Ask 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.
In 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.