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Sword of Bone

SWORD OF BONE . . . Between the covers

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Some critics have compared Anthony Rhodes (1916-2004) with his more illustrious near contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. They were both Roman Catholics, although Rhodes converted late in life. Both wrote novels, biographies and travel books. Both – and this is most relevant here – wrote fictionalised accounts of their service in WW2. Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen & Unconditional Surrender – was a much more substantial achievement, but both wrote from the view of public school educated men who had gone on to higher education, in Waugh’s case Oxford, and in Rhodes’s case Royal Military College Sandhurst. The latter, of course, makes Rhodes a professional soldier, but they both wrote with a certain sardonic detachment about the war and the soldiers who served in it.

Sword of Bone begins in the early autumn of 1939 when Rhodes becomes a liaison officer for his army division. He is a gifted linguist, and he is a member of the advance party sent to France. They assemble in Southampton, then:

At three o’clock that afternoon we embarked on a miserable grimy little cross-channel boat called The Duchess of Atholl, which had been painted a dirty grey and which, except for what appeared to be an inexplicable pair of blue knickers drying on the bridge, had little enough connection with her eponymous aristocrat.”

SOB cover014His party work their way at a leisurely pace from Brittany up to the grim and grey slag heaps and factory chimneys in the region of Lille, Lens and  La Bassée. His role eventually settles into that of commissioning supplies of engineering materials – principally those needed to meet a sudden demand for concrete pill boxes.

It is worth spelling out at this stage what exactly was going on in the war in Western Europe. On 3rd September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. All through that autumn, until the winter became spring, there was little or no military action on the ground. In December, British warships had engaged the German Battleship Graf von Spee, and forced it to seek refuge in the neutral port of Montivideo, where it was eventually scuttled. Back in France, the French had the largest army in Europe, the best tanks, and were convinced that the complex of fortifications known as The Maginot Line made its eastern border with Germany impregnable.

Not so secure, as Rhodes finds when he is billeted near Lille, is the border with Belgium – little more than a few strands of barbed wire and sentry boxes manned by a handful of bored soldiers. The first half of the book is a series of entertaining encounters with village Mayors, profiteering restaurateurs, blimpish Colonels and the complex hierarchies that exist between different parts of the British Army. In Rhodes’s entourage are other officers, of contrasting temperament and character. There is Stimpson, intellectual, effete, almost, and politically rather ‘unsound’.

When the last politician has been strangled with the entrails of the last general, then, and only then, shall we have peace“, he says one evening in the Mess.

The Padre is emphatically different. He is “a man whose views on the treatment of Indians did more credit to Kipling than to his cloth.

Rhodes catches sight of his first German (through binoculars) when he and other officers visit a Maginot fort near Veckering, in the Moselle region. Rhodes’s Major wants action:

Quick, ” said Major Cairns, turning to a Guardsman with a rifle, “Pick him off. Quickly, man.
Please, ” said the subaltern, without moving, “do no such thing. Our business is to obtain information. We want prisoners, not dead men. Besides, if we fire from here, it will only give our own position away. I am afraid I must ask you not to think of firing, sir. It will only mean an immediate reply from the Boche with mortar fire.
Major Cairns sadly put down the rifle which he had taken from the Guardsman, and we all stood by the trees looking out over the valley.”

Of course, the fun has to end sometime, and after a foray into Norway, Hitler’s forces invade Holland Belgium and France on 10th May. The citizens of Louvain and Brussels, remembering the heroics of two decades earlier, are convinced that the ‘Tommies’ will, once again, give the Boche a bloody nose. As we all know, it was not to be. The Germans have ignored the Maginot Line and are storming down through Belgium. Arras falls, and the French army – on paper, numerically and technically superior – are in headlong retreat along with their British allies. It is very much a case of “our revels now are ended” for Rhodes and his colleagues.

Sword of Bone is a little masterpiece. As it follows the fortunes of a small group of British Army officers in the early days of WW2, it records their journey from champagne and lobster lunches and a seemingly absent enemy, to the terrifying and bloodstained beaches of Dunkirk. Rhodes writes with great charm, gentle satire, pinpoint observation but with total authenticity. The book is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.

You can read my reviews of the other books in this excellent series by clicking the image below.

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ON MY SHELF . . . April 2021

The book deliveries have been pretty healthy lately so, helped by a few successful fishing expeditions on Netgalley, my TBR pile is looking good.

