The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and continued for the next four and a half months. By the end of the engagement, more than 1,000,000 men had been killed or wounded*. It is one of the deadliest (if not the deadliest) battle in history. The title of Elizabeth Speller’s incredible novel, The First of July serves as a constant reminder to the reader of what’s coming for the five protagonists. The men The First of July centers on enlisted in their countries’ armies because of misguided camaraderie, hereditary patriotism, or sheer bad luck. The novel begins in the summer of 1914, but the clock is already counting down to 1 July 1916.
Jean-Baptiste Mallet is the first of the of the four protagonists to be introduced. He is an only child of a widowed mother. After discovering that his mother’s lover is a German, he runs away to Amiens and then Paris. It’s not long before the French Army is mobilized and Jean-Baptiste becomes a poilu—an infantryman.
Frank Stanton is the son of a Devonshire coffin-maker who works as a clerk for Debenhams in London. Through his first-person narrative—he’s the only first person narrator inThe First of July—we see Britain’s mobilization. Talk of events in continental Europe is everywhere as first one country than another declares war. Frank isn’t in the first wave of volunteers, but it isn’t long before a chance meeting with another of the novel’s protagonists sends him to the bicycle corps to work as a messenger.
Benedict Chatto’s recommendation got Frank into the bicycle corps. This narrator joined up because his best friend essentially volunteered the pair of them. Benedict has harbored a crush for Theo for years. Theo’s talent with music makes Benedict’s audio-visual synesthesia spark. But then Theo joins the Royal Flying Corps, leaving Benedict in artillery.
The last of the protagonists, Harry Sydenham, left England for New York years before the novel opens. He’s reinvented himself as an American captain of industry. His father’s death pulls him back to his roots in the landed gentry. England is at war and Harry is, by birth, English. He feels it’s his duty to fight, even though he wants to remain in the States.
There are numerous moments of connection that link the four protagonists. They run into each other by chance. The connections grow tighter as the men are ordered to the Somme by the French and British armies. At one point, Jean-Baptiste’s letter revealing the German origins of a surgeon with the French army is handed off to Harry, who passes it on to Frank while listening to Benedict and Theo playing the organ at the Amiens Cathedral.
The protagonists rarely meet, but I didn’t feel cheated as the novel drew towards its climax. Usually, it bothers me when a novel refuses to tie up disparate narratives. Instead, I read Jean-Baptiste, Frank, Benedict, and Harry as representations of the sheer diversity of soldier experiences in the First World War. Through their eyes, we see the deep psychological and social trauma the war dealt its combatants. There is a deeply moving passage narrated by Harry that captures the paradigm shift that was happening. After a dinner with Eton alums, Harry is returning to his berth when he sees cavalry on the road:
They had been returned to base late in the evening. It was still just light. The driver decided to take the side roads, but they were met by an extraordinary sight, something that in the violet semi-darkness might have been a scene from a medieval tapestry: there, avoiding the endless trail of troops and guns on the main road, were the cavalry, their tall lances upright, bobbing up and down as they rode between the fields, a slender new moon above them, and the only sound the horses’ hooves and the jangling of bridles.
Their car went slowly past them: the Dragoons, the Lancers, the Hussars, the Royal Horse, and the Life Guards, even the Indian Cavalry—for a while they were caught in the middle of dark-skinned turbaned troopers from the Deccan Horse, and he thought he identified a small group of mounted Canadians. The sight had moved and disturbed him where all the modern machinery of war he had seen earlier—the great guns, the wagons carrying rolls of barbed wire, the canteens and field ambulances; the parade of metal and men heading inexorably to the front—had failed. (289-290**)
The cavalry are doomed. The four protagonists are probably doomed, but I kept reading in the hope that they might survive. This is fiction; it can bend the rules of probability enough to save the lives of the four men, right?
The Battle of the Somme was a disaster. The last third of the book is the the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916. We see the British plan go wrong immediately. The artillery fire failed to destroy the barbed wire in no man’s land. The barrage just let the Germans know something big was coming. The rainy days before the battle turned the roads to mud, making it impossible for the messengers to get through with any speed. To think that the “battle” would continue until November of 1916 is crushing. In her postscript, the author notes:
That day [1 July 1916] remains the worst military disaster to have befallen the British Army in terms of losses. The final returns showed 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 were killed, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing, and 585 taken prisoner. (431)
Almost no territory exchanged hands, but what territory did shift from German control to British is a meager price to pay for all the blood and pain. By this time, we have spent almost 400 pages getting to know Jean-Baptiste, Frank, Benedict, and Harry. They’re not cannon fodder; they’re as real as fictional characters can be. With The First of July, Elizabeth Speller does what nonfiction rarely can. This novel brings home the horror, misery, absurdity, and dread that World War I should engender, even 100 years after it began.
* To put this number in perspective, I grew up in Idaho, a state with a population of about one million people. Imagine if the entire state’s population was killed or wounded or went missing.
** Quotes are from the 2013 Pegasus Books edition, digitized by Open Road Media. Page numbers are approximate.