It was exciting to be on our way last...but we were such innocents. We had no idea of the hell that lay ahead. Even if we had known, what could we have done about it?
They were our golden youth, seeking adventure on foreign battlefields. The First World War, everyone said in 1914, would be over by Christmas, and Stephen Conway rushes to enlist in the belief her should fight for King and Empire. Leaving behind a new wife and a baby on the way, he soon finds himself in the trenches of Gallipoli. Four horrific years later, Stephen is the only survivor of his platoon, shell-shocked and disillusioned, and during the heat of battle on the bloodstained fields of France, he mysteriously disappears.
Stephen's ultimate fate is still a mystery when more than eighty years later his grandson Patrick finds a diary that leads him to Britain and France on a journey to discover what really happened. It is a journey during which he unexpectedly finds love, and the truth about his grandfather's fate that is even stranger and more shocking than he imagined.
It seems to be very fitting to be writing this review today, on Remembrance Day. I don't know if it is just the time of year, but this book has really affected me. I think one of its main selling points is that it doesn't back away from the horrifying aspects of World War I, whereas it is often quite easy to think only of the honour and glory that our troops covered themselves in.
There are two narratives within this book - the first is by Stephen telling of their disappointment of having no opportunity to really say goodbye to his loved ones, rapidly changing to excitement at being on the way, and then impatience as they train in Egypt, worried that the fun will be over before they get there. He writes of the horrors of Gallipoli, the brief respites provided during leave in London, and then the ghastliness of the Somme. Gradually Stephen's emotions change as he becomes horrified and then emotionally numb to the things that are going around him, to the point of beginning to suffer from shell shock.
The second part of the narrative is by Stephen's grandson, Patrick. He comes across his grandfather's diary in which the entries abruptly end in 1918. His family had received condolence papers in 1918, but it soon seems as though they didn't get the diary until much, much later which is quite strange. Another puzzling aspect is that Stephen Conway's name doesn't appear on any of the lists of dead soldiers anywhere. Patrick is a struggling screenwriter who has to go to London to pitch an idea to the BBC, and so takes the opportunity to visit the parts of France mentioned in his grandfather's diary, and then to try to search to find out exactly what happened to his grandfather. At every turn, there seems to be a new obstacle, a new hurdle, but with the assistance of a new found friend, they eventually find out the shocking truth.
There were some fascinating and troubling things mentioned in this book that I had no idea about previously. For example, did you know that at one stage one of the allied armies had a policy of decimation to try to discourage their troops from deserting. Basically, decimation meant that they randomly selected one out of every ten soldiers and killed them as a warning to other soldiers. There were other, less gruesome, things as well. Another example is that in many of the towns, there is still great affection for the Australians who fought so bravely in their areas, to the point that there is a school that has their students sing Waltzing Matilda every morning.
I spent yesterday morning searching the net searching for details about Siegfried Sassoon, who is mentioned in a number of places in the novel. He was a war poet and was also responsible for writing Finished with the War: A Soldiers Declaration, which was read out in the British Parliament. I also spent time searching online videos for songs and images. There are a lot of them out there, and some of them are truly moving. I love it when a historical fiction read sends you on a quest to search for more information!
I don't think that this book is easily accessible outside Australia, but if you can get it, it is very enlightening, and enjoyable, read, and for me, left a lasting impression.
So today, Remembrance Day 2007, I will finish this review in the traditional manner, but with a deeper understanding of just what our forebears went through:
Lest we forget