They say that armchair generals discuss tactics but real generals discuss logistics. So here’s something different. Dawn of Victory is an account of World War I focused entirely on logistics. Jim Maultsaid enlisted at the outbreak of the war in 1914 and was immediately sent to the front where he was badly wounded on the first day of the Somme offensive. He survived, but was permanently disabled. Rather than being demobilized, he was packed off to officer candidate school and then sent back to France as a Lieutenant in charge of one platoon of the 96,000 Chinese labourers recruited to help with the war effort. His were from Shandong. Dawn of Victory is the story of the platoon’s day-to-day struggle to keep the frontline troops supplied with food, ammunition and fuel.
Dawn of Victory is the 1918-1920 volume of Maultsaid’s Star Shell Reflections, a trilogy assembled from the scrapbooks he kept throughout the war. Though barely educated, he was a talented sketch artist, and throughout the war he filled his few idle moments by sketching those around him, the destruction, and the rolling stock and stores that were his daily preoccupation. After the war he re-drew some of the sketches, colored some them, and assembled them into a scrapbook with descriptive text, presumably with an eye to publication. For whatever reason, that never transpired, but now, a century later, the scrapbook has been published for the first time after extensive editing by his granddaughter Barbara McClune.
Though he doesn’t hesitate to use the term “chinks” or to parody their pidgin, Maultsaid is unstinting in his praise his men. “Never did I see human beings work as we worked those Chinese boys.” But he admired more than simply their capacity for hard work. He praises also their diligence, their morals and their personal conduct in general. Over 23 months, working with them daily, Maultsaid developed a profound, if rather uncomprehending, appreciation of his laborers as people. When his unit was finally demobilised in 1920, they seem to have parted with sincere regret on both sides.
So Dawn of Victory is about logistics, but it is also about the sort of intimate inter-cultural relations that were rare at that time. Readers today won’t learn much about the course of the war, but they can enjoy an interesting account of Chinese in a foreign land illustrated with a large number of interesting sketches.