The Great War

A DARK STEEL DEATH . . . Between the covers

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Chris Nickson’s long running saga about  Leeds copper Tom Harper continues with our man now Deputy Chief Constable. We are in January 1917 and, like in other major cities, patrols are on the look out for the silent peril of Zeppelins, while Harper has a possible act of sabotage to investigate after a pile of newspaper and kindling is found inside a warehouse used for storing military clothing. The book begins, however, a month earlier with a true historical incident.

In nearby Barnbow, a huge munitions factory had been established from scratch in 1915. Its prime function was the filling of shells. With the constant drain of manpower to the armed forces, the workforce at Barnbow became over 90% female. On the night of 5th December 1916 a massive explosion occurred in Hut 42, killing 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. It is believed that the explosion was triggered by a shell being packed with double the required amount of explosives. The dead women, at last, have their own memorial.


With the Barnbow investigation ongoing, Harper has more problems on his hands when a sentry outside a barracks in the city is shot dead with, it turns out, a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) .303 rifle, adapted for sniping, which was stolen from the barracks own armoury.

There are so many things to admire about this series, not least being the meticulous historical research carried out by the author. One example is the development of police investigative techniques. Back at the beginning, in Gods of Gold (2014), the idea that people could be identified by their fingerprints would have been seen as pure fantasy but, as we see in this novel, it was an essential tool  for the police by 1917.

Nickson text

Back to Tom Harper’s current case. As he and his detectives sift what little evidence there is, they seem to be chasing their own tails. Harper’s worries don’t end as he closes his office door each evening. In an earlier book, we learned the grim news that his vivacious and beautiful wife Annabelle, a tireless campaigner for female equality, has developed early-onset dementia. Harper has employed a Belgian refugee couple to run Annabelle’s pub, and keep a close eye on his wife, but he never knows from one day to the next what state she will be in. If he is lucky, she will show glimpses of her old self; when she is having a bad day, she inhabits a totally imaginary world and slips from all the anchors of reality. The most painful moments for Harper come when Annabelle believes that he is her late first husband, Harry.

Eventually the case breaks. Harper and his team are astonished to find they are facing not just one killer, but a partnership. Two former soldiers, Gordon Gibson and James Openshaw were virtually buried alive when a shell exploded near them on the Western Front. Openshaw was a sniper and Gibson, not much of a shot but with superb eyesight, was his spotter. Both men were invalided out, but Openshaw, after a spell at the famous Edinburgh hospital, Craiglockhart, remains under constant medical care at Gledhow Hall, a Leeds stately home used as a hospital for the duration of the war. It seems that for whatever motive, Gibson smuggled Openshaw  and the rifle out of the hospital to commit the murder of the sentry. Now, Gibson is at large with the rifle and, despite his poor marksmanship, has shot at Tom Harper’s official car, and badly wounded a policeman.

The endgame takes place as Gibson uses all his fieldcraft to find his way into a heavily guarded Gledhow Hall to liberate Openshaw and resume their killing spree. The finale is breathtaking, powerfully written – and deeply moving. A Dark Steel Death is published by Severn House and is available now.



THE MIRROR GAME . . . Between the covers

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Even before I read the first page, this book ticked a number of important boxes for me, including:
1920s ✔️
London ✔️
Great War background ✔️
Beautifully imagined cover graphics ✔️
I’m happy to say my initial optimism was not to be shattered. So, what goes on? We are in 1925 and in a London that has borne relatively little structural damage from the recent war compared to what it was to suffer less that two decades later. The major damage, however is to the people and families of the city. Across Britain, the war has claimed the lives of  886,000 participants, mostly men between the ages of 18 and 40, and London has more than its fair share of widows, children without fathers and parents without sons.

TMG FIGURE013Investigator and journalist Harry Lark fought for King and Country and emerged relatively unscathed although, like so many other men, the sounds, smells and images of the trenches are ever present at the back of his mind and he has also become addicted to laudanum – a tincture of opium and alcohol. When he is contacted by a friend and benefactor, Lady Charlotte Carlisle, she tells him that she thinks she has seen a ghost. Sitting in Mayfair’s Café Boheme, she has seen a man who is the image of Captain Adrian Harcourt, a pre-war politician who was killed on the Western Front in 1918, and was engaged to be married to her daughter Ferderica. But this man is no phantom who can fade into the wallpaper. Other customers notice him. He is flesh and blood, and approaches Lady Charlotte’s table, stares into her eyes, but then leaves without saying a word. She asks Lark to investigate.

