Field Service by Robert Edric
|Field Service by Robert Edric|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A satisfying blend of historical detail and fiction centred on the British forces left behind in France after 1918 to create the war commission cemeteries. Touching, informative and beautifully understated this shows why Robert Edric is respected by authors and readers alike.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: August 2015|
Morlancourt, France 1920: World War I may be over but a grisly job remains. The soldiers killed and buried in battle are to be exhumed, identified and brought to War Commission designed cemeteries for reburial. Captain James Reid and his corps are responsible for receiving and burying in the embryonic burial grounds while Alexander Lucas' detachment go out to collect the corpses or check the veracity of claims that British and Commonwealth troops have been uncovered in various settings including farmers' fields. It's a job that may take its toll on any man and it does.
Robert Edric is a pen name of Gary Edric Armitage, a British author who has been prolific in the field of historical fiction. Field Service is actually his 26th novel but please don't synonymise quantity with lapse of quality. Robert's first novel Winter Garden won the 1985 James Tait Black Award and that set a trend of acclaim that many of his back catalogue have followed. In fact he has been described as the finest, most adventurous historical fiction author and I'm not going to argue.
In Field Service Robert weaves a story imbued with subtlety and poignancy onto a framework of fascinating fact. Those involved with the reburial of the war dead are waiting out the end of their time in the forces while facing a daily, gruesomely thankless task. They see their dead comrades in every 'delivery' to the half-built cemetery. This means that each chalked up plain coffin or (even more sobering a sight) small wooden remains box is treated with as much respect that time constraints and exhaustion allows while forcing those who are left to relive their past battles and losses.
The officers at the top seem inured to the feelings or resulting occurrences, leaving people on the ground such as Captain Reid and Alexander Lucas to deal with the fall out. On the surface Reid seems to cope but Lucas finds that developing events too geographically distant to handle become a catalyst.
The arrival of two lady 'pilgrims' makes a break in the routine. Mary, a bereaved fiancée wanting to pay her final respects is brittle and a contrast to the able and more composed Nurse Caroline Mortimer, there to receive the bodies of some of her colleagues. Their arrival also demonstrates Robert's ability and integrity as a writer.
We may suspect we know the score when Caroline and James become friends. However their friendship has a deeper purpose than the easy love interest route that Robert refuses to sojourn. It's a mirror through which we hear of the feelings and events that Reid wouldn’t discuss with the other men. Caroline's story also has a place, highlighting the suffering of those who were sent to alleviate the suffering of others.
As hinted previously, this is a novel packed with historical insights that may not be familiar to all. For instance we learn why there are roses planted between each of the graves (I was surprised that being a piece of England is only part of the reasoning) and we gawp at burials speeded up to prevent awkward questions regarding the manner of death. The classist outlook also rings with a poignancy as we read about the government's expectations relating to cemetery visitors.
Robert does indeed know what he's doing. This isn't written to sensationalise. It just lays well researched facts and attitudes of the time before us honestly; the gut wrenching shock and any tears that result are unforced and all the more intense for that.
(A big thank you to Doubleday for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you'd like more of Robert Edric, try him in science fiction mode: Salvage. If you'd prefer to stay with the First World War, A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf comes just as highly recommended.
You can read more book reviews or buy Field Service by Robert Edric at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Field Service by Robert Edric at Amazon.com.
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