Into the Unknown is the extraordinary diary of a Kiwi soldier, Alick Trafford, who served in World War I. He wasn’t supposed to keep a diary, but he was a sensitive, literate man with a love of words, and writing this diary was a huge comfort to him at the time. It is now published for the first time, so we get to read his raw and authentic story of war.
The book almost didn't get published. Later in his life Alick asked his son Harvey to retrieve the diaries from their hiding place and burn them. But Harvey just couldn’t do that, so he held onto the diaries, and he gave copies to his son, Ian. So years later, Alick’s grandson, has published the diaries with support of other family members. Ian has done a first-rate job, and in the later part of the book, Ian writes about Alick’s life after the diary and the war ended.
It follows Alick’s story of leaving a remote NZ farm to join his younger brother fighting in Europe in World War One. He was just 22 years old when he departed, and he quickly discovered there was no glory in war, and he writes about his experiences with great honesty. From Egypt to France, from Passchendaele to the Somme, he shares the startling contrast between trench life, and the times billeted with the grateful French people in their villages in the countryside.
I’ve read many accounts of how miserable it was in the trenches, but Alick really captures the utter unrelenting suffering of these experiences. He describes being waist deep in mud, being constantly wet and cold to the bone, with rats feasting on fallen men, and bodies rotting in no man’s land. And he also describes the random nature of death – many times he has friends killed right next to him.
Thankfully there are interludes of being in the French countryside or in England, and here he celebrates simple things like a warm bath and comfortable bed, and the good company of others. After reading this diary, there is a real sense of how resilient Alick was, despite everything that he endured, although the book does touch on his periods of depression.
Into the Unknown is a gripping read that offers a real understanding of what it was really like during the First World War. And the author writes about many people by name, so for anyone who has had a relative serve in this war, it would be worth checking out, as you may very well discover something about one of your ancestors there.
Reviewer: Karen McMillan
Penguin Random House NZ