25 Somme troubles

by Malcolm Redfellow

Andrew Martin’s Jim Stringer has been a regular feature of Malcolm’s reading every since The Necropolis Railway, back in … well, 2002 it says here. The series now stretches to six further titles:

2. The Blackpool Highflyer

3. The Lost Luggage Porter

4. Murder at Deviation Junction

5. Death on a Branch Line

6. The Last Train to Scarborough

and, in March this year:

7. The Somme Stations.

Malcolm notices something about his reading habit over this series. He orders the book, usually pre-publication. He tastes it. It sits in the guilt pile while other books take priority. Eventually he sets about a solid read, gets engrossed, and knocks it off over a day or so.

It’s not that Martin is a hard read by any means. Somehow, though, like good Cheddar, the flavour has to reach a point of maturity. That is why, some eight months on, The Somme Stations has finally reached its moment of consumption. On this occasion, Malcolm was in a railway frame of mind, having reached the terminus with Wolmar.

If this is a railway book, it’s an odd’un.

We start with a Prologue, Stringer in an Ilkley convalescent home, feverish, with a “smashed leg”, and incoherent with the onset of septicaemia. This is related in epistolary form by his wife, Lydia (we have followed her relationship with Stringer throughout the novel sequence). This concludes with Stringer’s arrest for murder. We do not return to this point for 250 pages.

We now backtrack to 1914, with Stringer enlisting in a North Eastern Railway “pals” battalion. Initial training is in the docks and streets of Hull. Then there is a posting to, of all places, Spurn Head, where the embryo of the plot — the murder that is central to the story — is dedeveloped.

Then to Albert on the Somme Front, where the railwaymen are digging trenches in the run-up to:

West of Aveluy Wood: The Last Day of June and the First Day of July 1916.

The 17th Battalion of of the Northumberland Fusiliers are in reserve for the first day of the Somme. This chapter (pages 137-158) is — quite properly — harrowing:

We trooped into the communication trench, joining a flow of men. Every few seconds, the flow was interrupted and we stepped aside to let Royal Army Medical Corps and their stretcher cases come past. You’d hear the screaming and groaning before you saw the man, and you’d wonder what it would signify. But I tried not to look at the ones being carried since, very often, important parts of them would be missing.

I carried my rifle with fixed bayonet, two hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition, pick, shovel, haversack. This was battle order; it was meant to be light but was not. I was far too hot. About half the men moving forward carried bombs in addition, and you’d look at them thinking: is that bugger going to trip over and blow us all up? Whenever the communication trench came to a junction, there’d be signs, letters of all different sizes – like children’s writing – daubed in black paint on planks: ‘Moorside … Bank Top … Park Terrace’. These must be streets in the home town of whoever’d made these trenches. By the sounds of it, they were from a Northern town. But some were in French. One said ‘Arrêt’, and Oamer, leading the way, pointed to it, saying, ‘Don’t, on any account.’

At every junction, more men came in, and I tried to think who they might be. We were in with the 32nd Division, alongside two regular battalions – at least one was Scots, I couldn’t recall its name – and half a dozen others from the New Army like ourselves. The Salford Pals – that was one lot. But how did you know a Salford man by looking at him? I had now lost touch with Oamer, but relied on being re-united with him in the front trench.

When I reached the final junction, a subaltern stood there silently (because nobody could be heard without screaming) directing the flow. He was like a human signal post: as each man approached, his left arm or his right would go up. I was sent to his left, and I wondered how he knew where I was supposed to be going. We’d never clapped eyes on each other before. But I found Oamer and our digging team directly. They stood at the entrance to the sap, which was a ditch connecting with the upper part of the trench. You’d scramble up an earth mound to get into it. The twins were there, shovels ready, eager to get going. Scholes was looking not so eager, and I noticed he was mumbling to himself as Quinn addressed an RE man.

‘So to recap,’ Quinn was saying, ‘the sap is literally stuffed with dead bodies?’

The RE man nodded. ‘’Fraid so.’

‘Mmm …’ said Quinn. ‘And what about further along?’

