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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The First Twenty-Four Hours
Reviewed by Jane M. Ekstam

The First Twenty-Four Hours

by A.H. Bolitho
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014

Arthur Bolitho's The First Twenty-Four Hours is written as a novel but is based on actual experiences and events. It was written just ten years after World War One. Bolitho hoped to find a publisher for his novel but was unsuccessful (his grandson, Mark Bolitho, who has edited The First Twenty-Four Hours, believed that this was because people were tired of reminiscences on the war). The manuscript was passed on to Bolitho's son, and then to Mark Bolitho.

Pvt. Arthur Bolitho
Who was Arthur Bolitho? A short biography is provided at the beginning of The First Twenty-Four Hours, in which it states that Bolitho joined the 2/5th Royal West Kents in June 1915, at the age of 20. He was wounded in October 1917, served in a Pioneer Company in the Ypres Salient and continued to serve as a private until the end of the War. Bolitho died on 25 August 1988, at the age of 93. As its title suggests, the novel condenses the first 24 hours of Bolitho's experiences at the front. In his foreword, he argues that it was during the first 24 hours that soldiers learned what war was actually about. War changes soldiers "in mind, body and speech" (p.12), he writes—a process that starts on the very first day.

On the 50th anniversary of the war, Bolitho painted three pictures of his experiences at the front. These are included in the published novel. Each depicts a war-torn landscape that enhances the individual soldier's vulnerability and loneliness. The protagonist is Private Smith (it is no coincidence that he bears one of the most common surnames in Britain; Smith stands for all privates). Much of the novel is in dialogue form, interspersed with short passages of narrative in which the narrator "talks" to his reader. It is as if we are walking beside Private Smith. We envisage the harrowing scenes and empathize with Smith. The passage below is a case in point:

Tramping on, the stimulant of nerves, fear, and excitement gradually wore off. Re-action began to set in, making itself more and more effective with every few yards covered. His recent almost frenzied exertion had drawn heavily on his reserve of physical strength. Nature, with the aid of the dead weight of a load which would be exacting even under the best of conditions, was now exacting a penalty. His boots became heavier and heavier. His leg muscles soon felt as though they were being cut with knives. Why the devil were his feet so sore? Had he rubbed the skin off his toes? How much farther had they to blasted well go? (p. 133)

The dialogue, like the narrative, is also direct. It is also strongly dialectal, evoking the tenseness of the soldiers' situation and emphasizing the difference between the more educated officers and their less educated men. The following comments, which are part of a conversation between a corporal and a private, are representative: "Gawd! Ain't it the last blink' word. They must be fair sick o' seein' us alive. What'd they care 'oo gits conked art s'long as 'arf-a-dozen blasted sandbags is filled?" (p. 214). Interestingly, however, Smith himself, though only a private, uses neither dialect nor swear words. He stands for the ordinary private—and yet he is not completely ordinary. This is a compromise for the sake of the reader, who needs to understand everything that Smith says.

Both the dialogues and the short narrative passages create a picture of extreme tension, in which thoughts and actions enhance the soldiers' close proximity to danger. On one occasion, for example, Smith and a group of soldiers are out with their NCO. The narrator describes the episode as follows:

Suddenly they stopped. Without a sound, the NCO pressed himself flat, at the same time making frantic signals with his hand for the others to do the same. Smith's jaw dropped. Rigid and with eyes wide open, he lay there and stared. Jerkily he breathed a little air into his lungs and held it there. The merest flutter and it would be the end. The rounded top of a steel helmet was moving along, a few inches above ground level, under their very eyes (p. 237).

We are drawn into the action. The tension mounts as the first twenty-four hours are almost over. At the end of the novel, Smith is returning from the front; at the same time, even newer recruits are about to face their first twenty-four hours. They are marching in the opposite direction. The story concludes with the foreboding words: 'Smith watched with mixed feelings as their laden backs grew smaller and smaller as the files passed up the road. Thank God he was going the other way!' (p. 329).

Tired British Soldiers Taking Their Rations

The story is finished, the day is finished, but the War goes on. The First Twenty-Four Hours is not a story about one individual; it is a communal story shared by millions on both sides. The photograph of Arthur Bolitho at the end of the novel depicts a young man with glasses, sitting next to his brother, Jack Bolitho. The feeling of intimacy and authenticity is further enhanced by extracts from the original manuscript, which are reproduced in both hand- and type-written form. The First Twenty-Four Hours is a novel and a testimony that is all the more powerful because it does not describe exceptional events but ordinary experiences as these were felt and understood by ordinary men—men who knew very little about what to expect at the front but who must learn fast. The First Twenty-Four Hours is a highly readable and deeply moving novel. It is also a labor of love on the part of a grandson who wishes to ensure that his grandfather's experiences will not be forgotten.

Jane M. Ekstam
Østfold University College, Norway


  1. Thank you for the insight. I just ordered the book. Cheers

  2. Sounds like a very accessible and illuminating book. Thank you for the review, professor Ekstam.

    (One detail: the paragraph beginning "We are drawn into the action..." should be in plain text, I think.)