I don’t remember when I started Birdsong, but it was probably more than a year ago–whenever that miniseries with Eddie Redmayne was about to air–and as usual, I was determined to read the book before I saw the miniseries. I haven’t seen the miniseries yet, but I finished the book last night.
I don’t know if I particularly identified with the protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, an Englishman who visits Amiens, France before World War One and falls in love with a married woman, Isabelle. I think that may have been one of the reasons I put the book down and didn’t resume reading it until last week. I couldn’t help but compare it to my favorite novel Atonement, where I had immediately identified with Briony. But as for detailed, well-researched historical fiction…
…Those are the parts that stick with me–and will stick with me for a while–the war scenes. Stephen becomes an officer in the British army during the World War One. Faulks did meticulous research because everything feels real–the duckboards on the floor of the trenches, the mud, the craters in the middle of No Man’s Land, the claustrophobic tunnels that both sides used to lay explosives and blow up trenches.
Stephen fights on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On this first day of this drawn-out battle, the British Army lost 60,000 men. 60,00 men, in one day. It’s unfathomable. The Battle of the Somme began at 7:30 am on July 1, 1916. Because some of the secondary characters are tunnelers, the huge mine that went off ten minutes before the battle officially began is featured. I got a geeky thrill when I googled and found that the mine, like the other wartime details, was real.
|The Hawthorn Ridge mine, July 1, 1916. Photo taken by Ernest Brooks.|
The book goes through other battles to the end of the war. During the wartime scenes, Faulks describes gory instances–things that must have truly happened. On day one of the Somme, Stephen, stuck in a crater in No Man’s Land, sees one of his friends make it to the German trenches and try to cut the barbed wire. Faulks writes:
“…Byrne was with them. He was trying to force a way through the wire when he was caught off the ground, suspended, his boots shaking as his body was filled with bullets.”
“When there was no fire from no-man’s-land, the Germans in the second trench sniped at the bodies on the wire. Within two hours they had blow Byrne’s head, bit by bit, off his body…”
At other points in the book, a group of soldiers goes out to No Man’s Land to collect bodies for burial. The bodies are decomposed; there are rats in and around the dead. One of the men finds his brother and drags the body out. Tunnels collapse, trapping men inside, burying them alive.
The “modern day” (1978) part of the story was interesting and certainly a respite from the brutality. Stephen’s granddaughter tries to learn about her grandfather. We see the Thiepval War Memorial, which lists all the British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known graves from the Battles (because there were multiple battles on the Somme) of the Somme. There are over 72,000 names on the memorial. Elizabeth asks the caretaker, “Are these the missing of the whole war?” The caretaker says: “No. Just from these battles.”
In some ways, I resumed reading Birdsong because, as you know, I’m really into Downton Abbey. The second series took place during the war and Matthew Crawley fought in the Battle of the Somme. I had been wanting to read more on that time period–like I wanted to read all about Henry VIII while The Tudors was on.
I thought about a conversation a friend and I had while the second series of Downton Abbey was airing. We were talking about the Creepy Mustached Soldier, Captain Bryant, who eventually impregnates Ethel. It was a conversation about the class differences brought on by the war. She had thought that the upper classes were largely protected from going to war. It may have been like that in the era I’m writing in, but the First World War took a lot of lives. This a brief list of the “notable killed” during the Somme.
Many footballers and cricket players, an earl, a composer, even the Prime Minister’s son. J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Graves, and C.S. Lewis survived the Somme. Adolf Hitler was wounded during the Somme.