‘This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © [Copyright notice]’.
So, I finished on Anzac Day, which seemed appropriate – and here are my thoughts.
I did really like this book. Quite a lot. If I could give a 4.5…..
This book is an amazing journey. Set in New Zealand, in 1917, it is the story of two brothers, and the choices they make once the 1916 Conscription Law is passed. Older brother, William, enlists and younger brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector. (After two years of having their young men go to war, never to return, there were plentiful objectors to conscription, as can be seen in this Te Ara photo and article ) Because of their disagreement, the two brothers have not spoken for over a year.
William is treated as a hero by many of the townsfolk, and Edmund as a coward – although there are people along the way who quietly sympathise with his view and support him. Their mother and sister, left at home, have to cope with this view of the boys, and there are a few allusions to how difficult this could be, at times.
There are seven sections to the book: At First, Before Sailing, On Ship, Getting Ready, The Trenches, First Attack, Second Attack. The boys’ parallel journeys are told in each section both with an authorial bird’s eye view from each character, and through letters from Edmund and William, home.
Something I really did like about the book was the length of time it took for the characters to begin to question their views about wars and the army. There’s no sudden revelation, and in the end there is not one right view.
In the trenches, Edmund has been refusing to obey any army commands. The trouble is, it is hard to decide what is a command and what is humanity and compassion. Edmund, unlike Archie, decides that he will choose to be humane and help the stretcher bearers bring in the wounded from No Man’s Land. One of the men asks Edmund which ‘lot’ he is with:
Edmund shook his head. “I’m a conscientious objector. The army put this uniform on me.” The soldier who’d offered him the cigarette glared. “So why are you doing this, if you’ve got such high and might ideas about war?”
“My ideas aren’t high and mighty,” Edmund told him. “They’re just mine. And I’m doing this to try and save lives, instead of destroying them.” The man who’d challenged him was silent.
What a time to be having a discussion like this, Edmund thought. He almost laughed, and felt a shudder run through his aching body. He was close to breaking point. he and most of the others around him. How much more of this could a human being stand?
The descriptions of the trenches and life in the army for both William and Edmund are heartbreakingly realistic. Anyone who has read Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks – will understand the true horror of the Battle of the Somme. And, of course it brought to mind ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ – Wilfred Owen.
David Hill says he was inspired to write this book after reading ‘We Will Not Cease’ – Archibald Baxter. I feel the need to go and read that now.
This book will provoke some intense discussion in classrooms, no doubt, alongside the opportunity to really do some research into those who went to war, or those who stayed behind, using primary source and secondary source material. I know it will enhance the understanding of ANZAC day for many of the people who read it, as well as encouraging some critical and reflective thinking about war.