Lieutenant Willy Fraser, formerly of the Royal Flying Corps, has been delegated the most dangerous job on the Western Front – a balloon observer hanging under a gasbag filled with explosive hydrogen, four thousand feet above the Ypres Salient, anchored by a slender cable. Swept across enemy lines after his balloon is damaged, Willy is hidden by Belgian farmers, whom he grows close to during his stay. With their aid, he manages to escape across the flooded delta at the English Channel and return to his duties. But once he’s back in the air, spotting for artillery and under attack, Willy is forced to make an impossible decision that threatens the life of the woman he has come to love.
This novel by James Long is divided into two distinct parts. The first finds Willy Fraser in Berlin during the last few days before the outbreak of the First World War and follows him as he makes his way to Belgium keeping just ahead of the rapidly advancing German war machine. This well researched section tells of the heroic stand of a neutral country which fought hard for every inch of land as her army retreated to the final Yser enclave which the Belgians were able to maintain for the long years of war which lay ahead. This stand by a greatly outnumbered and ill-prepared army allowed the French and British the time to strengthen the border and halt the German race for Paris.
Two years later we find Willy Fraser serving as a balloonist, a role which few people know much about. Mr Long’s detailed research of the few first hand accounts of these men (few of them lived long enough to write about their experiences) is the framework on which this novel hangs. Tethered balloons flying at almost a mile high were sitting targets for enemy planes and artillery whilst the balloonists had to combat terrible conditions as they observed the enemy lines and called in attacks onto the big guns which were turning the trenches into desperate killing fields. There were numerous ways for observers to die – failed parachutes, burning up with their balloons, or being cut adrift and coming down behind enemy lines to name but a few – and life expectancy was short. The historical accuracy of The Balloonist draws the reader in, educating on little known aspects of the war without ever seeming to preach.
Added to the historical background of this novel is the story of Willy’s journey into himself, his character and motives which change as he lives through tumultuous times. It is here that I find the one weakness in the story as there are perhaps a few too many co-incidences bringing the main characters together at key moments but this is, after all, fiction so if you are able to suspend belief at times, and enjoy an action packed and pacey ‘boys own’ storyline you will enjoy The Balloonist.
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