Wednesday 7 November 2018

Below Us The Front by N L Collier

A Discovered Diamond      shortlisted for Book of the Month
#2 of a series

Fictional Saga
World War I
Western Front

Following on directly from the previous volume, Home Before The Leaves Fall, Franz Becker reports for flying school and upon passing is assigned to a squadron of Observer Corps photographing gun emplacements and troop movements on the Russian Front. Life is dull there, but the squadron is soon transferred to perform the same job over the Somme where Franz realises that he and his observer are sitting ducks with very little fire power to protect themselves. He longs to be a fighter pilot and to be reunited with his friend Karl, a sniper who has also applied to be a flyer to get away from the trenches.

I had been extremely impressed with the first book and when this one arrived I was keen to get into it, but wondered whether the author could maintain the high standard he had set himself. Quite simply, he did. I would, however, recommend reading Home Before The Leaves Fall first if you can although there is enough back story in this sequel to make it quite readable as a stand-alone.

There are a large number of characters as men die and are replaced, but never do you lose sight of any of them or get mixed up as to who is who - and the reason for this is that the author gives everybody a share of centre stage. His observer, Burkhardt, is a perfect foil and throughout you get to understand just how these young men felt about the futility of this war and their chances of survival. When they are in action, they feel fear, when they are not they are bored and so they get drunk, often, and find relaxation in the only way they can – the brothels of whichever town is nearest to their posting. Or not, as in the case of the Russian front. The language throughout is very strong yet only what you would expect from men who probably won’t live very long. If there are one or two phrases which sound too modern, it doesn't actually matter, so natural is the excellent dialogue.

Franz is an ordinary young man: he is not infallible; he makes mistakes, he suffers the nightmares that most of his colleagues do and we see him growing up rapidly. Nor is he the dashing hero we might expect from a different storyteller. We also see, through letters, the effects the trenches have on Karl.

The writing is utterly convincing – I can only assume the technical details of aircraft and the flying of them are equally accurate –  and demonstrates powerfully to us that the German Army (and Air Force) suffered no more or no less than their British counterparts. We are not embroiled in the history or reasons for the war; the men are out there, they volunteered just as our boys did and they simply get on with their job. The author handles the inactive periods with the same intensity as he does the action sequences and the reader is never tempted to 'skip' these, former, sequences. The abrupt ending ensures that there will be at least one more book. And, like the previous book, the cover is simple yet effective and the two will look very eye catching on my bookshelf.

An excellent novel, a must read for anyone interested in that period of history and highly recommended by this reader.

© Richard Tearle

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