What more is there, can there be, to say about war? Fiction and non-fiction continues to fill the book shelves and presumably to fly out of the shops into the hands of readers like myself, who go on wanting to learn.
Do we though? Well, harrowing as it is to read Anatomy of a Soldier it does teach the reader a lot, much of it painfully graphic and frightful. The tale is told through a series of vignettes, each one an item belonging to or affecting a particular soldier: BA5799. In the beginning we don’t know who he is, where he is or indeed what the first item is, except that it is stored in a plastic film in the thigh pocket – this vignette opens the book and turns out to be a tourniquet, first tied tightly round a limb and eventually discarded and burned. From then on the intelligent reader will have worked out that this is not going to end prettily, or entirely well. One vignette after another expands the picture: surgical instruments, bicycles, fertiliser, fungal infections each one has its place in the history of a soldier injured in Afghanistan, flown home, treated…Harry Parker knows what he is about, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a writer.
Another writer who looks at war from a different angle is Robert Edric. His latest novel, Field Service, deals with the aftermath of World War One. The Imperial War Graves Commission (in its infancy) is collecting and reburying the bodies of fallen soldiers; British in this case, but elsewhere Germans and French are doing the same strange and upsetting job. Our detail is near the Somme in a place called Morlancourt. It is summer 1920 and a small detachment of men are creating one of the smaller cemeteries. Plagued by a difficult terrain, a toublesome stream which was not fully recorded on the map and an intransigent senior officer, Captain James Reid is endeavouring to make something good out of chaos and death. To add to their woes, two women turn up – one to find her fiancé and another to oversee the burial of several serving nurses who, it has been decided, will be buried together even though they did not necessarily work together. A further agitation is the burial of a soldier who did not die in combat. Finally, as if things could not get any worse, a farmer tells them of a barn where bodies are lying, half burned and telling a grisly tale of mass murder. With unerring skill and a deft touch, Robert Edric exposes the emotional trauma that this enormous task brings out in each individual, these young serving soldiers some of whom have been in the thick of it and desire more than anything to get home and others who missed the fighting and feel somehow cheated of the glory, but all of them wanting to find, identify and bury with suitable dignity these their fallen comrades.
The final book is Not so quiet… by Helen Zenna Smith, one of “our courageous girls”. Nice, well-bred young women who trained as nurses and ambulance drivers and were sent, unprepared, into a hell beyond imagining. Blood, vomit, gangrene, bombs, extreme cold and superiors who seemingly had no heart and no patience. Zenna Smith describes vividly the appalling conditions, inadequate provisions, night time drives from station to hospital again and again; cleaning the ambulances and surviving on poor food – longing for parcels from home and having at the same time to write cheerful and excited letters home. Her sister, Trix, is a VAD in a hospital somewhere else in France – Workustohellandback Hospital – and her letters in which the truth can be told in all its terror and horror are a relief compared to her mother’s gung-ho attitude. Such bravery – it could not happen now, Facebook and Twitter would simply swamp the internet – and outrage would follow hard upon.