A couple of weeks ago I got another delightful parcel in the mail from Slightly Foxed, an English publisher of fine out-of-print books. This one contained the final book in Ronald Welch's wonderful (and long out-of-print) Carey Family series, Tank Commander.
Each of the Carey series follows the adventures of a young man from a noble Welsh family in some historical period or other. Tank Commander focuses on World War I. Young John Carey is a career soldier like his father and grandfather (and most of the rest of his family, all the way back to Philip D'Aubigny of Montgisard during the Third Crusade), but he's never experienced war until he finds himself as a second lieutenant under shellfire at Mons, in the first major battle of World War I. The death of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo has sparked off a continent-wide conflict, and nothing John has learned so far, about fencing with the sword, cavalry charges, or maneuvering over the open ground of a battlefield, has prepared him for a whole new kind of war. As the war bogs down into the ghastly, flooded trenches of the Western Front, John gains experience, rank, and cynicism as nearly everyone he knows is wiped out. When a new invention promises to end the stalemate and save thousands of lives, John jumps at the chance to help...
I've been interested in World War I ever since my teen years, when I discovered and fell in love with John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels. Though very little of those novels actually took place in the trenches, the books were peppered with references to the different battles - Ypres, Arras, the Somme, Cambrai - which meant nothing to me but would have been well-known from the headlines to the original readers. In addition, Buchan had no call to be providing a detailed picture of trench life, since the vast majority of his readers would have experienced it for themselves.
Tank Commander, being written in the '70s for a generation who had never known war, fills in this picture with vivid, gritty, immersive detail. I feel it's the single most informative thing I've ever read about how WWI was fought--Welch, as a renowned military historian who had seen active service himself in the Tank Corps during WWII, is on his home turf in this book. And while the book doesn't give a comprehensive picture of the war - it ends right after the battle of Cambrai in 1917, when the war still had a year to go - its compelling and often stomach-churning descriptions of important battles including Mons, Le Cateau, First and Second Ypres, Arras, and Cambrai definitely give the reader a good idea of how the war developed over the first three years on the Western Front.
Each time I read a new Ronald Welch book, I gain a better appreciation for him both as a historian and as a writer. Welch is no Shakespeare, not even a John Buchan, but his books are always meticulously researched, exciting, and manly. Tank Commander, like all his novels, expects a certain level of maturity of both its characters and its readers. In this novel, anyone can (and does) die. John must break the news to a young soldier that he has been sentenced to death for cowardice. He must take orders from incompetent, outdated officers while trying to use his own experience to protect his men. Tank Commander is a challenging book for any young person to read.
The book was not without its faults. The first chapter, which catches us up on the month leading up to the war, is (I thought) rather badly edited together, with some characters introduced twice, as if for the first time. The characters, especially supporting characters, never quite come into three-dimensional life. And the plot is pretty tenuous. The book makes up for all these shortcomings by being so incredibly immersive, and so historically detailed. It straddles the line between history and fiction, its purpose less to tell a story than to follow a fictional character through a very real historical setting.
Parents might like to be warned that Tank Commander contains pretty consistent use of mild British-type swearing along with regular, graphic descriptions of wounds and death. It may be too gory and intense for young readers of previous books in the Carey series, but I'd definitely recommend it for young adults.
After being unaccountably out of print for years, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is now being released by Slightly Foxed in illustrated, clothbound limited editions. Slightly Foxed were kind enough to send me a free review copy of Tank Commander, but I was under no obligation to write a positive review, or to tell you to rush off and MAKE THESE BOOKS YOUR OWN BEFORE THEY SELL OUT.
Find Tank Commander on Slightly Foxed.
Other Ronald Welch books on Vintage Novels:
Knight Crusader (the inspiration for my own work in progress OUTREMER)
Captain of Dragoons (about Marlborough's campaigns and the Battle of Blenheim)