Harry’s search takes him to Harcourt’s father who throws him out on his ear. He then visits an exclusive gentleman’s club, where he asks one too many questions, and is beaten within an inch of his life by thugs in the pay of someone powerful. Helped by an old friend, retired policeman Bob Clements, he learns that Adrian Harcourt was listed as being killed in a firefight near a ruined French village, when the company he commanded were slaughtered. There were a mere handful of survivors, one of which was the son of an influential London gangster, Alec Ivers.

Harry Lark begins to get the sense that something terrible caused the death of most of Harcourt’sTMG FIGURE012 company, and that some seriously well-connected people have ensured that the truth about their demise has been successfully covered up. Iver’s son has been committed to an institution for mentally and physically damaged WW1 soldiers, and Filton Hall is Harry’s next port of call.

As he tries to learn the truth Harry himself takes both mental and physical batterings, while there are a string of deaths around the fringes of the affair. His growing love for Ferderica seems to be reciprocated, but then they both receive a huge shock which turns the case on its head.

Author Guy Gardner’s day job – or, more likely, night job – was jazz pianist, but now he teaches piano at home in  Dorset and is planning to write more novels. He also says he enjoys a glass of single malt, so I raise a glass of my favourite, Lagavulin, in his honour!

The book is certainly not short on action, intriguing characters and plot twists but, unsurprisingly, Guy Gardner is at his best when describing the occasions when music (Ferderica is a violinist, and Harry is a music journalist) is woven into the story. The Mirror Game is atmospheric and has a convincing sense sense of time and place. It would be good even coming from an established novelist, but as a debut it is excellent.  It is published by The Book Guild, and is available now.




THE VISITORS . . . Between the covers

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VisitorsEngland, 1923. Like thousands upon thousands of other young women, Esme Nicholls is a widow. Husband Alec lies in a functional grave in a military cemetery in Flanders. His face remains in a few photographs, and in her memories. Left penniless, she ekes out a living by writing a nature-notes feature for a northern provincial newspaper, and serving as a personal assistant to an older widow, Mrs Pickering. Mrs P has the advantage of being able to visit her husband’s grave whenever she wants, as he was not a victim of the war.

Mrs P decides she would like to visit her brother in Cornwall. and sends Esme on ahead. Gilbert Stanedge, funded by his sister, presides over a community of damaged young men he once commanded during the war. They live in a rambling old house they have renamed Espérance. Each man has been scarred – physically and mentally – by the horrors they faced in the trenches. Sebastian, Hal, Clarence and Rory contribute as best they can – paintings, pottery, husbandry – to the upkeep of the house.

Esme’s initial reluctance to go to Cornwall is tempered by the fact that it was where Alec grew up. Could a visit to the street where he lived, or a stroll along the beaches he played on as a child keep the flame of remembrance burning a little brighter, for a little longer?

caroline-scott-155428586Caroline Scott (right) treats us to a high summer in Cornwall, where every flower, rustle of leaves in the breeze and flit of insect is described with almost intoxicating detail. Readers who remember her previous novel When I Come Home Again will be unsurprised by this detail. In the novel, she references that greatest of all poet of England’s nature, John Clare, but I also sense something of Matthew Arnold’s poems The Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis, so memorably set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Another clever plot device brings us face to face with the horrors that the men faced in the trenches of Flanders. Rory has written a book detailing what happened. It is still unpublished but, as Esme grows closer to him, he lets her read it. She is still, of course searching for something – anything – of Alec.

Half way through the novel, Caroline Scott employs a vertiginous plot twist. Readers must decide for themselves if it is plausible. Further detail from me would be a spoiler, but yes, after a few raised eyebrows it did work.  The Visitors is an astonishing tale of love, betrayal, heartache and  – finally –  redemption. With its two predecessors (click on the images below for more information) it makes a remarkable trilogy of novels about the men and women who survived the carnage of 1914 – 1918, but came away with scars and damage that sometimes never healed. Published by Simon & Schuster, The Visitors is out now.


When I Come



Robert Henson, the central character in J.M. Cobley’s A Hundred Years to Arras is not a fictional creation. He lived and breathed, but was just one of the estimated forty five thousand men to perish during the 1917 battle. He died of wounds, and is buried in Hervin Farm British Cemetery, St Laurent Blangy, on the outskirts of Arras. The Western Times reported his death on Wednesday 9th May 1917.


