A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was going to write two reviews for these books and then decided to write one instead. Both books, I felt, shared a common theme which, despite their settings – that of war – was actually the opposite. Both books, I would argue, rely for their impact on the absence of war. Men fight in both books, men and women die and the survivors come to terms as best they can with what they have experienced. But this does not, with either book, plant it firmly in the genre of war literature. Sword of Bone could easily be classified as memoirs and Bretherton, after much head scratching on my part, might be an undiscovered example of English modernist literature of the 1920s.
Sword of Bone charmed me utterly. If I apply the tried-and-tested dinner party criteria of “Would I invite the author?” the answer is a resounding yes. Anthony Rhodes’ tone is laconic, cultured, ironic and witty. A reader could dip at random into the book and come up with a bon mot or two. Here is mine – Rhodes is discussing the night’s bombardment with the medical officer:
We agreed that the noise really had been excessive; the doctor said he would never have joined the war if he had known it was anything like this. We took very good care not to let anyone overhear our conversation because everyone else was saying what fun it had been. Bombardments were all the rage.
The doctor was gynaecologist in civvy street and, although an excellent procurer of champagne and paté for the officers’ mess, was rarely called upon to administer to wounded soldiers.
Why memoirs and not war literature? True, he was in France from October 1939 and evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940. But, as an officer in the Royal Engineers, charged with buying building supplies with which to construct the defences that took on from where the Maginot Line left off at the Belgian border, he was rarely in the front line. The German attack, as we know, struck at that weak point and split the armies in two, forcing the allied forces towards the sea. Rhodes, now in the retreat, sees German aircraft and their attacks on the columns of refugees, he hears the impact of German artillery, but of Blitzkrieg – nothing. Even his account of his days on the beaches of Dunkirk is understated and somewhat brisk. People tell him that he was privileged to be there but he does not see it that way.
Rather he is interested in the people he meets. Rhodes is an observer and revels in watching and listening. He is honest with himself and with those around him, be it General Montgomery who led the division to which he was attached or the customs officers who watched helplessly as Belgian workers crossed the frontier to work in French factories, denuded of their French workmen, called into the armed forces. He is not concerned with his physical surroundings. The book is a series of enjoyable, humorous or exasperating conversations. Here he is listening to his French liaison officer berating a mayor over refusing the town hall as a billet for the British troops:
‘But, monsieur, the Town Hall it has never been…’
‘Yes – you are impeding the war effort. You are being rude to our brave allies. You are no patriot. You are a helper of the enemy. You are…’ – but there was no word for fifth columnist in those days.
The book is full of such exchanges, all of them remembered years after the event, in such detail that one wonders how he could resurrect them so fully-formed from his memory. But such complaints are petty. This is not a military history; it is much more a study in human relationships once free of the norms and constraints imposed on them by society.
What to make of Bretherton? Ot to give it its full title, Bretherton Khaki or Field Grey?. Even to summarise it, raises the challenge of avoiding making it sound ridiculous. Like the author, Bretherton is a junior officer in a bicycle battalion based in the Somme area. Trained in reconnaissance, it is sent up to the front line to provide observation reports to headquarters as to the progress of battles, something which it singularly fails to do as the Germans have the uncomfortable habit of targeting it with artillery fire or devastating counter-attack. Bretheron is a good officer who has transformed the worst platoon in the battalion into its fire-hardened spearhead, with which to strike hard at the enemy. Unfortunately, he seems to achieve the same success with a German stormtrooper division during the German spring offensive of 1918 which came as close to shattering the allied lines as did the 1914 offensive. All the threads unravel following the discovery of a body in a French chateau of a German officer in the dying days of the war who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bretheron. Beside him, on the chaise-longue, lies a beautiful young women, also dead, yet without a wound on her body.
So, is it murder mystery, espionage or thriller? Or is it something else instead? Putting aside the knocks on the head, claustrophobic escape tunnels and involuntary imprisonments in wooden packing cases that appear to cause this supposed betrayal of king and country, the novel seems much more a psychological, almost Freudian, study of identity and the fluidity that may lie at its heart. Everything in Bretherton’s life is born out of darkness, be it a trench, tunnel or a night in No Mans Land lit up by enemy star shells. My head spun from the repeated changes of identity and I had to flick backwards repeatedly through the novel to reassure myself that I was indeed reading about one character and not two.
If I have made the novel sound “challenging” then I have failed in my intent. It is not. True, the middle section which deals with the realities of trench raids and establishing forward observation posts in the blasted desolation of a Western Front battlefield, hangs heavy on the mind of the reader. But Morris’ talent, like that of Rhodes, is to conjure up the world of the British junior officer through their lively and irreverent conversations. They quote Shakespeare incessantly to each other and whistle the latest song from the popular London shows. They are young men far from home making the best of a bad show and the affection between them is palpable. Bretherton’s challenge, whether he is British, German or simply a damned good soldier, is to fit into this world and bear it true witness as to its innocence. In the end, like so many of his real-life companions, he achieves this through that heartrending combination of tragedy and nobility.
So, let’s not mention the war? Of course not. Both of these books are firmly set in it and speak about its consequences. War is, of course, hell. But there is something else in both works: they speak of us. They speak of us when we are under stress and the silly or terrible things we do as a result of it. They speak of us as capable of the best, the worst and the simply mundane. This is what, I believe, provides an appeal for both books to those who would not normally read war narratives.
Anthony Rhodes: Sword of Bone (Slightly Foxed, 2016). ISBN 9781906562922. RRP £16.
W.F. Morris: Khaki or Field Grey? (Casemate Classic War Fiction, 2016). ISBN.9781612003764. RRP £9.99.