Since it has been one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme in WWI, there have been numerous books produced, both fiction and non-fiction that deal with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and its heavy involvement in the Great War. A Splendid Boy (2016, Flanker Press) by Melanie Martin is a fine example of the type of historical fiction Flanker Press produces.
A Splendid War is about an adolescent love between a merchant’s daughter (Emma Tavenor) and a poor fisherman’s son (Daniel Beresford) that is torn apart by not only Emma’s father’s disapproval (with which he punishes Daniel’s father who is heavily in debt to him) but by the war, which Daniel uses as an excuse to make a clean break from Emma, for he has promised Mr. Tavenor to cease his association with Emma in return for absolving his father of his debts. Of course, Emma knows nothing of this, and once she finds out that Daniel has enlisted with some friends (but not knowing why he did so), is off to St. John’s in pursuit, hoping to try to convince him to stay. Missing him in St. John’s, she then tries to track him down overseas.
A Well-researched Story
The book is exceptional for its depictions of the hardships of war in both Gallipoli and in Northern France for the Battle of the Somme. Ms. Martin has certainly researched this aspect of the war extensively to which she credits Frank Gogos, a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment advisory council, even making travels to England, France, Belgium and Turkey to visit various sites. Also significant is the spotlighting of the work that the women of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) performed. Members of the VAD were typically upper-class women wanting to do their part for the war effort. They assisted nurses and often sat with dying soldiers, writing and reading letters for them and such. Emma, in an effort to track down Daniel volunteers for this service and even asks to get posted nearer the front so she can find Daniel, if he is still alive. Ms. Martin is especially adept at conveying the thoughts of a battle-hardened Daniel:
Daniel didn’t think anything could beat the horrors at Gallipoli. He’d never believed such a level of misery existed until they’d arrived at the Western Front. Hundreds died every day…eventually the dead would fade from living memory, but what was happening here on this land couldn’t easily be forgotten. One hundred years from now, the land would still bear the scars from the atrocities committed here, but would anyone remember the men who fought here?
In 1981, Daniel (as the last remaining soldier of the “first 500”) is invited to attend the 65th anniversary of the battle. He is taken on a tour of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France. He needs no tour guide or map; the topography is indelibly etched in his mind. The memorial park ensures that the men who fought will be remembered.
The majority of this book is taken up by the events of WWI, both in Gallipoli and in Northern France, and it is book-ended by events occurring in 1981, leading up to the reunion in France. Their love story, while engaging, is secondary to the action. In fact, once the war is over, we really don’t know that much more about Daniel and Emma or how they spent the intervening 65 years.
I highly recommend the book solely for the realistic descriptions of Daniel’s and Emma’s overseas ordeals in WWI.