There is no joy in this sad tale, but at least Robert Henson did not leave a widow – or children – back in Somerset. As Cobley’s book relates, Robert’s death plunged his father deeper into a spiral of drink and depression, and all his mother was left with was the War Gratuity – a paltry one pound eight shillings and fourpence, some mass produced medals, and what was sarcastically termed the “Dead Man’s Penny”, below. (This is not Robert’s actual Memorial Plaque, but an artist’s impression)

Death Penny

s-l1600Robert’s regiment, The Somerset Light Infantry, has a distinguished history. It was founded in 1685 as part of King James II’s response to the Monmouth Rebellion. Under various titles it fought in every major conflict including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Afghan Wars and the Boer War until it was finally merged with other regiments to become The Light Infantry in 1968.

I am old enough to remember when living veterans of The Great War were numbered in their tens of thousands, and I grew up in a country still mourning its WW2 dead, but there was – and always will be – something different about the 1914-1919 war. Poet Vernon Scannell expressed this perfectly: (the full poem is here)

Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.

Robert Henson’s name lives on. Not just in the poignant words of a modern novel, or carved on a headstone in a lonely French cemetery, but much closer to the place he called home, whose trees, streams, fields and cloudscapes shaped his upbringing. This simple plaque is on the wall of St John the Baptist church Skilgate.


BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (part two)


HCHumphrey Cobb (left)  was born on 5th September 1899, in Siena, Italy. His mother was a doctor, and his father was an artist. He was sent to England for his early schooling, but then received his secondary education in America. After being expelled from high school in 1916, he decided to join the Canadian Army and was sent to Europe to fight. Remember that America did not join the war until 1917. He kept a war diary, and October 1917 has him at Shoreham Camp, in Sussex, as part of the 23rd Canadian Reserve battalion. January of 1918 has him near Hill 70, in front of Loos. He describes the death of a friend from his platoon.
“What happened to Young, no-one ever knew for sure. Some thought a Fritz potato masher had landed on his respirator and that it had exploded just as he was brushing it off. Evidence: face blown in and right hand blown off. “
He saw the war out, and after being stationed in post-war Cologne for a spell, he finally arrived back in Montreal on 31st May 1919.


164644The years after The Great War saw Cobb involved in a variety of enterprises. He wrote Paths of Glory while working for Gallup, the advertising and polling company, and it was published in 1935 by The Viking Press. It is believed that Cobb took the core of his story from real events on the Marne front, where for Corporals from the 136th Regiment were executed after a failed attack on a German strong-point near Souain.

So how does the book stand when set alongside the film? Firstly, it has to be said that Cobb died in 1944, so any input from him was clearly impossible. Anecdote has it that Kubrick had read the book as a teenager, and had been deeply affected by it, but a chain of events led to the film screenplay differing in one essential element from the book. In the mid 1950s Kubrick was still an emerging talent as a director, and did not have the clout to persuade big studios to put up the money for an anti-war film, made in black and white. The crucial intervention came with the interest (and influence) of Kirk Douglas. The star clearly had to have a main part in the film, but who?

In the novel, Colonel Dax is a relatively peripheral figure who, reluctantly, goes along with the doomed plan to storm the German bastion which is, incidentally, called ‘The Pimple” in the novel. So, it was a bold stroke in one way for Kubrick to re-imagine Dax as the forthright and confrontational character whose personal bravery is never in doubt, and a man who just happens to have been a lawyer in civilian life. And who better to play Dax than the dimple-chinned Hollywood heart-throb Kirk Douglas?

Cobb focuses almost all of his attention in the novel on the three men who were executed, and on the various reasons why they came to be shot by their own comrades. The book has no pantomime villains, and certainly no one person who has the blood of the victims on his hands. The men die as a result of the inexorable grinding of the military machine and the numbing effect of battlefield casualty statistics. Men are reduced to numbers, compassion is subverted by casualty statistics, and procedure trumps initiative every time. As William Tecumseh Sherman may (or may not) have said, I tell you, war is Hell!

