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World War I
The Western Front / France / Australia
This is the First World War as seen mostly from the perspective of Australians, those at the Front and those left behind at home. It is told in small vignettes; every scene is given a real date and location, the characters moving geographically as the war progresses. The narrative focuses upon the immediate experiences of three main individuals – a nurse, a sergeant, and an aviator.
In 1914, Lucy Paignton-Fox, daughter of the owner of a vast station in the Northern Territory, wins a place at medical school to train as a doctor. Unusual as it is for a woman to achieve such a place, she postpones her acceptance of the offer in order to sign on as a nurse for the duration of hostilities. By 1916, she is a seasoned army nurse.
She and her two best friends arrive at Marseilles from Egypt, and at once begin to experience the chaos of the European theatre of war. Accommodation is not available, food is hard to commandeer, and the fact that they are women gains them no respect. On the contrary, they are a nuisance in a male domain.
They are assisted by Sgt John Mitchell, who, with a party of Gallipoli veterans, is charged with escorting the nurses to Rouen. From there he and his men are sent off for training at Etables.
Adam Hayward, half-American, half-British, has joined up after the death of his mother and grandmother in a Zeppelin raid in Norfolk. It is his dream to fly, and his chance comes when a replacement is needed for a dead co-pilot.
The episodic nature of the narrative takes the reader straight into the various aspects of a dirty, desperate and savage war. The trenches with the ever-present lice or ‘chats’; the tot of rum for courage before each ‘stunt’; the arrival of the tank, a new weapon of war, and later of various types of aircraft; the attempt at a blood transfusion; and of course the relentless attacks even on tents marked with the Red Cross, are all shown in short bursts of activity.
Lucy’s career moves forward as she does more surgery – a fact to which a spiteful matron takes exception. Even in the midst of hell on earth, it seems that she must fight her own side in petty battles. John Mitchell has the same experience, especially with the more rule-bound British officers, but he is promoted twice.
The author knows his facts, and they are, by and large, inserted without being intrusive. Everything is seen through the eyes of the protagonists; there is no authorial voice or passages of description or explanation unless the characters deliver them.
It would help if there was a map of some sort to show where the events take place. The names may be familiar, but the geography and the movements of the various parties are not. Because the narrative moves between voices, and therefore between places, there’s a danger of the reader losing track; and the brevity of the scenes at times makes for a somewhat breathless read.
There is an element of the Australians as a whole being shown as down-to-earth honest workers getting the job done in the face of British intransigence, and there is little camaraderie shown between the two sides, especially at officer level, except where Adam is concerned – and he is American.
The events depicted bring home the reality of the war as the soldiers and the nurses experienced it. The characters are involving, though Lucy is always good and level-headed, which makes her a little less interesting than John Mitchell. When she does step out of line, for a friend, it seems too unlikely, and the repercussions of that event less than they should be. There is a danger that the whole thing becomes a list – this happens, and then this happens, and so forth, in chronological order – because there is no linking text between the scenes. There are jumps in time and in space across France, by which device the novel covers ground rapidly; but perhaps it covers too much? However, it is a good book overall, and well worth reading for its immediacy, and for viewing the war from another perspective.
© Lorraine Swoboda
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