Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

World War 2, by dint of being fought at a time when technological advancements made it possible to document, share and preserve information more easily, has been more ingrained in the collective memories of people than WWI has. In terms of the scale of people killed and the number of countries involved too, WWI has always been overshadowed by its successor. WWI remains, however, the 20th Century’s first large scale engagement, and is equally important in terms of the lessons offered; a view being echoed by a growing number of historians and authors who strive to bring them to the fore.

Sebastian Faulks is one such author, and Birdsong is his blood-soaked tribute to all those who lived and died in the trenches of France from 1914 to 1918. It is the second book in a series that has been loosely dubbed the France Trilogy, although the books have nothing in common except some minor characters recurring in all three. What sets Birdsong apart from a lot of books on WWI written in the latter half of the 20th Century is Faulks’ approach towards its research. He felt that much of the existing WWI literature was deeply influenced by WWII literature, so he deliberately avoided research with secondary documents, choosing instead to focus on veteran interviews and period primary sources. As a result, we read the real, un-distilled accounts of the men at war, as close to the real thing as pen and paper can take you to.

The book has two stories running parallelly in different timelines, the first that of the Englishman Stephen Wraysford, and his journey up to and into the Great War; the second of his granddaughter Elizabeth Benson, trying to piece together Stephen’s story in the late 1970s after coming across his diaries. Stephen’s story is that of love, loss and trauma, Elizabeth’s of a journey from indifference to understanding, with both stories ultimately ending in hope; hope for the future and for humanity.

Stephen’s story begins in 1910 as he arrives in Amiens, France and is hosted by Rene Azaire and his considerably younger second wife Isabelle Azaire in their house. Over the course of time, he has an affair with Isabelle and elopes with her after they confront M. Azaire with the truth. They end up living together in a small village where no one knows them, and Stephen starts working as a carpenter’s apprentice. At this point, you might very well mistake this for a love story, but it is merely the foundation of the remainder of the tale; your illusion of Birdsong being a love story being broken in the very next setting.

As the novelty and adrenaline of the experience wears off, Isabelle begins to question own motives and emotions behind running away with Stephen, including whether she actually loves him or is he just a means to an end. This leads her to hide the news of her pregnancy from Stephen, and finally leave him without explaining her actions, making her way back to her parents’ place. Stephen, confused and broken, is left behind trying to come to terms with it.

The narrative moves to the trenches of 1916 France, where Stephen is a Lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force. The loss of Isabelle all those years ago has made him more taciturn and withdrawn than before. The situation on the front, the life in the trenches, only serves to reinforce his attitude than remedy it. His only friend is the Captain in charge of the Miner’s Division and, much to the chagrin of his Commanding Officer, he prefers spending time with him instead of his own men.

At this point Faulks’ storytelling comes into his own, and the trenches of France come alive in front of our eyes. His insistence on veteran interviews pays off, as he is able to paint a near accurate picture of the daily lives of the soldiers, the psyche of the armed forces in the second decade of the new century where horseback cavalry rode side by side with the very first tank prototypes, and airplanes only just being looked at as anything more than observation platforms.

Faulks gives a realistic of war being fought not on one front, but on two in the same place – above ground and underground. Overland, the battle is seemingly at a stalemate as each side is firmly entrenched (pun intended) where they are. Trying to attack and take over the elaborate trench systems developed after running through the open no-man’s land is nothing short of suicidal. However, that is precisely what the ill-fated Kitchener’s Army, of which Stephen is a part, is ordered to do. The shortsightedness of officers trained in techniques of war now obsolete is clear for all to see. The futility of overland charges, the immense loss of life for a few feet of land, the carnage that made the very few men that survived question everything from the existence of God to their own sanity, all of it stands out in stark relief as the Battle of Somme is recreated in front of our eyes. Stephen miraculously survives, but the experience makes him even more jaded.

 Faulks’ primary source veteran interviews help him immensely in another regard. He is able to accurately depict the trauma experienced by the men who were part of one of the most bloody and devastating wars in history. The helplessness, the cynicism of the survivors, the thoughts of those who marched against devastating machine gun fire and watched men to the left and right of them get cut down by bullets, but escaped with a mere scratch themselves; all this and more puts an all too human face on the war and all its consequences.

