I think this is an interesting story because, as I mentioned in a previous post, it makes use of the deserters living in no man’s land story.
The hero, a lieutenant in the RFA* is one of those chaps who loves the war. He’s having a great time, thank you very much; the chaps in the mess are a jolly good lot and they all get on swimmingly. He even manages to get engaged to an ambulance driver at the local CCS*. Then a new officer is posted to the battery. He’s older, and it readily becomes apparent, is a total scrimshanker. He doesn’t do his job properly with the result that it’s left to those who will do it to take the burden. The hero and the other subaltern find this most unfair, but it seems to be the way of things. Things come to a head when the other subaltern has just departed on some well deserved leave (he’s virtually cracking up) when the battery is heavily shelled. The CO is badly wounded and the other officer is killed. This leaves the scrimshanker to take command. He declares he will recall the other subaltern to go forward while he (the new CO) hides out with the transport. The hero is totally disgusted with this and they end up fighting. To his horror, the scrimshanker breaks his neck when crashing to the ground. Nothing for it but to bugger off.
He wanders south for a bit and ends up getting mugged. Rescued by a rather malodrous individual, scrounging an existence on the fringes of a gang of vicious deserters hiding out in no man’s land. The hero teams up with this bloke, also formerly a gunner, for the next few months. But it’s not a great existence. He’s ashamed of what happened, knows there’s no going back, but is disgusted at what he’s become.
After a raid on a village in which they are forced to take part by the gang, the two of them head south, our hero having acquired the useful disguise of an army padre’s uniform. He masquerades as a padre for a while, even running a canteen in Albert when he is disconcerted to run into his fiancée who is desperate to marry him, no matter what has happened. He tells her it’s impossible given his position, but she talks him into a bit of out of wedlock nookie. Before this can be consummated he realises she wants to shack up with him, and knowing that this makes him a total cad, he does the decent thing and leaves.
Just as well, as it is now March 1918, and things are beginning to look hairy. The authorities decide to run an anti-spy drive in Amiens, requiring everyone there to have a pass. That’s our hero screwed; he goes back to the dugout in the wasteland, where there’s nothing for it but to go on the scrounge again. Wearing civvies, our hero and his faithful gunner, get lost in the mist at the same time as all hell breaks loose. It’s the 21st March 1918. Captured by advancing Germans things look bleak to the extent that they are standing in front of a firing party when a shell hits, killing the Germans, but also sadly killing the gunner – just as well really, he’d have been in the way. Our hero manages to get back to his dugout and changes back into the padre’s uniform. Then on the road back towards Albert, he meets a green gunner officer on his way to his unit. This chap is hit by shrapnel just after talking to our hero.
Seeing a chance for redemption, he exchanges ID and badges with the bloke and posts himself to the battery. However shortly afterwards he meets the captain, none other than his fellow subaltern from his original battery, who of course recognises him. It transpires that the mess had been hit by a shell just after he left and everyone assumed he and the scrimshanker had been buried in the explosion. No one was looking for him as a deserter; they all thought he was dead. After heroically accounting for himself during the German advance our hero is sufficiently wounded to warrant a Blighty and thanks to the quick thinking of his chum is able to start a new life as an orphaned Canadian (the other officer in the battery, conveniently killed at the same time he was wounded). Joy and happiness ensues when he is reunited with his fiancée, now back in Blighty.
The novel uses a classic rebirth plot; the hero’s happy life is disturbed by a terrible event, which sends him into a wasteland – in this case a physical one – from which he is only finally redeemed by his own bravery and the love of a good woman. Aww.
Another interesting feature of this is a prologue told in the first person from the vantage point, one assumes of ten years later, by a friend of our hero’s. He tells a strange tale of how their paths had diverged during the war, and how, some time after hearing of his death, when he had been captured by the Germans during the spring offensive, he is positive he saw his friend, dressed in civilian clothes, about to be shot by a German firing squad. This of course, nicely sets up the reader as they spend the entire novel wondering if it’s going to be one of those, which end in pools of blood all round, or one of those, which end a bit more positively.
*The RFA is the Royal Field Artillery, and a CCS was a Casualty Clearing Station.