‘More of the same,’ said the RE man.

‘What? More dead bodies?’

‘And a shell’s done for the final part.’

So the sap had become a grave many times over. I supposed dying men had rolled into it for cover.

Stringer spends that latter part of 1st July 1916, until darkness provides cover, in a shell-crater.

Martin then plays with history, as he recognises in his end-note:

Narrow-gauge lines did play an important part in the bringing forward of munitions, and on both sides of the conflict. The first British lines were constructed (by the Royal Engineers) during the late phase of the Somme campaign. But Burton Dump is imaginary, and the narrow-gauge lines did not come into their own until the following year, with the construction of the extensive networks around Arras and Ypres.

“Burton Dump” may be fictional, but at this spot there was Lancaster Dump — now the site of Aveluy Wood CWGC cemetery. Here we finally meet a bit of steam railway, albeit a small Baldwin tank on a two-foot gauge light railway. MArtin’s description has journalistic authenticity:

Aveluy was the railhead for the light railway operation got up by Captain Leo Tate of the Royal Engineers, who in fact had lately become Major Tate…

So I was left dangling about, circling the little locomotive that fumed away in the fading light of a rainy afternoon, impatient to be off along the line towards the villages recently taken. Here, new gun positions were to be installed for new bombardments in the push, the first phase of which had proved to be not so big a push after all, but more like the start of a slow crawl east that was costing, some said, two dead men for every yard gained.

I had been at Aveluy for two days, having been detached from my own battalion and attached to Tate’s new Light Railway Operating Company. It was a typical village of the Somme district, which is to say a cluster of smashed buildings with a crucifix at its main crossroad, and a collection of shell-damaged trees on its fringes that looked like half-burnt telegraph poles. There were more of these to the north than the south of the village, and someone had had the nerve to call them ‘Aveluy Wood’. Tate’s operation was in a clearing in this Wood. It was approached by two standard-gauge railway lines – the nearest they dared come to the scenes of the Somme battle. One came in from Acheux, which lay directly to the west. The other approached from the south, from Albert, the hub of the central Somme region. This track from Albert to Aveluy was the first stage of the line that had once run north-east to Arras, but it wasn’t safe – and in fact no longer existed – beyond Aveluy.

Any journey leading any way eastwards meant trouble, and it was to the east that the little locomotive was just then pointing. It was a black tank engine with two big domes above the boiler. The engine itself was comically small, and the domes were comically big, as if somebody’s pencil had slipped, twice, in the drawing room.

The narrow-gauge line on which it sat began a few yards opposite to the buffer stops of the big lines from Acheux and Albert. At midnight every night a long, dark materiel train brought shells or entrenching equipment from Acheux or Albert, and these goods were stored on the sidings of what was called the Yard, in which standard-gauge and narrow-gauge lines were tangled according to some system understood only by Captain Tate. Most of the shells were on pallets in between the lines of the Yard, but one narrow-gauge flat wagon was loaded with a dozen six-inch shells, and this would form our load for the evening. A dozen shells would be chickenfeed to the three guns in the section we’d be delivering to. They’d get through a hundred and twenty in a night with no bother, but it was by way of a trial run: the first delivery of ammo by narrow-gauge rail rather than the cratered roads that presently served the forward positions.

Stringer is located here until “late October”, when he is wounded. In that time he hears two confessions to the original murder.We are, or at least Malcolm is, acutely conscious that concern for a single death is an irony when so many violent deaths are happening to and all around Stringer and his small party from York.

And so back to Ilkley Moor (and hats — missing or not — play their part), and the dénouement.

Typical of these stories by Martin, the conclusion is gritty, even cluttered, lacking the finesse and artificial polish of the archetypal English “cosy” mystery novel. To go there, though, would be unfair to a fine writer and his story.

It remains to be seen what Martin can do with “Captain Stringer” for the eighth in the sequence.

Beyond that, somewhere in the distance but coming down the track, lie the industrial troubles of the post-War period, and a newly-enfranchised Lydia Stringer.