What happened when the guns of the First World War were silenced and all that was left was ruined? The bodies of the dead were not instantly tided away into orderly rows, solidly identified and neat. This is the story of the Glorious Dead, a novel of the men who were charged with digging up what was left of soldiers who fell. This is a book which asks the big questions; what should happen to those bodies when grieving families wanted them repatriated, and what should happen to the buildings and sites which have been reduced to rubble. Atkinson tackles those questions head on through a small number of men who all have their own stories and motives, but who are dealing with the basics of life and death. This is a powerful book, strongly written in so many ways, and capable of involving in any reader in the intense feeling of regret, as well as the humanity of the men involved. Funny, disrespectful at times, aggressive yet caring, these are men who have discovered some of the truths of what honour in battle truly means. I was so pleased to have the opportunity of reading this book in advance of publication and the centenary of the end of the so called “Great War”.
Jack is the best digger of bodies and graves in the left over group of soldiers who are excavating what remains of men both identified and unknown. Some were buried in temporary cemeteries near the site of battles, others were lay where they fell under the mud and debris of war. Ocker is an Australian, continually demanding to be demobbed and return home. Mac is a veteran of battles over many years, reasonable and powerful. Fuller is a young man, easily led and innocent of battle. These men and others form a group who argue, complain and even fight each other, but who understand how the mud, danger of unexploded shells and grim reality of death effect the others. The basic feeling of this novel is not just depressing, as the dialogue between the men is earthy and direct, acutely perceptive of how people actually speak to each other. Another important part of the book is the women, significantly Katia, who provides not only romantic hope for Jack but also another focus for those people who lived where the war was fought, a sign of life going on despite the shattered landscape. While Jack endures much rough teasing about his attraction for women, he feels the depth of the losses he remembers, and the mysteries that he is surrounded by for the others. In the midst of the main narrative there are the side stories of people, sometimes famous, who are visiting the cemeteries and burial sites, and the symbolism of at least one burial.
The power of this novel comes from the humanity of the people it describes in so much detail, and the situation in which they find themselves. So much detail is vividly given and evidently heartfelt, a tremendous way of discussing the issues of life before, during and after the War, when returning soldiers were unable to find work and dignity. In so many ways this is a huge novel, but which features a small story of love and loss which I felt struggled to fit into the narrative. Nevertheless, this novel represents an admirable achievement in terms of humanising vast experiences and indeed problems, engaging through individual stories and reminiscences, of people in the near impossible circumstances. I recommend this book for all interested in the subject of the First World War, and also all those who are fascinated by how people cope in impossible circumstances.
Obviously at this time of year there are many things happening in our churches by way of commemoration of the two World Wars. On Friday night I sang with a choir and read various pieces at “Last Night of the Proms” in one of Northernvicar’s churches, and I am due to sing in two concerts in other churches to come. I shall know the words to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” among other songs by the end of this few weeks!