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 14, 2019

Retreat: A Story of 1918

By Charles R. Benstead
The University of South Carolina Press, 2008
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Retreating British Soldiers in an Improvised Trench, Spring 1918

Imagine a devout, sensitive, and extremely orthodox vicar of a comfortable country parish in England during 1914 to 1917. He truly loves his calling and is content in his life among his parishioners. But he's tortured by guilt because war is raging in France and he feels he should somehow be involved, even though he's excused from conscription. After months of intense prayer and soul-searching he volunteers as an army chaplain and arrives at the front in time for Ludendorff's 1918 Spring Offensive and the initial British retreat. The Reverend Elliot Pethwick Warne, picturing himself "in the role of a spiritual savior welcomed by an ecstatic people crying out for salvation" finds himself chaplain to the 200th Brigade, Royal Garrison Artillery.

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The rest of this very readable and rather gripping novel of some 300 pages describes the realities of war and how the poor chaplain metaphorically suffers a death of a thousand cuts. At every turn his dreams and plans are thwarted by the exigencies of war and his own sensitivities and psychological reactions. He finds himself condescended to, ignored, a nuisance, and except for one poorly attended church parade, mostly irrelevant. The end is inevitable. After finishing the book, I spent some time wondering—to what extent might the Reverend Warne be considered a tragic hero?

Although this is a study of one man in the war, the war itself is also powerfully described, as are the brigade colonel and his staff. Toward the end of the novel some of these officers have a serious discussion on church and religion and make some telling points, but by then it's too late for Warne, a man "with a mind saturated with inflexible ideas." We meet one or two other chaplains in the course of the story, characters who fit in because they have neither the devotion nor convictions of Padre Warne. I couldn't help comparing them to the real war chaplains we know about, such as Woodbine Willy, Father Duffy, and Eugene McLaurin, whose diary was edited by Jerry Tompkins and reviewed on this blog on 17 November 2015.

British Casualty Station During the Retreat

Charles R. Benstead's novel was originally published in 1930 and is based on his own experiences in the Great War. Benstead was an artillery officer on the Western Front who later wrote 11 other books,  none quite as successful as this one. The novel's quality is no doubt the reason the University of South Carolina republished the book in its Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series, a source for several WWI classics that might otherwise be neglected. It includes a glossary of terms and acronyms peculiar to the British Army of the time, and the new introduction by Hugh Cecil is excellent—although I wish I'd read it after reading the story.

If you're interested in a novel that looks closely at war and religion, psychology, and faith, and shows how they can all be sadly at odds despite the best of intentions, then you will enjoy Retreat: A Story of 1918.

David F. Beer


  1. Great review. Sounds like a powerful novel, reflecting the period's disillusionment.

  2. Great review. It effectively pinpointed the work's essence. I have ordered it. Cheers