Antony Bird’s novel describes in great detail the events of 24th to 27th August 1914, covering the preparations before the Battle of Le Cateau, the fighting on the 26th and the retreat afterwards. There is a concluding chapter where one of the soldiers revisits Le Cateau in November 1918 after the armistice. Antony Bird is very well qualified to do this in that he has written the definitve historical account of the Battle of Le Cateau, Gentlemen, we will stand and fight. His novel is closely based on the diaries of a number of participants of different ranks. Different chapters look at the events through the experiences of these different people. He uses his historian’s knowledge and imagination to create a series of vividly recreated episodes which really bring the battle to life and make it much more personal than it might appear in a standard history.
While it is securely founded on history, he creates fictional situations which may well have happened or could easily have happened. This is not a pure novel about World War One in the sense in which Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong is a work of pure fiction. Rather Bird creates faction – a historical account written in novel form, with plenty of dialogue. If you want to know what the British soldiers went through right at the beginning of the war, but do not want to read a standard history, then this is the book for you. Bird captures the character of the men and officers of that period and particularly their sense of humour and their wry acceptance of their fates. I enjoyed his descriptions of Frank Richards, the womanizing private in the Welch Fusiliers. Clearly many British soldiers ignored Kitchener’s advice to steer clear of French wine and woman! A first class read and highly recommended.