Will Franklin and Axel Meyer may be on opposing sides in the First World War, but they have a lot in common, most notably the fact that they are actually too young to have enlisted. Will is separated from his squad when a sniper in a forest starts to pick them off. Meanwhile Axel is separated from his platoon after the village where they are based is attacked from two directions. Both boys end up in the same shell crater, along with a downed American airman only a few years older than they are. On any other day they would have to try and kill each other, but this is 11th November 1918.
Paul Dowswell chooses the most pointless half-day of fighting in the entirety of the First World War to show up just how pointless much of the rest of it was too. Even though their leaders have already signed an armistice, the men in the trenches must continue to shoot, bomb and gas the enemy until the message can be confirmed to have spread the length of the Western Front at 11am. The pointlessness of it all is best summed up when the men (and boys) in the forest discover the remains of a British position abandoned four years previously. After all that carnage, the Allies have simply managed to get back to where they were at the start.
Aimed at early teens, the book unsurprisingly offers a more sanitised version of the First World War than All Quiet on the Western Front. On the one hand there’s much to be said for not writing ghoulish Somme porn. But at the same time Dowswell falls into a common trap. Whilst Erich Maria Remarque could get away with writing about soldiers sitting around just talking rather than fighting for much of his semi-autobiographical novel, the demands of drama and his thriller-writing sensibilities have led Dowswell to make the war seem at times rather exciting. This doesn’t distract from his message in the end. But sometimes the message isn’t there at all.
It’s shorter than the other books of his I’ve read. Perhaps this time they cut out his seemingly stock-in-trade peeing scene! The extract from Auslander included at the end makes mention of full bladders, so it’ll be back to business as usual when I get round to reading that one, I imagine.