As a fan of the Simon Fonthill series also by Wilcox, I was very anxious to read this novel, which is a departure from both character and setting of the previous novels. Set during World War One, it follows the fortunes of best friends and amiable love rivals Jim Hickman and Bertie Murphy as they struggle to survive the muddy trenches. It is inspired in part by Wilcox’s own family history, as his father and all six uncles all fought in this awful war.
The terrible decision-making and sheer waste of human life, well-known from WW1, are very clear and the frustrations and fears of the individual soldiers are well described. The total arbitrariness of who lives and who dies is also clearly evident, with more than one soldier shot mid-sentence. One second they’re alive and the next, gone.
The atmosphere and feeling of going over the top and being told to try to run through the mud towards the German guns are vivid for the reader, and the relationship between the main characters provides an emotional core for the novel. Both men are in love with Polly, and the war action is interspersed with her life on the home front as she takes a job doing essential war work in a factory while waiting and hoping for the two men to return home safely. Jim adapts well to army life and quickly moves up the ranks, partly at least due to the huge number of officer casualties. Bertie, however, becomes more and more depressed and mentally tormented by the death and destruction with which he is surrounded. Overall, a thought-provoking and atmospheric read which is recommended.