Welcome to my stop on the tour, I’m sharing an A Hundred Years to Arras by J M Cobley Extract. A Hundred Years to Arras is a literary historical fiction which is out now in paperback and ebook. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for my spot on the tour. First up the synopsis, then the extract and finally a bit about the author.
On a painful, freezing Easter Monday in 1917, Private Robert Gooding Henson of the Somerset Light Infantry is launched into the Battle of Arras.
Robert is twenty-three years old, a farmer’s boy from Somerset, who joins up against his father’s wishes. Robert forms fast friendships with Stanley, who lied about his age to go to war, and Ernest, whose own slippery account betrays a life on the streets. Their friendship is forged through gas attacks, trench warfare, freezing in trenches, hunting rats, and chasing down kidnapped regimental dogs. Their life is one of mud and mayhem but also love and laughs.
This is the story of Robert’s journey to Arras and back, his dreams and memories drawing him home. His story is that of the working-class Tommy, the story of thousands of young men who were caught in the collision between old rural values and the relentlessness of a new kind of war. It is a story that connects the past with the present through land, love and blood.
A Hundred Years to Arras by J M Cobley Extract
One cheek lay in the mud, cold and caked to his skin. He drooled into the dirt and tasted the bitterness of the earth that had spattered on to his tongue and lips. Behind his closed eyes, dark shapes fluttered and swam, whispering voices of nausea drawing him down into something deep and heavy. His limbs ached from the fall. His legs lay in a puddle, one foot tucked behind him as if running. His weight was restricting the circulation in his left arm and he felt his fingers tingle. His other arm hung limply, with his remaining grip weak and loose around the stock of his rifle.
The ground’s cold embrace surrounded him. Robert lay in a shell hole, a crater punched into the French soil. He had fallen, and the fall had begun even as the sun rose. The August morning was fine and warm. The previous night’s sunset had bled into the grey rain. Sleep was fitful at best as the battalion took its place in a trench along what was laughingly called the British front line but was in fact just a staggered set of carved holes in the ground. At least, that was the way it seemed to Robert as he had settled down on a dry duckboard for the long night into morning.
On their subterranean shelves in the trench, Robert and the other men from the Somerset Light Infantry knew only the basics of their orders. Set for just after dawn, a short assault was to begin. The infantry in the line in front of them were to surge forward first, and they were to await the signal to race to the parapet after them. Once through the German barbed wire, they were to leap heroically into the enemy trenches and open fire on them as they dragged themselves wearily from their beds in the ground. This had been a tactic employed regularly since the first day of July, when all along the Somme, thousands of men had died in an attack that nobody spoke of now in the trench. The last phase of the Battle of the Somme was tailing off, and Robert was there at its last few shakes. Robert’s specific order was to join in the attempt to reclaim some old trenches on ground in No Man’s Land that had been conceded to the Germans earlier in the year.
Two years earlier, the winter frost crusted the ground and bits of straw clung to the Old Man’s boots as he waited on the hill for his son. The November air bit hard as he hauled hay into troughs. His nose ran and he wiped on his sleeve, already cold and wet from a morning’s work. Robert Henson senior was the wrong side of seventy and his legs ached with every bend and stride. For a long time now, he had to tighten his belt just to keep his back straight and sharp pains shot down his leg whenever he shifted a heavy weight. There were days when the only thing that would warm his muscles enough to keep moving was a measure of whisky or, as today on the coldest of days, a glass of rum. Just a mouthful now to get the blood flowing would have been what he needed to get him through the rest of the morning.
The cows were bursting with milk, ready to be relieved. But hadn’t the Old Man already milked them? It was difficult to remember; sometimes it was difficult to remember a good many things: he couldn’t even remember going to sleep the previous night, just waking up in the chair by the cold grate as the cock was crowing outside. Lucy had bustled about and brought him a cup of tea as she ushered their son out of the house with a hunk of bread as his breakfast. She had to crack the ice in the bucket to fill the kettle, but the steam from the stove soon filled the kitchen.
Now, on that frosty slope, he wondered where his son was. He had given him his name, and the name of his father, who in turn had carried his mother’s maiden name. Robert Gooding Henson was his only son, his only child in fact, his past continuing into the future. To distinguish between them, his wife Lucy insisted on calling the boy Bob. This was not the father’s choice. His son was in his twenties now, a man, and he would not treat him like a boy. That meant he also had responsibilities to the family and the farm. So where was he?
About the Author
J. M. Cobley was born in Devon of Welsh parents and now lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughter. Jason studied English Language and Literature at university and is currently Head Teacher at a hospital school in Coventry. Jason is otherwise known for his work writing scripts for the long-running
Commando comic and graphic novel adaptations of classics such as Frankenstein and An Inspector Calls, as well as the children’s novel The Legend of Tom Hickathrift. Jason also hosts a weekly show on Radio Abbey in Kenilworth, where he indulges his passion for classic and progressive rock. The central character of A Hundred Years to Arras is based on his relative Robert Gooding Henson.
J M Cobley Twitter
Do check out the other stops on the tour and enjoy all the insightful reviews. See below for dates and blog locations.