over the last few weeks, I’m not alone. Just have a drink and make the world go away.
But then I think about Vaughan. The time for day drinking is not now, when we can still do something to change our situation. The time for that is when you have no other option. I’ll save the tots for when the whole Red Dawn scenario comes to pass; when civilization, or however much of it we’ve so far been able to create, is ripped apart; when I’m out on the street, cold and exhausted and desperate but also determined not to give in. Then, drink ’em if you got ’em. Now, call your congressperson. Drink later.