Diary of a Common Soldier

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In 1941 'Mac' McMillan was drafted into B Company of the 9th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade to serve in North Africa. Throughout his two years of Army service he kept a personal diary of his experiences of war including the challenges of the terrain, the lack of supplies and constant struggle to survive. This is a fascinating account of events taking place during a pivotal period in World War II. More

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About F. R. McMillan

F.R.McMillan, or 'Mac' as he was more commonly called, was born on the 25th June 1914. His father had a sports shop and Mac became a tennis racquet stringer, working in Cambridge, England after he married. The sports work was only for the six winter months, so Mac took other jobs during the rest of the year.

During the depression of the 1930s he took any job he could get and when he received his call-up papers, in June 1940, he was a baker’s roundsman.

After the war, and his time spent in the Army, Mac went into engineering becoming the foreman at a small firm. He was a keen union man and became the branch secretary of the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union).

Sadly, Mac McMillan passed away following a heart attack in 1959 aged 45.

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Reviews

Review by: Dave Evans on Jan. 12, 2013 : star star star star star
Review: Diary of a Common Soldier by F. R. McMillan ISBN: 978-1-909370-07-4 with editorial by Janice Robinson (his daughter). Proceeds go to the British Heart Foundation

This electronic book consists of the annotated diary of an intelligent young man, a socialist and thinker, in his army days criss-crossing wartorn North Africa by truck and train, experiencing a great deal of hardship and stress while separated from his wife and children, all of which comes across in his clipped, but highly descriptive and often class-conscious acerbic prose. For example: "once again the stupidity and vile wickedness of this war was brought home to me....moving even a mile is quite a business as our truck has to be very carefully packed so that the vital instruments of war, namely our officers’ wines, beer, spirits, table, armchairs, picnic case, etc, etc shall not suffer any harm."

Life was hard... the gamut of stomach, skin and chest disorders that living in the desert brings, plus having to exist on minimal, and often dirty water, and "there are more flies than I have ever seen in my life" plus spiders, ticks, scorpions, snakes, mosquitoes thieving fellow soldiers, the official mail censor, haggling locals, pernickety and nonsensical army regulations sandstorms, rain, heat, enemy air attacks, minefields, plus the mental strain of simply not knowing when, or if, the war would end, and what the result would be. Added in was personal pain like this "my only son is a year old today and I have not even seen him since his birth. Such is but one minor tragedy of this war, I suppose, but to me it is a very big thing indeed"

The despair grows over time:

November 21st 1941- Heard the news on the radio. Quite heartened to be able at long last to see a faint glimmer of hope that the war will come to an end in possibly a matter of months instead of years.

(but not so much later) It is understood that the next few days will be decisive in this campaign, but I have heard remarks like that before so I am rather sceptical, having lost my illusions long since.

There is also humour, some of it black: dysentery has "has definitely improved my speed at running 100%"

And throughout the book, the very plain and decent humanity of the author shines through, such as one entry when he was on leave behind the lines "I had planned to visit the cinema this evening but it was open only to coloured troops as they are not allowed to mix with white men in public places around here. The darkie is only good enough to die with white folk or for them, but apparently our democratic principles do not allow him to live with them.... ‘Liberty is in peril’ some patriotic slogan writers told us at the beginning of the war. 'We fight for the freedom of mankind, whatever his colour, race or religion’, say our jingoistic leaders. My, My! What a sceptic I am getting when I think maybe they didn't really mean all these wonderful things".

This is a chastening and informative read for anyone who is interested in micro-histories- the stories of what the real rank and file people did in war. My own father was in the army in North Africa at the same time as FR, and I have done some historical research with many WW2 veterans, so this lively and detailed book filled in some gaps in what I knew about the experience. Some editorial clarification here and there adds to the value of the text, and this book would be very useful reading for anyone who needed to understand the British military processes and daily routines of the 1940s.

I would have liked to see some photographs and maybe some more maps, but that is a small quibble about what is a very moving book that reads in a direct, human and honest way.

Add in the factor that sales benefit a very worthy charity and that is the icing on the cake. Everyone involved in the production should be justly proud of this book.


Dr Dave Evans
(reviewed within a month of purchase)

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