Screen Shot 2020-12-01 at 20.21.47There are places where Kubrick and his screenwriters – Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson – did stick close to the book. The first is with the three man patrol into No Man’s Land where the cowardly and drunken Lieutenant causes the death of one of the men, thus setting up the selection of the other to be one of the judicial victims. The film plays it pretty straight, too with the events immediately prior to the execution. The character of Private Ferol is played with characteristic bravura by Timothy Carey, (right) There is one crucial difference; in the book, Ferol is chosen because he he is anti-social and widely disliked for his unpleasant behaviour, and he continues to be sarcastic and foul-mouthed right up to the point where he is strapped to the execution post. In the film, however, the enormity of his fate finally overwhelms him, and he in the unforgettable procession from the chateau to the place of execution – a chilling via dolorosa – he is reduced to a weeping, stumbling figure, clutching the arm of the Padre.

The final confrontation between Dax and the general doesn’t happen in the book, neither does the powerful final scene where the soldiers in the estaminet boo and mock the captured German girl who is forced to sing to them, but then they are reduced first to silence, with some in tears, and then they join in with the simple old song she is singing. Outside, Dax has just been told that the regiment has been ordered to return to the Trenches, but he walks away, leaving his men to their brief hour of peace.

It is worth repeating that Cobb’s gaze is focused on the rigid mechanism of army life. It whirrs, ticks and chimes the hours with little regard for the human lives caught up in its cogs. He shapes this in many different ways, but never better than when he describes the efforts made to make sure the execution is done ‘properly’.

“Regimental Sergeant-Major Boulanger was there, busy, competent as regimental sergeant-majors always are, in the same way that head waiters are busy, competent, or seem to be so, if they are good head waiters.”

It is to Boulanger that Cobb gives the very last action, in the last paragraph of the book, where he is given the task of administering the coup de grace to the bodies slumped against their posts.

“It must be said of Boulanger that he had some instinct for the decency of things, for, when he came to Langlois, his first thought and act was to free him from the shocking and abject pose he was in before putting an end to any life that might be clinging to him. His first shot was, therefore, one that deftly cut the rope and let the body fall away from the post to the ground. The next shot went into a brain that was already dead.”

I think that Kubrick (below) takes the gist of the novel, and shaped it to his own ends, and in doing so created a magnificent piece of cinema. His anti-war message is different from Cobb’s, but was clearly something he felt very deeply. A decade or so later he was able to return to his theme in Dr Strangelove, but this time he used satire and the comedy of the absurd to make his point.


BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (Part One)


Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film The Paths of Glory was a limited success at the time – it just about broke even at the box office – and was initially highly controversial. It was banned in France for twenty years, and several other European countries refused to show it as a gesture of solidarity with France. It was also banned in all American military establishments. So, why the fuss?


The film, based on a book by American writer Humphrey Cobb, focuses on a section of The Western Front in 1916 held by the French. Although it is never mentioned in the film, we assume that the action takes place around Verdun, the most costly single engagement in a war that chewed up men’s lives like a meat grinder. The 701st Regiment are ordered to attack an impregnable German position known as ‘The Anthill’. General Miraud, (George Macready, above) after initially protesting to his superior that the attack would be suicidal, changes his mind after being offered promotion.


Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas, above) is the officer who will lead the attack. He is dubious about the prospects, but obeys the order. The attack is an unmitigated disaster. German shellfire halts progress in No Man’s Land, while one company is unable even to leave the trench, such is the ferocity of the bombardment. In a rage, Miraud orders his artillery to fire on his own lines in order to force the men to attack.

Miraud feels that his own honour has been impugned, and, after removing the regiment out of the line to a chateau some miles away, orders that 100 of the surviving men be arrested and charged with cowardice. The scheming General Broulard ( Adolphe Menjou, below) suggests that just three men will be enough pour encourager les autres, and Dax is forced to ask three of his company commanders to select three sacrificial victims.

adolphe menjou

Three men are chosen: Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because his superior officer, Lieutenant Roget, needs to silence him in case he exposes Roget’s cowardice. Private Arnaud’s name is simply drawn out of a hat, while Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is a deeply unpleasant individual who, it seems, ‘has it coming’.

The three men are tried
in a mockery of a judicial process, despite an impassioned defence by Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life. They are sentenced to death. Dax has one last card to play. He has a written testimony that Miraud has ordered gunfire down on his own men, but it is dismissed by Broulard. The men are duly executed, with one of them, Arnaud, strapped to a stretcher after being seriously injured in a fight with his guards.

