Field Service

Written by Robert Edric
Review by Douglas Kemp

Captain James Reid is in charge of work for the construction and occupation of a war cemetery at Morlancourt, a small village in the Somme. It is the summer of 1920, and each morning a train arrives at the small station, containing coffins and remains of British soldiers to be interred in the new graveyard. Reid, who was wounded during the Great War, works for the War Graves Commission, which oversees the construction of the cemeteries throughout the areas in France where there was fighting from 1914 to 1918. Temporary burial sites and remains are seemingly found daily by French farmers returning to their land – the difficult task for Reid and others in the Commission is to identify these men. There are a raft of delays and bureaucracy, which cause delays and frustrations to Reid’s task. Reid is a decent man, but the pressures on him and his colleagues by his superior officers breed a cynicism and weariness; he sees little future and wonders how society will ever re-create itself from the chaos of the war. The form of the narrative replicates this cycle of scepticism, where the work stumbles on from one obstacle to another. Edric gives little or no physical descriptions of his characters, who are essentially mouthpieces for the constant series of complications and personal grief and ambitions.

I’m not aware that this aspect of the Great War and its commemoration has been the subject of fiction before; it makes a positive change from the usual theme of the fighting itself. The whole novel is permeated with the war; with death and trauma, and with what happens to the devastated villages and the lives of those who are left to clear up the mess – both physically and spiritually. Very good fiction.