Book Reviews · Children's Literature

A Soldier’s Sketchbook by John Wilson

A Soldier’s Sketchbook: The Illustrated First World War Diary of R. H. Rabjohn by John Wilson.

Rating★★★★★

Still wondering, Can it really be true?

During my undergraduate experience, I was interested, studied, and specialized in military history. My entire academic career has included many variations on the phrase, “Really? You are interested in military history? Really?” More often than not when I purchase a book about military history, I’m met with some hesitance and the cashier asking if I need a gift receipt. Nope. It’s for me, I swear.

Because of this passion and interest I’ve had since I was about ten, I was immediately drawn to this book. I have a small collection of published letters and diaries from the Great War*, and when I saw a book that included not only personal diaries of a soldier, but also his sketches?! I was sold before I even opened it up to take a peek.

I have done extensive primary resources research and have looked at dozens of Great War soldier’s papers, including letters, diaries, leaflets, tokens, and random artifacts interspersed. Every time I read the personal writing of soldier’s in conflict, my heart breaks. It’s been over one-hundred years since the start of the First World War, and next November will mark with centennial anniversary of it’s conclusion. Despite the difference in time, reading letters and diaries from soldiers makes me feel so much that it is hard to put into words. (But that’s a blog post for another day.)

Back to Wilson’s book!

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John Wilson, “A Soldier’s Sketchbook” (Toronto: Tundra Books, 2017), p. 23.

Published by Tundra Books, this book is beautiful, well laid out, and is organized in such a way that enables the reader to easily identify between supplied background information, further elaboration by Wilson, as well as the passages written by Private Russell Rabjohn. The book is broken down into several parts, describing the different directions of Rabjohn’s experience in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, while also including general background information on major events. From Vimy Ridge, to Passchendaele, to Amiens, Wilson offers useful information to give context and greater meaning to the diary entries.

Aside from the battles and movements by the Allied forces, Wilson includes different aspects of a soldier’s life, such as living conditions, entertainment, leave, movements in Europe, demobilization, as well as the different duties and tasks assigned to Rabjohn. This helps to develop a greater understanding of the experiences of Rabjohn, and likely, the similar experiences of other soldiers.

Reading the life and experiences of a soldier is a powerful way to humanize the costs of war, as well as look into the complex and dynamic relationships developed through conflict, and how it changes a person. Throughout the selection of diary entries, the reader can see the changes in Rabjohn as well as his myriad of reactions to the horrors he is facing. The end of the book brings into sharp focus the realization that the First World War was fought on the back of civilian soldiers, not professional soldiers. In several of his entries, Rabjohn names soldiers who were killed or wounded, a constant reminder about the deadliness of their situation.

Overall, I thought it was a fantastic book. I was impressed with the detail Wilson offers about the war as a whole, as well as into the life and experiences of Russell Rabjohn. My only critique of the book would be the lack of additional information about Rabjohn after he returned to Canada. There are a few mentions throughout the book about the self-published book Rabjohn released in the 1970s, but aside from that, there was no mention about what became of his life after the war. Did he stay in the Toronto-area where he was born? Did he continue to draw and become an artist? How did he assimilate back into civilian life after fighting a war for more than two and a half years?

These were the questions that I was left with in the end, and I would have really liked a brief afterward about Private Russell Rabjohn.

The last few lines of the book had me tearing up. After carefully reading every line of the book, every entry provided by Rabjohn (and selected by Wilson), it’s impossible to not feel something. It’s an informative, moving, stunning book, and I will definitely be suggesting it to everyone I know that is interested in military history and the experiences of soldiers.

I recommend this book to adults and children alike, however I would suggest that younger children be introduced with discretion. There are some mentions of wounds, death, and bodies that may be disturbing to very young children.

Because I’m curious…
Have you ever read diaries or letters from soldiers during conflict? What did you feel? Did it make you think?

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John Wilson, “A Soldier’s Sketchbook” (Toronto: Tundra Books, 2017), p. 15.

*Note: I don’t use the alternative names for the First and Second World Wars. I know many people (even academics) refer two of the most major conflicts in human history as World War One and World War Two, but I literally cringe every time I hear it. Labeling the wars in this way makes them sound like they were movies, and takes away from the human losses and casualties of war. It’s okay if you don’t agree, and you are fully entitled to use the terms you feel most comfortable with. However, when writing blog posts about these conflicts, I will exclusively refer to them in the following terms:

  • The Great War or the First World War
  • The Second World War

This is just my preference when I’m writing. Thought I would give a heads up in case the language isn’t clear for everyone!