Towards the end of WW1, a famous British war hero, poet, and aristocrat is listed as “killed in action”. There is unease in political circles, as Viscount Abercrombie was actually convalescing in a home for shell-shocked soldiers, well behind the front lines when he died. The evidence suggests that he was deliberately murdered by a Private soldier with Bolshevist leanings. If this is made known to the wider world, it could ignite a mutiny among the exhausted troops at the front, and a class war back at home.
At the same time, the newspapers are filled with the scandal of a famous Scotland Yard detective, jailed for two years for refusing to be conscripted into the army. Surprisingly, Inspector Douglas Kingsley does not object to killing a man when it is deserved, but claims that the war is “illogical”, “not worth the destruction it is causing”, and that the German soldiers have done nothing to deserve death. Two weeks after his incarceration, Kingsley is pulled out of jail and sent to the front, where, in addition to discovering the truth about Abercrombie’s death, he learns a lot about himself as he struggles to reconcile his own morals with the actions he is forced to take to keep himself alive.
Before I read this I thought I was pretty familiar with Ben Elton’s work. I’ve read several of his other novels, including Stark, Gridlock and Dead Famous. I’ve also seen quite a lot of the British sit-coms to which his name is attached, such as The Young Ones, and Blackadder. With all that background, I was, I admit, expecting more comedy, but that is not what The First Casualty is. Instead it is a dark, raw view of the war. We follow Kingsley through his trial for “cowardice” and his short time in prison, then to France and Belgium where (traveling under the name of Captain Christopher Marlowe) he sees more action in investigating Abercrombie’s death than he would ever have if he had merely agreed to register as a “conscientious objector” and joined a medical regiment or other peaceful branch of the service. The language used is brutal, describing the horrors of mud and blood at the front. I should also warn that there are occasions where characters use extreme coarse language, which, while illustrative of their mental states at the time, may offend some readers.
A great deal of the novel is concerned with the politics of the time: the causes of the war, Irish home rule, the treatment of suffragettes, the rise of Communism, and the Russian Revolution. More than one character asks Kingsley how he can claim the moral high-ground in opposing the war, when as a London police officer he knowingly wore the same uniform as men who were oppressing those who were fighting for the above listed political causes.
As I already said, The First Casualty was not exactly what I expected it would be, but nevertheless I… (I hesitate to say enjoyed it, because quite a lot of the scenes did not make for very pleasant reading). I read it quickly, and I don’t regret reading it. (No, even that doesn’t quite describe it.) If you are interested in World War One, and are mature enough to handle it, The First Casualty is definitely worth reading, but you may not want to read it a second time! (At least, not for a while anyway.)