Broulard and Miraud are enjoying a leisurely breakfast in luxurious surroundings, when Dax is invited to join them. He shares his information about Miraud’s order to shell his own trenches. Miraud is told that he will face and enquiry, and then storms out voicing a sense of betrayal. Broulard congratulates Dax on a very clever plan to secure his own promotion. Dax finally loses his temper at this interpretation of his motives and rages at his superior officer.

Back at the chateau, the surviving members of the 701st Regiment are in an estaminet, drunk and reckless. The proprietor pushes a young German girl onto the makeshift stage and forces her to sing. She hesitantly sings an old song. “Der treue Husar” (The Faithful Hussar). The men’s mockery turns to empathy and then grief, as they join in with the song. Outside, Dax has just been given the order that the 701st are to return to the front line with immediate effect.

In Part two of this feature, I will explore the differences between the book and the film, and attempt to understand what Cobb and Kubrick were trying to say about this tragic episode in European history.

WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN . . . Between the covers

WICHA bannerThe poet Vernon Scannell, himself a veteran of WW2 wrote a haunting poem he called The Great War. The closing lines are:

And now,
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.”

There is something about that war, something that echoes down the decades. Even now, when those who fought and survived are all long since dead, the conflict is seared into the national psyche. Caroline Scott is, like many of us who lack her grace and talent as a writer, gripped not so much by the military details, but by the colossal aftershock that continued to cause devastation long after the last shot was fired in November 1918.

WICHA coverIn her 2014 novel Those Measureless Fields she began her own personal exploration of what happened to the men and families who had to pick up the pieces of their lives after the Armistice. She followed this in 2019 with what was, for, me one of the books of the year, The Photographer Of The Lost (click to read my review), also known as The Poppy Wife. Now she returns to her theme with When I Come Home Again.

Just weeks after the Armistice, a filthy, dishevelled young man, wearing a tattered soldier’s uniform, is arrested by the police after causing minor damage to monuments in Durham cathedral. In custody, he refuses – or is unable – to give his name, or any other clue as to his identity. The police, thinking they may have a case of severe shell-shock on their hands, put him in the care of a young doctor, James Haworth. For want of any other name, they call him Adam Galilee.

Article006At a rehabilitation centre in the Lake District, Haworth tries to find the key that will unlock Adam’s memory. James and his boss, Alec Shepherd, take a bold decision. They release a photograph of Adam, and what little they know of him, to the national press. This triggers a wave of mothers, wives and sisters who yearn for the impossible – a virtual resurrection of their lost son, husband and brother. From the tragic queue of broken hearted souls, three women seem to be the most convincing. They are Celia Daker, who believes that Adam is her missing son, Robert, Anna Mason, a young wife who dares to dream that she is no longer a widow, and Lucy Vickers a sister who is now bringing up the children of her lost brother.

Haworth is a former soldier himself and is haunted by terrifying dreams of the horrors he experienced during the Battle of The Somme. As he tries to come to terms with the hopes of the three women who believe that Adam is theirs, his own mental health – and with it his marriage – begin to shatter.

I’ll be quite frank here. This is not an easy read. I’ll say that the bleakest and most harrowing novel I have ever read is Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. If I give that a 10 for heartbreak, then When I Come Home Again is a nailed-on 9. It is, however, haunting and beautifully written and works on so many different levels. In her descriptions of how Adam reacts to the intricacies of the natural world around him, Caroline Scott is surely channelling her inner John Clare, or perhaps remembering Matthew Arnold:

“Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid.”
The Scholar Gypsy 1853

As the book builds towards its conclusion, there is the terrible irony of Adam’s palpable fear of returning to his old life – wherever that was – as he retreats more and more into the solace of rebuilding the ruined and neglected walled garden at Fellside House. As for the women who long for Adam to be their son, brother and husband, we fear that they are fated to lose their men twice over, thus doubling the pain. There is dramatic catharsis still to come, and an act of irony worthy of the aforementioned Thomas Hardy. Life must go on, however, and in Adam’s restored garden, perhaps Caroline Scott has created a metaphor for regeneration. There is deep, deep sadness at the very heart and soul of this book but, like the blossom on the damson trees of Fellside Hall, this fine novel leaves us, to borrow Milton, “calm of mind all passion spent.” and with a sense that renewal might – just might – be possible.

When I Come Home Again is published by Simon & Schuster and will be available from 29th October.


