Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Somme. Including Also The Coward
Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Somme. Including Also The Coward

by A.D.Gristwood
The University of South Carolina Press, 2006

The Somme: Before and After the Battle

Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel. It watered a country of simple rural beauty: for long miles the stream fed lush water-meadows, where willows and alders and rushes slumbered in the sun, and cornlands and fat orchards supported a race of canny peasants. . .

And then came 1914 and the pestilence. (p. 15)

These two short novels are the only published works of A.D. Gristwood, who was an accountant, a very reluctant soldier, an effective but unfortunate writer, and a troubled and shell-shocked person who took his own life at age 39. His stories are interesting in that they consist of a relentless focus on the dreadful realities that an unusually sensitive person was tortured by in the First World War.

Gristwood's book would have been much better known if his publisher, Jonathan Cape, hadn't put it out of print in 1928, just before public demand for anti-war books suddenly bloomed. This is one of several misfortunes Gristwood suffered. He was born to a middle-class family, did well at school and was an unhappy clerk for fifteen years in an insurance company. In 1915 he enlisted in the London Rifles. This was the last thing he was suited for, and it seems he gave in to social pressure rather than to any vague patriotic urge.

He was soon wounded in the leg, eventually evacuated back to England, then sent back to France in time to be involved in the Somme conflict. The Somme is to a great extent autobiographical. The central character, Tom Everitt, shares similar experiences to Gristwood, and is abnormally sensitive, introspective and utterly disenchanted:

Orders came down the trench that the men were to make a "good meal," and the instruction seemed to them a masterpiece of cynicism. It was absurd to devour food when a few hours might relieve a man from the necessity of any further exertions in that direction. "Like fattening ducks,' said someone. (p. 48).

"Abomination of Desolation"
The Somme,  After the Battle (IWM Collection)

Much of the action in the story involves the wounded Everitt's long and tortuous journey-by crawling, stretcher, ambulance, and finally a very slow train-back to a base hospital. But first we share his observations as he lies among the wounded on the battlefield:

Thousands of men were lying crumpled in those fields, helpless, agonized, hopeless, frozen with terror, tortured with wounds…The bullets fell impartially on earth and flesh, and the maddening clamour of the machine-guns showed no sign of slackening. Moans, prayers, curses, entreaties, inarticulate cries, the stench of mud and blood and fumes and smoke, the thunder of guns, the shriek of shells and the rattle of rifle-fire, a chill rain soaking unchecked into that medley of woe-a modern battlefield! And fools talk of the glory of war, and the joy of battle! (p. 58).

Finally, after a long and agonizing journey, described in considerable detail, Everitt arrives at the base hospital, where things are far from ideal and where the sounds of battle are still heard. This is where the novel ends-but not with relief for Everitt, because "…not far away the fires of hate burned red as ever, and the long agony quickened with the days" (p. 115).

We learn no more about Everitt, but Gristwood himself was sent back to France once he recovered from his wounds. It seems he was wounded again, and after returning home took up his old job but was much more interested in writing. Thus a shorter novel, The Coward, was published with The Somme. It centers on a soldier who, like Gristwood, found the war unbearable. Unlike Gristwood, the anonymous soldier does something about it: he shoots himself in the hand and surprisingly gets away with it. He is sent back to "Blighty," but from then on lives a life of biting remorse and shame.

In spite of the support of H.G. Wells, who wrote a preface to the book, Gristwood had no further success as a writer. This fact, plus war wounds which made him ever more anxious and depressed—in effect, shell-shocked—finally got the better of him. He ended his life by an overdose of pills in 1933.

Hugh Cecil, author of the excellent 1996 study The Flower of Battle, wrote a detailed introduction to the University of South Carolina Press edition of The Somme Including Also the Coward. He gives us this insight into the author's work:

Gristwood's main point in both stories is that the central characters see the true nature of the war more clearly than their fellow soldiers. Who, therefore, can condemn them? Certainly not those who have never experienced the fighting (ix).

The book is an interesting and moving read even though we find none of the moments of hope, comradeship, love, or valor that we find at least occasionally in many other war novels. I found it hard to put down—in spite of its almost relentless bitterness and realism.

David F. Beer


  1. Your review is inspiring. I have ordered my copy.

    1. Agreed. A fine review, David.

      Interesting to see the Wells connection.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed both. Thanks for the review, agreed on most points. Such a pity he's so little read. Upon completing the books some months ago I could scarcely find any discussion past the first page of Google results.