A Broken Resolution

I had actually resolved that over Remembrancetide, as it is sometimes called these days, I would refrain from being rude about pop-culture sentimentalisatiuons of the War. I feel guilty about attacking the beliefs of simple folk, if only because it  makes them so annoyed.

A poor chap on an Elvis Costello fan forum was reduced to such helpless rage by my critique of his hero’s song “You Hung the Moon” that he resorted to vulgar abuse, calling me an “insipid dick”. Similarly, a furious reader of my ancient post about Michael Morpurgo’s dreadful Private Peaceful today shamed himself or herself by fuming that I am idiot.

I don’t mind for myself, you understand – I’ve been called worse than that in my time – but I feel sorry for these poor naïve folks driven incoherent by anger when their assumptions are questioned.

So, out of kindness, I had resolved that for a couple of weeks I would lay off pop representations of the War. Unfortunately I opened At Some Disputed Barricade by the novelist Anne Perry.

Its first sentence describes what a group of British soldiers saw one evening on the Western Front in 1917:

“The sun was sinking low over the waste of no-man’s-land…”

Er – weren’t the Germans coming from the East…?



  1. Posted November 8, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    It seems to be set in the Ypres salient, so it might just be possible, depending on the time of year, but judging by the description and reviews on the Amazon page there are lots of other problems with it. Second hand copies are on sale for only 1p, so I’m almost tempted to buy it as the source of an easy blog post. Does it actually have anything to do with the artillery? I’m pretty sure that’s an artilleryman on the cover (top right with the woman).

  2. Posted November 8, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    It’s set on the salient, “between Ypres and Passchendaele” and I reckon that trenches on the line between those two places were definitely looking East.
    salient map
    On that same first page we are later told that:

    “this mid-Cambridgeshire regiment had been bogged down on this same stretch of ruined land between Ypres and Passchendaele since the beginning, those far-off days of courage and hope, when they had imagined it would all be over by Christmas.”

    Which raises these objections:
    1. Very few units were kept in one place for three years (especially in a hotspot like the Salient).
    2. The battle of Second Ypres dramatically rearranged the front line in 1915, so it would have been pretty well impossible for any unit to be manning exactly the “same stretch of ruined land” for all that time.
    3. The time when some (but certainly not all) imagined that it would all be over by Christmas was the first month of the War, when armies were moving freely. As soon as they dug in it became obvious to everyone that this would be a lengthy affair.

    So don’t read the book expecting any sort of accuracy. But it might be fun. I’ve only read half a chapter so far. The hero is a chaplain (bravely with the men on the front line) who acts as a sort of detective. He has just overheard a disaffected officer inciting men to mutiny because the War is so futile. He will not report what he has heard, though, because chaplains should respect the secrets of the confessional. No artillerymen yet.
    The back of my paperback edition displays a quote from the “Guardian” saying that it is “admirably well-written” and one from “The Lady” praising “the elegance of prose and depth of characterisation”.

  3. Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking that maybe the line west of Langemarck might get the sunset in midsummer, but the quote you gave seems to rule it out. It also throws up a major problem in that the Cambridgeshire Regiment (of which there was only one, so no “mid” necessary) was Territorial Force only, and didn’t send any battalions overseas until 1915. In the first month of the war all the units were pre-war regulars. Saying that the regiment had been bogged down in the same place makes even less sense because infantry regiments had several battalions which didn’t all serve together.

  4. Posted November 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, the book has just got jolly exciting. The chaplain’s sister works as an ambulance driver, but when the Germans attack she is co-opted to help out with surgical operations. When a dozen Huns invade the casualty clearing station, she kills one by stabbing him in the neck with a scalpel. Tough lady!

  5. Posted November 12, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I’ve now finished the book, and as it went on I rather enjoyed it.
    Ms Perry’s knowledge of history is shaky, and her hold on geography is no better (When some soldiers desert from near Ypres, the authorities automatically assume that they must be heading for Switzerland. Not a conclusion that would come naturally to anyone who has looked at a map.)
    The book’s climax is a dramatic court-martial whose proceedings might well puzzle from experts in military law.
    On the other hand, Anne Perry writes a pacey narrative, keeping three story-threads going well.
    There are plenty of WW1 cliches, but a touch of originality in her main villain, a shadowy figure called The Peacemaker.
    Appalled by the waste and cruelty of the War, he wants peace at any price, and is willing to conspire, subvert and murder to gain his objectives.
    On the other hand, the main hero, Joseph, an action-hero chaplain, is something of a bore, as well as being less than credible.
    But I might well get hold of the last volume of the series, if only to discover the identity of the mysterious Peacemaker.

  6. Posted November 29, 2010 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Oh dear. 😀 My one and only published short story (thus far) was an allegory based on a homecoming from WWI and shellshock. I did a lot of research first and would hope that it stands up reasonably to expert criticism. Kind of heartening to see even the big published authors don’t always get it quite right. *blush*

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