From a Somerset farm to the trenches of France: one man's coming of age through land, love and blood
On 9th April 1917, over twenty thousand allied troops emerged from underneath the French town of Arras to mount a surprise attack on German positions outside Arras and up to Vimy Ridge. Men from Britain, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand had toiled for months in the quarries beneath the buildings of Arras, tunnelling out a labyrinth in which they would live, laugh and plan until the day came to emerge into that painful, freezing April morning. Private Robert Gooding Henson of the Somerset Light Infantry is stationed outside of Arras with his brigade and is launched into the battle, where he is separated from his company and ends the day defending Hervin Farm at St Laurent Blangy. Robert is twenty-three years old, a farmer’s boy from Blindwell Farm in Somerset, and the novel tracks his journey from joining up against his father’s wishes in 1915 to his training in Northern France to that Easter Monday in April 1917.
Young and inexperienced, Robert forms fast friendships with Stanley, who lied about his age to go to war, and Ernest, whose own slippery account of his life betrays a life on the streets that is vastly improved for him when he joins the war. Their story together follows accounts of the real movements of the Somerset Light Infantry throughout the Great War, through gas attacks, trench warfare, freezing in trenches, hunting rats and chasing down kidnapped regimental dogs. Whilst billeted in a battle-strewn French village, Robert meets the daughter of a local baker, Camile. The memory of their one afternoon together sustains him through the horrors that he faces on the front.
When Robert is wounded at Hervin Farm, Ernest and a group of other soldiers work together to get him to the Casualty Clearing Station. Transported from there to the field hospital, Robert is tended to by Flora Stuckey, a nurse of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. One night, she sits with him and tells him of her life, naively defying her own parents to come to France to help, and her own journey to realising how she needs to change.
A Hundred Years to Arras is a story of how a time and place reaches down through the generations to connect the past with the present through love, land and blood.
One cheek lay in the mud, cold and caked to his skin. He drooled into the dirt and tasted the bitterness of the earth that had spattered on to his tongue and lips. Behind his closed eyes, dark shapes fluttered and swam, whispering voices of nausea drawing him down into something deep and heavy. His limbs ached from the fall. His legs lay in a puddle, one foot tucked behind him as if running. His weight was restricting the circulation in his left arm and he felt his fingers tingle. His other arm hung limply, with his remaining grip weak and loose around the stock of his rifle.
The ground’s cold embrace surrounded him. Robert lay in a shell hole, a crater punched into the French soil. He had fallen, and the fall had begun even as the sun rose. The August morning was fine and warm. The previous night’s sunset had bled into the grey rain. Sleep was fitful at best as the battalion took its place in a trench along what was laughingly called the British front line but was in fact just a staggered set of carved holes in the ground. At least, that was the way it seemed to Robert as he had settled down on a dry duckboard for the long night into morning.
On their subterranean shelves in the trench, Robert and the other men from the Somerset Light Infantry knew only the basics of their orders. Set for just after dawn, a short assault was to begin. The infantry in the line in front of them were to surge forward first, and they were to await the signal to race to the parapet after them. Once through the German barbed wire, they were to leap heroically into the enemy trenches and open fire on them as they dragged themselves wearily from their beds in the ground. This had been a tactic employed regularly since the first day of July, when all along the Somme, thousands of men had died in an attack that nobody spoke of now in the trench. The last phase of the Battle of the Somme was tailing off, and Robert was there at its last few shakes. Robert’s specific order was to join in the attempt to reclaim some old trenches on ground in No Man’s Land that had been conceded to the Germans earlier in the year.
A Hundred Years to Arras: And we're launched!
Wednesday, 12 June 2019
This is where it all began:
The attack began at 5.30 a.m on 9th April 1917. It was a Monday. Depending on your attitude to work, Monday mornings are full of either expectation or trepidation. Knowing what faced them, many having already lived through the Somme earlier in the Great War, trepidation was the least the young men of the British and Canadian regiments were feeling as they prepared to…
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