Hell of a Time
An Australian Soldier’s Diary of the Great War
Philip Owen Ayton (Elvala Ayton, Ed)
Text Publishing Company 2018
Paperback 287pp RRP $49.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, July 2019
Philip Owen Ayton was 25 years of age when he enlisted in the AIF in Sydney one day after war was declared. On this day, (12th August), he commenced a diary that by War’s end would run to in excess of 100,000 words in five exercise books. His son’s had access to the diaries, but it was a long time before they moved to have them printed and one daughter-in-law, Elvala, ensured nothing was omitted.
By 20th August he was a sapper in 1st Field Company Engineers (1FCE). Sailing from Sydney in mid-October, he was on the First Convoy that sailed from Albany on 1st November 1914 and arrived at Mena Camp in Egypt early next month. Landing on Gallipoli on 25th April, he vividly describes the scene and the daunting tasks faced by both the infantry and engineers in the first days. Wounded in May and hospitalised in Egypt, he then returned to Gallipoli only to become a casualty again in July. Hospitalised in Malta, he was moved to England to convalesce before returning to Egypt to re-join the AIF before moving to the Western Front in March 2016.
Ayton served with the 1FCE in battles at Pozieres, Flers and Broodseinde, gaining promotion to corporal by February 1917. In November of that year he attended the Officer Training Course in England and was appointed lieutenant in 4 Battalion on Jun 1918. It was his wish to transfer to the infantry where he felt he could make a bigger contribution. His last ‘stunt’ was from Proyart in the push through the Hindenberg Line. This battle he most capably describes in non-stop colourful detail giving the reader some idea of what was asked and expected of soldiers in the forefront of a battle.
Concentrating on himself and those in his own section/platoon, Ayton makes no comment about officers or the ‘bigger picture’ and writes only of his own experiences. Considerable detail is forthcoming about his stand-down days, leave in England and in Paris, as no doubt he had better opportunity to put pen to paper. He was greatly indebted to those families just behind the Front Line as well as those in England for their exceedingly generous hospitality in such trying times.
Three simple and adequate maps provide locations mentioned in the narrative. A Timeline of his military service is one appendix, as is his poem Gallipoli penned in France in 1916. Formal military documentation and family and war photographs are detailed in a List of Illustrations. A brief Index has been included.
Written in very well composed and readable prose, it is our gain that this work has emerged 100 years after the last word was penned.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.