The Long, Long Trail by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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This is the fourth book in the “war at home” series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and I think it’s the most interesting one yet: it seems to be a bit less soapy and a bit more about showing the effect of war on the nation via a particular group of characters.   It’s still not as good as her Kirov trilogy, and I still don’t understand why the publishers pulled the plug on the Morland saga; but it’s a good read.  It’s slow-moving, but there’s a lot going on, as the characters move through 1917.  The war’s raging on, in the Belgian and French mud.  The Americans come in.  The French mutiny.  Russia’s engulfed in revolution.   And, back in Blighty, food shortages are biting (there’s a lot about food in this book!).  And the south coast is bombed.

Some of it’s quite a comedy of manners.  The bossy neighbour who likes it to seem as if she’s doing more for the war effort than anyone else.  The horror at the idea of digging up flower beds, lawns and tennis courts to turn them over to fruit and vegetable production.  The horror at the idea of eating wholegrain bread rather than Proper white bread.  That always works really well in a war book.  It shouldn’t, but it does!

And a lot’s going on with our friends the Hunters, as I said.  The eldest son is struggling to recover from his physical injuries and severe shell-shock.  The elder daughter – this bit is more soapy! – is trying to cope with being a middle-class woman married to an aristocrat.  And she still doesn’t realise that her husband’s gay and has only married her because he needs a countess and an heir.   He wasn’t originally a very sympathetic character, but he becomes far more so as you see how society makes him feel guilty just for being the way he is naturally, and forces him into a life which is all wrong for him.  The younger daughter, who would normally have been leading a very boring and constricted life but, because of the war, is out there doing a job she likes … and being pursued by two different men, neither of whom are the one she really loves.  And the two younger sons, one of whom decides to leave school at 16 so that he can go straight into doing something to help the war effort.

The father’s very involved with the Ministry of Food.  The mother’s also busy with war work … but having an affair as well.  Then there’s the auntie, driving an ambulance over in Belgium, one of the many women who did go out to the Front.  And a female cousin, coping with male colleagues who don’t think that a woman should be in a managerial job.    The cook, who – another soapy bit! – has long since assumed that she’ll always be single, but meets a man because of the war.  The housemaids who leave to work in a munitions factory – although,  in the First World War, many female domestic staff did remain in their jobs.

There are really three main themes that permeate the book.  One is that, after three years of war, the war now is everyone’s life.  That’s total war.  Everything in everyone’s life is about the war.  And there’s no end in sight.  There isn’t even an inspirational leader to talk about the end of the beginning and never surrendering.  It’s just on and on and on.

One is, of course, the losses.  There’s a brilliant scene in Gone With The Wind, in which the casualty lists from Gettysburg have just reached Atlanta, which really gets that across; but I don’t think that anything has ever been quite as bad as the devastation of the Great War, especially at a time when most people lived in the same community all the lives.  Relatives, friends, sweethearts, colleagues, the boys you’d grown up with and gone to school with … all gone.

And the third is the organisation.  The idea of laissez-faire was on the way out well before the Great War, with the Factory Acts, compulsory education, and then the introduction of old age pensions and national insurance, but the state was still not really that involved in people’s lives until 1914.  The war effort at home was a combination of public and private enterprise, but the state increasingly became involved in national life.  And things got organised.  When push comes to shove, things get organised.  Why can’t we do that in peacetime?   Why can’t we pull together, and why can’t the authorities get their act together?   And why can’t the authorities do it in wartime any more?  I’m thinking particularly of the food shortages in Yemen.  Probably because most of today’s wars are civil wars.  Very different.

Random thought.  The Long, Long Trail is, of course, the name of one of the many songs from the First World War. Do kids today know the First World War songs?  Everyone my age, although we weren’t born until most of the Great War generation were gone, knows It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles, Keep The Home Fires Burning, K-K-K-Katy, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, etc.    And Roses of Picardy, which my grandma always liked.  Are they still going?  #oldandoutoftouch 🙂 .

It does end on a hopeful note, with a happy family Christmas and two babies expected in the new year.  But, whilst we know that the war will end in 1918, the characters don’t.   Presumably the fifth book in the series will be the last, then – and presumably that will be out later this year, the year in which we’ll mark the centenary of the Armistice.

 

2 thoughts on “The Long, Long Trail by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

  1. Chris Deeley

    All my grandparents were involved in WWI and two great-uncles were killed. I once ran to Tipperary to raise funds for a charity: it is indeed quite a long way! One of my grandmothers may have been one of the very last people to encourage grandchildren to go to sleep by saying “Go to sleep or Boney will get you”. Amazing!

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    • Three of my great-great-uncles were killed 😦 . I don’t think there can have been anyone who didn’t lose relatives or friends: the scale of the loss is hard to get your head round. It’s incredible that people were still using Bonaparte as a threat in the 20th century!

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