On a painful, freezing Easter Monday in 1917, Private Robert Gooding Henson of the Somerset Light Infantry is launched into the Battle of Arras.
Robert is twenty-three years old, a farmer’s boy from Somerset, who joins up against his father’s wishes. Robert forms fast friendships with Stanley, who lied about his age to go to war, and Ernest, whose own slippery account betrays a life on the streets. Their friendship is forged through gas attacks, trench warfare, freezing in trenches, hunting rats, and chasing down kidnapped regimental dogs. Their life is one of mud and mayhem but also love and laughs.
This is the story of Robert’s journey to Arras and back, his dreams and memories drawing him home. His story is that of the working-class Tommy, the story of thousands of young men who were caught in the collision between old rural values and the relentlessness of a new kind of war. It is a story that connects the past with the present through land, love and blood.
What I Thought:
I’m delighted today to be opening the blog tour for J. M. Cobley’s superb novel of World War One, A Hundred Years to Arras.
I continue to be fascinated by the First and Second world wars, but am much more so these days by the lived experience of the men and women involved – so what a privilege to read a story based upon a real soldier of the Somerset Light Infantry and author J. M. Cobley’s relative.
As there has to be in any novel of this war, there are dramatic scenes of trench warfare and the carnage that came from men leaving their trenches and charging into machine gun and artillery fire. While these passages contain plenty of detail on the horrors faced by these fighting men, a lot is left to the reader’s imagination, which I felt was very effective – there was no need for blow-by-blow descriptions of injury and death, but the overall sense of it was there.
Aside from these dramatic scenes, we also see the day-to-day experiences of the men, their camaraderie, the rare periods of leave and – most importantly – the waiting and marching. Robert Gooding Henson and his comrades experience the war in the everyday and you get a real sense of them and the sense of a group of people thrown together and finding friendship among men they might otherwise have never met.
This book also pulls off the great feat of accurately putting across the monotony of hours and days of waiting without ever becoming monotonous itself.
I am going to break one of my own rules here and post a spoiler, but I am going to do it down the bottom, below the poster, so you have been warned!
This was a great book, and an inspired idea, taking the outline of one of those brave men who fought in such terrible conditions, and giving him a voice. Out of the filth of the trenches there is laughter and comradeship and it’s great that, over 100 years later, there are still new stories to be told about that fateful time.
A Hundred Years to Arras is published by Unbound.
About the Author:
J. M. Cobley was born in Devon of Welsh parents and now lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughter. Jason studied English Language and Literature at university and is currently Head Teacher at a hospital school in Coventry. Jason is otherwise known for his work writing scripts for the long-running Commando comic and graphic novel adaptations of classics such as Frankenstein and An Inspector Calls, as well as the children’s novel The Legend of Tom Hickathrift. Jason also hosts a weekly show on Radio Abbey in Kenilworth, where he indulges his passion for classic and progressive rock. The central character of A Hundred Years to Arras is based on his relative Robert Gooding Henson.
This post is part of a blog tour celebrating the publication of A Hundred Years to Arras. For more reviews and exclusive content, check out some of the blog taking part below.
Here is the spoiler! On reading the epilogue, Jason Cobley remembers the time that he and his wife and daughter visited Robert Gooding Henson’s war grave in France. His wife remarked that they were probably the only members of Robert’s family who had visited him, as it would have been far too expensive for them to travel to France.
This resonated with me, as not too many years ago while researching my own family history I was able to discover the resting place of my 2x Great Grandfather, James George Jupp, who was also killed in the war. I had a similar thought at the time, that not one member of his family had ever been to the grave, as they would not have had the means – it’s always something that has struck me as sad, but must not have been uncommon for those grieving families after the war.
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.