The first casualty when war comes is truth . . . Flanders, June 1917: a British officer and celebrated poet, is shot dead.He is killed not by German fire, but while recuperating from shell shock well behind the lines. A young English soldier is arrested and, although he protests his innocence, charged with his murder. Douglas Kingsley is a conscientious objector, previously a detective with the London police, now imprisoned for his beliefs. He is released and sent to France in order to secure a conviction. Forced to conduct his investigations amidst the hell of The Third Battle of Ypres, Kingsley soon discovers that both the evidence and the witnesses he needs are quite literally disappearing into the mud that surrounds him.
Ben Elton’s tenth novel is a gut-wrenching historical drama which explores some fundamental questions:
What is murder? What is justice in the face of unimaginable daily slaughter? And where is the honour in saving a man from the gallows if he is only to be returned to die in a suicidal battle?
The First Casualty is set during the First World War but this novel is about more than the physical war. Kingsley, the main character, faces the horrors of the Third Battle Of Ypres on the ground – in the trenches, in no-man’s land, and in a hospital for solders suffering from shell shock. But complicating this is the fact that Kingsley is a conscientious objector. He is not a pacifist against all wars but a moral man who can see no point in a war where men are dying in their hundreds of thousands to take a few feet of land which is likely to be taken back by the enemy at any time. He cannot see either side winning, for how can you win when a whole generation of your young men have been slaughtered? Worst of all, he sees the government and the army as murderers – they know what is happening, they know that victory would be hollow but they send men again and again against the artillery and machine-guns and bayonets rather than sue for peace. Kingsley believes that their pride comes before the lives of the men under their care and so he takes a moral stand and refuses to fight.
Kingsley, a police detective, now has to face those who give him a coward’s white feather, he is sent to prison and has to face men who he put there and who do not want to see him leave prison alive; but most harrowing of all for Kingsley is the fact that he must face the future alone for his wife cannot be associated with a coward and has left him, taking his son with her.
Against this backdrop Kingsley is released from prison to find a murderer somewhere amongst the hundreds of thousands of men waiting to go over the top at Ypres, and the conscientious objector finds himself on the front line fighting to survive the war, find the killer and start a new life.
Ben Elton has written a well-researched and cleverly plotted novel which puts the reader right in the midst of the most terrible carnage. The sights and sounds, the atrocious conditions, the heroism and the loss of hope are all laid bare in a clear and concise writing style which leaves little to the imagination, whilst at the same time you are immersed in a murder enquiry with just enough suspects to keep you guessing until the end. The characters are well-drawn and believable which helps to bring a stark reality to this novel – the wife who loves her husband but cannot face the social ostracism that being married to him will bring; the officer whose unpleasant nature has been twisted even further by the horrors that he has experienced and his expectation of an imminent death; the ordinary soldiers who put up with appalling conditions to fight for their country; soldiers who have embraced communism seeing it as the only way to end the war and bring about a just and fair society – all bring something to make this novel the well-rounded polemic that it is.
As a murder mystery The First Casualty is intriguing. As an ethical debate on the evils of war, duty to country, pacifism and conscience it is thought provoking. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
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