Frontline by Dr Hilary Jones

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

With some reservations, I endorse Hilary Jones’s Frontline as one of the best wartime stories that have appeared in the last decade. It is set in the years when men and women staggered through the dangers of World War 1 and tells of life in the trenches and at home. Its heroine is believable if a little too much ‘goody-two-shoes’, and her romance with the male lead is written within the boundaries of the conventions of the war years. The parents of both characters fit the social mould in which they have been placed, hers a stuffy, moneyed landowner, his a dockworker who labours for a living.

The author paints a picture that breathes authenticity. The book opens with the setting of Will Burnett’s mother in labour and experiencing complications. The midwife cannot cope with the demands placed on her, while the gravity of the mother’s plight is evidenced in Bill’s father’s agonising over the decision to spend money he cannot afford on the services of a doctor. What Hilary Jones has endeavoured to present is the degree of poverty that was rife in working-class families in the years leading up to war. Robbie, the father, is distraught when Evie dies from childhood fever and he is left with a young family, Will, an older boy, Jack, a bit of a ‘stirrer’, and the young baby.

By contrast, Grace Tustin-Pennington is the tomboy daughter of landed gentry. The author’s clever provision of the family name, the opening words to Chapter 1, establishes social status promptly. Grace is a socially adjusted, sensitive child whose marked leadership style grows until it is on full display in the dangers of the war. She makes friends, displays loyalty to them, and manages to tame a formidable nursing sister.

Will is younger than Grace, is a softer character ‘in the round’, but with leadership skills that mirror hers. She is the pretty nurse he meets when in makeshift quarters on the battlefield. As their relationship develops, their quick thinking, initiative-taking and bravery is evident. They fall in love but, despite their desperate urge to consummate their love, his zip stays closed. In the style common to people living in these years, Will writes to Grace’s father to seek his permission to marry. The requisite permission granted, Will and Grace marry in France.

Although the book produces a successful outcome to their personal lives, it also shows the ugliness of war. The soldiers of the British led squads are crude and unlikeable, the German a dastardly lot. The deliberate murder of the opposing sides’ wounded is not retreated from, the terrible injuries both sides suffered, and the intricate explanations of why a surgeon would treat a casualty in what an observer would claim was a barbaric way, are revealed as only a fellow doctor could.

War is demeaning business. Those who are weak of character easily finds ways to exploit their comrades to their own benefit. In this book, the placement of misbegotten scoundrels in positions of power displays the lack of leadership skills of the British generals for whom many battles and many lives were lost. Through all the fears of battle, the gas and artillery attacks, the one-on-one fighting with bayonets, Will and Grace are shining examples of brave, honest soldiers.

That is the book’s worst weakness. They are so good that the reader’s scepticism overflows. A dockworker’s son and the daughter of a scion of the noble class, thrown together in months of physical danger, discipline their bodies to no more than a little touching. The same pair showing leadership qualities beyond all human frailty. Sir Galahads resurrected into a twentieth century maelstrom.

Despite criticism of this sort, Hilary Jones has produced a very readable book.

Frontline

(2021)

By Dr Hilary Jones

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-78739-753-8

$29.99; 462 pp

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