“I seem to be a bit obsessed by the endings of wars – I have written several novels about the aftermath of war,” says novelist Robert Edric whose latest book Field Service is a poignant and moving novel set in Northern France shortly after the First World War.
The action takes place in 1920 and focuses on the work of a group of battle-scarred men tasked with the identification and burial of the innumerable corpses still scattered around the killing fields of Normandy. Captain James Reid is the officer in charge, a quiet, reticent man who is all too aware of the stark contrast between the horrific realities of burying the dead and reports filtering back from Britain of honouring the fallen.
Edric, who is based in Hornsea on the East Yorkshire coast, says that he felt there were aspects of the Great War that were being overlooked in the recent centenary commemorations.
“In some accounts you might think that the First World War was a four-year long game of football,” he says. “A number of narratives and stories we have been hearing seem to be particularly clichéd – they are making a terrible event palatable to a new generation. If you ever travel on a train from Lille to Calais you can see all the cemeteries – they are just endless. And it was the first time that had been done – leaving the dead on the battlefield – so I thought it was a very interesting subject.”
Edric explores the logistics of the task facing Reid and his men with an unflinching eye for the truth. “The fact is there are probably thousands of bodies that were not identified – this was before DNA testing,” he says. “But the War Graves Commission did guarantee that there would be a body in each grave. It was important for the families to have somewhere to visit and it was a way of bringing order out of chaos.”
One of the most affecting aspects of the novel is Edric’s sensitive, honest, yet understated depiction of the untold damage done to the individuals involved in the most brutal conflict of the 20th century. The men whose duty it is to identify and bury the dead are still struggling to assimilate the bloody events of the previous four years.
Today their symptoms – depression, anxiety, dependence on alcohol, feelings of guilt, occasional violent outbursts – would be recognised as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but 100 years ago people were expected to carry on.
Into this group of world-weary men comes a woman – Caroline Mortimer – a widowed senior nurse in her mid-30s who served in a number of field hospitals during the conflict. She has come in search of the bodies of 20 women, all nurses, who are to be buried together. She is a strong, wise and immensely likeable character who gives the book its emotional centre. “I see her as the ballast of the story,” says Edric. “When she turns up she pulls the narrative towards her. She sits in the middle of these men and tries to do what women are meant to do in 1920 – offer some kind of understanding and comfort. You see things through her eyes and she notices things and is empathetic.”
The interplay between Mortimer and Reid is beautifully handled with a hint of potential romance delicately running throughout that offers possible hope for the future.
Edric also approaches class conflict from an interesting angle pointing up the differences between the experiences of those higher up in the military hierarchy who were largely spared the horrors of life on the frontline and those who were caught in the thick of it. “I am interested in class conflict,” says Edric. “And I hope the characters represent the age they lived in but also the change that was coming in the 1920s.”
Field Service is published by Doubleday on August 13, priced £16.99.