Frontline by Dr Hilary Jones

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Review by Julie Barham

Medical knowledge and techniques were vastly increased during and immediately after the First World War, as the loss of so many fighting men was dwarfed by the deaths caused by the Spanish Flu outbreak around the world. At the forefront of trying to save people were individuals that risked everything to help others, and in this brilliant first novel Jones has chosen two young people, Grace and Will, who do everything to help. They both come from remarkable families, both touched by war and the regular dangers of inadequate medical knowledge. There are barriers of class, race and age, having the necessary background, the temptations of other ways of life to overcome, but a powerful mix of love, hope and sheer stubbornness may make the difference.

This is a fascinating and moving book of the damage that can be done to human beings by war, full of unusual details of injuries and illness suffered by actual people. The research and knowledge shown are immense, as dislocations are dealt with and the medical challenges in a pre-antibiotic world are explored. There are also incredible descriptions of the conditions in which the men fought, the mud and water of some of the trenches, the effects of gas and the realities of mining under enemy lines to place explosives. Having said that, the strong narrative of the story is maintained, as two families try to remain strong despite all the challenges of their lives in the early twentieth century. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this promising and exceptional book.

The book opens with the description of a birth. In a few pages Jones conveys the idea of a loving and close family, the nature of the difficult birth, and the pain of loss. The roots of several personalities become evident, as well as what becomes a mission. In another family, in 1914, a disabled Boer War veteran reflects on his daughter, “Grace the rebel”. He has sons who had so far resisted the impulse to enlist, but despite his wife Dorothy’s misgivings, his “headstrong” elder daughter has insisted on joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or FANY, attracted not only by the possibility of offering first aid to casualties on the spot, but also being mounted on horses to get to where she would be most needed. A fearless rider, she has shown absolute determination to get to the Front as soon as possible, and her parents are unable to persuade her otherwise. They wave her off with many mixed feelings, partly comforted by the popular idea that the whole war will be over by Christmas. What she discovers at the rapidly established casualty clearing station dismays her, as the fighting reduces strong and able men to vulnerable and fragile beings fighting to survive. Though an extremely capable nurse, her compassion for the people in front of her does not always earn her praise.

Meanwhile a young Will, growing up with the caring and encouraging Clara, becomes fascinated by the possibilities of medicine, and becomes an apprentice hospital porter. While fulfilling his duties of moving patients and equipment with a capable ability, he becomes fascinated by the medical procedures and treatments being carried out around him. While others are attracted by the lure of army life and displaying bravery, he carefully undertakes his work and much more. After all, his father has already enlisted, and writes of the danger he feels, and Will is only fifteen. Life is far from easy for anyone, as the War becomes so obviously more dangerous.

There is so much to consider and enjoy in this huge saga of love and war. Characters have real depth, even if only appearing for a short time. Challenges are described as much as possible, even when the circumstances are seemingly beyond words. It is a sensitively written novel, with a bedrock of medical fact that is so much more detailed than in most books about the First World War. At times it is brutal, but in virtually every case there is compassion and as much hope as possible. This is an engaging read which I thoroughly recommend, a big book in every sense, and a memorable debut.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Dr Hilary Jones, Frontline (Welbeck, 2021). 978-1787397521, 464pp., hardback.

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