Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes – A 1942 novel of waiting for war reprinted in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series

Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes

This is a novel of the fictionalised memories of a man sent to France and Belgium in the very early days of the Second World War. Originally published in 1942, the details of Rhodes’ memories had to be changed in some respects because the War was continuing and names had to be concealed. Written within a couple of years of events, without the benefit of hindsight of how the war would proceed let alone finish, this is a vivid picture of a young officer’s experiences on the eve of a new type of warfare. Now reprinted in the excellent Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series with an informative Introduction by Alan Jeffreys, this novel has a “quality which differentiates literature from reporting” according to the author Elizabeth Bowen. Most of the book is taken up with an account of the months before the conflict actually began, and covers Rhodes’ activities in finding sleeping quarters for the men of his division in various places, then obtaining necessary supplies for the work that the engineers had to do. It is therefore filled with memorable characters who are variously concerned with the potential hostilities or are confident that the Germans will not attack. When it becomes obvious that the invasion of France is imminent, it is not revealing too much to say that the tempo of the book changes. The champagne which had been freely consumed, the convivial evenings spent with the locals over fine food and the promises of peace give way to sudden departures and roads filled with refugees. It becomes matter of fact as the path is taken to Dunkirk, and the desperation of those awaiting rescue.

This is a book of men and very few women who are preparing for War with clear memories of the trenches and losses of the all too recent “Great War”. Rhodes himself admits that some of his alcohol consumption is fuelled by the fear that he too will be sucked into the agonising battles and horrific trenches that had filled France within living memory. This book is a powerful testimony of the sort of life lived during the “Bore” or “Phoney” War before the Dunkirk evacuation. It was a time of waiting, preparation and confusion when it was still desperately hoped that there would not be a repeat of the fighting that had killed and injured so many in France. It is far from a book of sophisticated battle stories and military memoirs; instead it presents a series of characters who are trying to carry on with the shadow of war over them. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fine book.    

This book begins with the realisation that war is really on the way in September 1939. Entering the army as an officer, there is only a relatively brief time before Rhodes is sent to France in charge of the advance party, together with sealed maps and a trail of clues that will lead to the towns and villages where he must find places for the officers and men to sleep. He records the problems of getting on with those he has to work and live, the other officers and their idiosyncrasies. He learns about the French attitudes to soldiers taking space in their houses, he describes how businessmen hope there will be quick money to be made from the British Army who they believe to be backed up by the Bank of England. He meets mainly well intentioned people who are resigned to strangers in their midst, and the narrative is a lively account of the people he meets and the sometimes exasperating situations he finds himself in. When the Germans sweep through several European countries and begin to enter France, after bombing many places that they regard as legitimate targets, it becomes obvious that most of the defensive preparations that Rhodes and the British forces have made have been ineffective. The battle to survive is now begun, and Dunkirk is the only option. 

This is an incredibly readable book which maintains a lively pace throughout. It is full of the immediacy of a strange almost pre war atmosphere, yet the transition to real danger is well handled. I recommend this book to those who enjoy reading first hand accounts of life during this period, written and published in the heat of a new style of conflict by a skilled and experienced author.