A little over two weeks ago the American and British forces left Afghanistan, 20 years after they entered following 9/11, the anniversary of which is marked this weekend. In the aftermath of any military campaign, especially one which entailed such a chaotic departure, it is often questioned as to what was achieved and did all those who died, die in vain? Even one hundred and seven years on from the first world war, questions are still asked by historians, and quotes still attributed to politicians and commentators of the day about the outcome.
U.S. President Wilson, thought then it would be “the war to end all wars..”, he didn’t live to see the Second World War. Hemmingway did, he was an ambulance driver in the first war and a correspondent in the second. In 1946 he wrote “never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime..”. That maybe so, but if nothing is done after all the talking and diplomatic avenues have been exhausted, then there’s the “Sliding Doors” theory that we may have all ended up speaking German, especially in relation to WW2. This month’s first book review is set in WW1, it’s ‘A Hundred Years To Arras’ by J.M. Cobley and published by Unbound (www.unbound.com) 19th August.
Robert Gooding Henson is a twenty-three-year-old farmers son from Somerset in Southwest England. Who, against his father’s wishes, joins up just after the start of the first world war. He quickly forms deep rooted friendships with Stanley, who has lied about his age, and Ernest, who joined up to escape a life living rough on the streets. The bonds of their friendship are forged through gas attacks, spirit sapping life in frozen trenches, and hunting down kidnapped regimental dogs; while all along keeping up a sense of humour. The story follows Robert, and his regimental friends as they fight through France to a crucial battle at Arras. Thoughts of his parents farm and past loves on both sides of the channel draw him home, and leave him wondering if he or his friends will ever see their beloved home again.
I’ve watched numerous war movies over the years, but the most recent one set during world war one was the 2019 release ‘1917’, which received amazing reviews for its camera work and the performance of its unknown leads, along with the stellar support cast. But as for books set in World War One, this one stands out as the grittiest and most memorable, I’ve read to date.
From the first page you’re introduced to a simple, but seemingly well-read and rational farm boy, who is exposed to the to horrors of war, where for a lot of his fellow men and women rational thoughts and actions are destroyed by the sights, sounds and smells of modern warfare. The descriptions and detailed writing by Cobley, sticks with you like the cloying and frozen mud the characters trudge through day in and day out.
No more so than one pivotal scene where Robert is selected to make up a firing squad, tasked with executing two underage British soldiers, who are caught deserting. If nothing else in this or any other book you may have read on the subject, brings you up close and personal to the realities of having to shoot two young innocent boys, for just running from their fears and the reality of their situation, this scene alone will sear itself onto your memory.
On top of that there are the realities of the effect on the animals, both the working ones and the wildlife. Caught up in this unreal and hell like scenario, which is cutting a swathe across their home, and cut down by, bullets, gas and bombs. This all seen through eyes of a young man brought up to admire and respect nature. No where is this more poigniant then on the front cover, with an image of a dead sparrow liying on top of spent cartridges.
I couldn’t put this book down. Even though, I did think the relationship with his dad was a bit of an overused storyline, until at the end you discover that this is more than a well-researched work of fiction, and that J.M Cobley is actually a descendant of Robert, and Robert Henson Snr. not wanting his son to go to war was fact. After that, I was filled with admiration for both the story of Robert and how the author came to find out about his relative.
This is English author Jason M. Cobley’s (www.jmcobley.wordpress.com) first novel. He is best known for his work writing scripts for the long running Commando comic series and graphic novel adaptations of classics such as An Inspector Calls, as well as a children’s novel The Legend of Tom Hickathrift (2018). He also hosts a weekly progressive rock show on Radio Abbey in Kenilworth, and currently lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughter.
With a month to go to my choice for the November read of my book group, I now have a selection headache, with three possible choices. But I can tell you, it won’t take you long to go out and pick up this book or download it, Neither will it take you a hundred years to read it, but you may wish you could immerse yourself in it for that long.
Reviewed by: Adrian Murphy
This book review is part of a Random Things Blog Tour. To see what ther other reviwers thought, visit their blogs listed below. Then if get a copy, comeback and tell us what you thought. We’d really appreciate the feedback.