This is a series of four podcasts about novelists who saw action in various wars. Some were already published authors, while others were young men whose literary careers blossomed in later years.


Click on the image below. This will take you to my Soundcloud page where you can listen to the podcast.


Part three of the series – WORLD WAR TWO

 will go live on Thursday 21st May

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST . . . Between the covers


Occasionally I review a novel which lies outside the crime fiction genre, but within my own field of interest. Such a book is The Photographer of The Lost by Caroline Scott. It is centred on the events of 1914-18 but, more particularly, their aftermath. Picture a Britain where over 800,000 fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed. The vast majority of those – if they have a known grave – are buried far from home. Sometimes the only things relatives have left are the initial fatal letter from the authorities, a mass-produced scroll of honour ‘signed’ by the King on behalf of a grateful nation and probably a Death Penny – a large copper disc bearing a picture of Britannia and inscribed with the name of the deceased.


TPOTL coverIt is 1921. In Britain, dignified war memorials, paid for by public subscription, are beginning to be dedicated. In France and Belgium most cities and towns within artillery range of the Old Front Line stand in ruins, while villages are usually reduced to random piles of shattered bricks. The dead are everywhere. In places where the living have yet to re-establish themselves there are crosses. Thousands upon thousands of simple wooden crosses, distinguished one from the other with a basic aluminium strip, letters stamped on it and pinned to the wood. A former officer, now a worker for what would become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explains his mission:

“There are going to be cemeteries with white grave markers – gardens of sleep – real English gardens. There will be wallflowers and forget-me-nots and pansies and bible words cut in stone. They’ll be places that their families can visit and hopefully find some comfort. I was meant to bring their boys home; this is the best alternative that I’m able to offer.”

Harry Blythe makes his living meeting a macabre but necessary demand. He travels the shattered countryside, on commission from relatives, taking photographs of the crosses, or the places of which dead men spoke in their letters home. There were three Blythe brothers, Will, Harry and Francis. Only Harry has survived the conflict. As in other silent houses across the country, mothers did what mothers always do – adjust and try to get on with things:

“In the weeks after Will’s death, Margaret Blythe had cleaned out his room, boxing up her son’s books, birds’ eggs and football boots ….. everything of Will had moved up into the attic.”

The story hinges on Harry and Francis’s widow Edie. Edie has received an envelope in which is photograph of Francis. No words. No explanation. No sender. The postmark is smudged beyond interpretation. She and Harry have, in the years since Francis was reported missing in action, exhausted themselves interrogating an overwhelmed bureaucracy in a vain attempt to locate a grave.

Body text

“Most of the burials here have no names, he sees. These men have all been swallowed up by the earth, their identities gone, along with their futures. Thy have lost their bones, their blood, and the name that bound it all together and made them into that particular man.”

Harry and Edie travel to The Old Front Line independently, but their paths converge. There is a painful frisson running through the narrative because Harry is – and probably always was – deeply in love with Edie, and in one of their last conversations, fuelled by whisky and within the sound of the guns, Francis bitterly confronts his brother with the prospect of Edie being a fraternal legacy after his own death.

By 1921, pilgrimages to The Old Front Line have become big business. Visitors are everywhere, armed with commercially printed guide books; some search for graves, others visit their old haunts. Caroline Scott lets us shadow Harry and Edie on their heartbreaking journey from the Houthulst Forest and Ypres in the north, via Arras and down further south to the point where the French manned the front line trenches of a line that ran from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.


Ironically, the answer to the mystery of Francis and the anonymous letter is revealed not on Flanders Fields but far away in the dusty south, in a sun kissed village physically untouched by the carnage, but with a brand new memorial to its missing sons waiting to be unveiled.

Wilfred Owen wrote, concerning his work, “The Poetry is in the pity.” Caroline Scott echoes this message. Such was the disconnect between life in the trenches and home that, for many men, returning on leave was not the joyous temporary reprieve from hell that we might imagine:

“How could she admit to anyone how difficult she had found it to be with him? That she didn’t know how to speak to him? That she felt some relief when the week ended and he went back? How can she tell anyone how she opened all the windows after he went, and scrubbed the floors, and boiled the bed sheets?”

The power and poignancy of this novel will cause it to be spoken of alongside such classics as Covenant With Death, the Regeneration Trilogy and Birdsong. It is available now, and published by Simon & Schuster.









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