DOWN IN THE COUNTRY by James Bowring
Book Guild Publishing 28th April

When a couple return to their home in rural England from their holiday in Italy (remember when we could do that?) their welcome home present is a dead body – a woman,strangled – in their garden. The local senior police officer has been badly injured in an accident, and Acting Inspector Beauregard is the man who has to step up and investigate the murder. Unfortunately, Beauregard is soon overwhelmed by the case. Help is at hand, however. A nearby luxury hotel is run by a former policeman, ex Detective Inspector Clive Walsingham. Walsingham is finding the relative sanity, safety and security of civilian life something of a bind, and he leaps at the chance to help Beauregard solve the  crime. The dead woman, however, had “something of a past”, and was connected to a notoriously crooked local businessman. When the case is further complicated by the disappearance of the daughter of a local aristocrat, Walsingham has to use every ounce of his experience to bring the case to a close.

PATHFINDERS by Cecil Lewis
Imperial War Museum 20th May

Lewis was one of the band of brothers who served with distinction in both world wars. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, after lying about his age and learned to fly at Brooklands. In 1916, he flew with No. 3 Squadron and was awarded the MC for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Flying over the battlefield on 1st July 1916 to report on British troop movements, he witnessed the blowing of the mines at La Boiselle. He later described the early morning scene in his book “Sagittarius Rising”. Pathfinders focuses on just one night in 1942, when each member of the crew of a Wellington bomber prepares for a raid in his own way, with his own hopes and fears.

SUMMON UP THE BLOOD by RN Morris
Severn House 22nd April

I have become a firm fan of RN Morris’s likeably eccentric London copper, Detective Silas Quinn. Click this link to read my reviews of a couple of earlier novels in the series. We are, as before, in that fateful year 1914, but it is March; the events  of June in far-off Serbia were still months away, and that last long Edwardian summer of innocence was yet to begin, but in London, however, there is a bizarre precursor of the ensuing bloodshed – except there is no blood. A killer is claiming victims in the dark alleys and byways of the city – and each corpse is found to have been completely exsanguinated. Quinn, considered something of an oddball by most of his colleagues, is in charge of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Department, and if ever there were a case that called for Quinn’s peculiar skill-set, it is this one.

BLACKSTOKE by Rob Parker
Red Dog Press out now

Parker is a gifted writer who injects energy and vitality into every paragraph he writes. He has an ongoing series of action thrillers (see below), but he obviously enjoys exploring the darker divisions between the world we inhabit and the nameless beings of the supernatural world. Blackstoke is a high-end housing development, but the land on which it has been built has a history all of its own, and is not a happy one. As the eager new owners move into their luxury homes, ancient and bloodstained memories, thought to be safely buried, begin to stir, and a nightmare becomes a reality for terrified families.

THE WATCHMAN by Rob Parker
Lume Books 24th June

Ben Bracken is an ex-special forces operative who has done jail time for a crime he didn’t commit, has escaped from prison, and has lived a precarious life of aliases, assumed identities – and forever looking over his shoulder. Like all the best action heroes who try to avoid trouble, it usually finds him. The previous Ben Bracken books (click here for reviews of a couple) have been firmly rooted on home soil, but now Ben – newly settled down to family life –  decides to do a favour for an old military chum, and this takes him across the Atlantic to New York, where all he has to do is to collect an envelope from someone in Central Park. Big mistake, Mr Bracken. Pursued by the FBI, the CIA – not to mention The Mob – Ben’s little overseas jolly turns into a fight for survival.

SWORD OF BONE by Anthony Rhodes
Imperial War Museum 20th May

The author served in the British Army during World War II and was involved with retreat of the British Army from Dunkirk. Sword of Bone is his account of the evacuation, in a style that reminded reviewers of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy in its account of the minutiae of military life. After being promoted to captain he lectured in Canada and the United States, where he met and married a niece of Gustav Mahler. The marriage was short-lived and led to a nervous breakdown. He was invalided out of the Army in 1945. Dunkirk is a potent word, and is often evoked to conjure up images of pluck, resolution and indomitable spirit, but it was also a significant military defeat, with the BEF out manoeuvred by the German army.

FALSE TRUTH by CD Steele
Book Guild Publishing 28th April

CD Steele’s debut thriller introduces us to former MI6 agent – and now private investigator – Joe Wilde. As he investigated the disappearance of a young and promising football star, his path crosses that of DI Carl Whatmore of the Met Police. As is ever the case when PIs and regular coppers meet, sparks fly, at least initially. The young footballer – Liam Devlin – seemed to have led a blameless life, but with the help of old MI6 buddy Mark Thompson, Wilde turns over a few stones, and what they see scuttling about spells problems for the investigators, the police – and Devlin’s worried mother Sally.

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