Dark Terror (Tales of War, 2)

Written by John Wilson
Review by Fiona Alison

Fifteen-year-old Newfoundland miner, Alec Shorecross, enlists at the beginning of World War 1 with the hope of doing something useful to aid the war effort. He applies to become a pilot, but the commanding officer immediately recognizes the traits that make Alec an excellent miner, and he soon finds himself in France and back underground in the company of the 169 Tunnelling Company. The little-known but hazardous work these brave men and boys completed is brought into clear focus in this atmospheric novel. The tunnels were dark, claustrophobic, hot and airless, and it took a particular kind of courage to work in them. Deep underground, at one point to a depth of 80 feet, the author describes tunnelling through treacherous running sand to reach the clay below. The work was completed almost silently, and the clay kickers relied on the sappers with geophones (rather like stethoscopes) to locate enemy tunnels, any of which could be filled with explosives ready to detonate. With by far the keenest hearing, Alec trains as a sapper, learning how to shut out all extraneous noise in order to focus on something as vague as a misplaced footstep.

Dark Terror is aptly focused on readers aged 10 to 14. The language is clear and crisp, and the author supplies some grim descriptions of injury and death whilst maintaining an awareness of age appropriate detail. Several key characters are based on real-life heroes. This fact and the occasional photograph add authenticity and realism because it is immediately apparent that some of these heroes were little more than adolescents, mature far beyond their years. The novel culminates with the excavation of nineteen mines which were used to blow up the Messines Ridge in 1917, an engineering marvel the scale of which was not attempted again, despite its huge success. Definitely recommended.