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J.M. Cobley

A HUNDRED YEARS TO ARRAS . . . Between the covers

Arras1006Ask the average person to name a Great War battle, and they will probably come up with The Somme, or perhaps Paschendaele. Few would mention Arras. It was certainly shorter than the more infamous prolonged slogging matches, officially lasting from 9th April to 16th May 1917. A brief historical background: after the Battle of the Somme ground to a halt in November 1916, the German army began planning a strategic withdrawal between Arras and Reims. The effect of this would be to shorten their line, making defence easier. The Germans called the new line the Siegfriedstellung, while the British and their allies called it the Hindenburg Line. The withdrawal was conducted with great skill and secrecy, and the Germans conducted a scorched earth policy on the terrain they vacated. The Sam Mendes film 1917 was set against this backdrop.

Arras1005In the spring of 1917, the British planned a major offensive either side of the ancient city of Arras, and J.M. Cobley makes this the climax of his novel. The main protagonist, Robert Henson, is a farmer’s son from Somerset and he enlists with the county regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry. We follow him through training and early skirmishes with the enemy, along with other men who become his close friends, and Cobley makes clever use of the contrast between the Cider With Rosie idylls of life in rural England and the harsh realities of life in the British Army. The author does, however, make the telling point that for some young men the plentiful – if unimaginative – army diet was actually a huge improvement on what they had been used to at home.

Robert Henson soon learns the difference between life out of the line and the very different world in the trenches, where insanitary conditions, rats, lice, dead bodies and haphazard meals – not to mention the danger of sudden death – are ever present. Robert’s skill with a gun – honed since he was a young lad hunting rabbit, pheasant and hare on his father’s farm – comes back to haunt him when he is chosen to be part of a firing squad who must execute two lads who have cracked under the pressure and deserted.

Cobley is not much given to mysticism in this book but, like many who have visited the old battlefields and stood in the silence contemplating the fallen, he senses a crucial link between time, landscape and dramatic events:

“The land sweeps. The mind strays. The soil can be swept away, but the heart is deep-rooted. It always returns. The land, broad and deep, is home. The warmth of the farm and the embrace of the hills, the coldness of the battlefield and the pulse of blood are one in the earth.”

No novel set in the Great War will – for me –  ever come close to John Harris’s magisterial Covenant With Death, but Jason Cobley’s novel is up there with the challengers. The closing pages reveal that the author has a personal connection to Robert Henson. Cobley’s military research is pretty good, and he leaves us with a heartbreaking account of the cruelty of war, the pity of war and the devastation that war brings to the lives of ordinary men and women. We also have a sober – and sombre – reflection on the interweaving mysteries of time and memory. A Hundred Years to Arras is published by Unbound and is out now.

Please read the novel. Then, if you are minded, click here to read more about the real life Robert Gooding Henson.

ON MY SHELF, AUGUST 2021 . . . Chevreau, Cobley, Davies, Simenon & Ward

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This month we have four relatively new names alongside an absolute giant of the genre. In surname order, take a look at:

THE HARVARD CURSE by MARTIN CHEVREAU

Three students disappear at the end of the 2019 autumn term at Harvard. The press dubs it ‘The Harvard Curse’ – but what has really happened? To solve this mystery, we must follow two of the young people, Clementine and Adrien in the months before they vanish – as the pair meet and run into a world of trouble together. Through the complicity of new and old friends alike, they disappear leaving a trail of evidence that readers must examine and decide who is to blame. A central character in this novel is the atmospheric  changing seasons of the New England university campus – a compelling backdrop to the tale as the secrets slowly reveal themselves. This is published by Book Guild and will be available on 28th August.

A HUNDRED YEARS TO ARRAS by J.M. COBLEY

This is not crime fiction, but as someone who is passionate about anything to do with The Great War, I couldn’t resist the chance to review it. It tells the tale of a young Somerset man who enlists to fight the Germans. On one level it is a chilling account of the mincing machine horror of WWI battles, but it also examines the profound links between landscape, history and memory. Check my tweets and main page for a full review. Available now, this book is published by Unbound Digital

THE CONSCRIPT by ALASTAIR B. DAVIE

This is the tale of an idealistic young man from 1940s northern England who is attracted to socialism after his own experience of poverty and hardship. He joins the Communist Party, is manipulated by unscrupulous Soviet agents, and feeds sensitive information to Stalin’s men. While Britain is, notionally, an ally of the Soviet Union, this is no problem, but when the war ends, and Europe is divided by political persuasion, Tom Pearson is faced with a totally different – and potentially deadly – conflict of interests. The Conscript is published by Book Guild and you can buy it here.

DEATH THREATS and other stories by GEORGES SIMENON

Georges Simenon is simply one of the giants of crime fiction. If ever a character could claim to be immortal, Jules Maigret (flanked, perhaps, by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot) will be on the podium. This new collection of short stories is endorsed by the author’s son, John, and will delight all fans of The Master. Published by Penguin, this paperback will be out in September.

THE WRECKING STORM by MICHAEL WARD

We are in a turbulent England just before the outbreak of the English Civil War. As the chances of a peaceful resolution of the dispute between King and Parliament recede, Puritan radicals demand more concessions from the King. Bishops and lords are attacked in the streets as the Apprentice Boys run amok. Criminal gangs use the disorder to mask their activities while the people of London lock their doors and pray for deliverance.

No one is immune from the contagion. Two Jesuit priests are discovered in hiding and brutally executed – and soon the family of spice merchant Thomas Tallant is drawn into the spiral of violence. Thomas struggles to discover who is responsible, aided by the enigmatic Elizabeth Seymour, a devotee of science, mathematics and tobacco in equal measure. Together they enter a murky world of court politics, street violence, secret codes and poisoned letters, and confront a vicious gang leader who will stop at nothing to satisfy his greed. Published by Sharpe Books, The Wrecking Storm is available now.

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