For the war underground, the aforementioned Miner’s Division was an important aspect and unique to WWI. The job of these miners, some of whom had once been part of the crew building the London Underground, was to dig tunnels deep underground at depths of 60 feet or more bringing them under the German trenches. These tunnels were then packed with dynamite and blown up, the objective being to destroy the enemy lines from beneath them. Of course, the Germans had their own Miner Divisions doing the same thing as well, and every now and then the tunnels would accidentally meet up, leading to nightmarish altercations in the near dark. Often the tight, narrow tunnels collapsed on the miners, friend and foe alike, burying them under tons of earth and making the extraction of the corpses all but impossible.

By Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company – This is photograph Q 115 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Faulks tells us of the friendship of Stephen and one of the miners, Jack Firebrace. A simple man with no formal education, working as a civilian miner before volunteering for the army, Jack is a strong character and through him is the world of the miners described. Stephen and he become more than just casual acquaintances when they rescue each other from near death situations in turn, developing a relationship built on mutual trust. Among all this, Jack is shown dealing with his personal demons too, having to come to terms with the death of his child in far off London and him not being able to go back even for the funeral.

We smash-cut into the future here, into the life of Elizabeth Benson in the 1970s. After the visceral gut punch that is the trenches of 1916 France, Elizabeth’s life seems almost colourless in comparison. As you see her going about an everyday life, worrying about food, friends, marriage and children, you can’t help but think back to Stephen lying in the dugout, with bits of mud falling off the ceiling as the artillery drops bombs in the background. This of course, is the exact effect Faulks wants and succeeds in achieving, making us question the reality and the self-absorption in not one but both the timelines.

Up to the point where she discovers Stephen’s diaries, Elizabeth merely has a vague idea that her grandfather was in the Great War, and has no real interest in knowing anything about it. But the diaries make it personal, and thus begins her drive to understand both her grandfather and the events of his lifetime. Her search brings her into contact with Stephen’s CO as well as a fellow soldier, both well into their 90s; but she fails to understand from them what kind of person Stephen was, or even how the War was for them. It brings her back to the diaries, which she sets about deciphering with the help of a colleague.

Back in 1917, a battle-weary Stephen is given leave, and decides to take it in Amiens, where it all began for him. There, in completely unexpected circumstances, he meets Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister. He learns from her the events leading to them being here, including Isabelle being injured by German shelling of the town. He insists on meeting her, and there is finally some closure for him regarding Isabelle, although not in a way he anticipates. After this, however, he becomes a regular mail correspondent with Jeanne, and we see their initial mistrust of each other slowly growing into a friendship of sorts, culminating in mutual affection.

On the front, talks of the war ending mix with talks of a last large offensive. For Stephen, both threaten to become a moot point when he gets trapped in an underground tunnel, with him and Jack the only surviving members of their party. Both are injured, Jack critically. With no hope of rescue, Jack seems resigned to his fate, but Stephen who until then has been ambivalent about dying suddenly wants to fight to live, both for himself and for all the men under him who lost their lives. The epiphany gives him strength to hold on and engineer a rescue over a course of three days, but Jack succumbs to his injuries. Stephen’s subsequent rescue, not by his own side but by the Germans just after the Armistice, and his final conversation with his former enemies before parting ways is a poignant ending of his tale.

Stephen’s last experiences are the first part of his diaries that Elizabeth reads, finally having deciphered them. She has at this point discovered that she is pregnant, and is battling with her own doubts and insecurities. Whether she is ready for motherhood, will the father of her child decide to be with her, will her family and friends accept her decision; these thoughts are juxtaposed against Stephen in the tunnel, emerging into the hands of the Germans, and his final thoughts thereafter. His diaries, and Elizabeth’s conversation with her mother (who is Stephen’s daughter) on love and morality, help her find her own way and decide for herself.

Faulks ends both the stories on a twin promise of hope and continuity. Hope for the future, for the continuity of generations, and for living life not just for our own selves but also for those who couldn’t. That is the message he leaves us with, and implicit in it is a plea to look inwards, at our own lives and whether we carry those twin promises with us.

One thought on “Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

  1. I am filled with so many questions and emotions simultaneously. With so less being documented of WWI, I can’t even begin to fathom how grotesque various experiences during the first war might have been given how little the world had advanced till then.
    Plus it was the first war of this magnitude, destruction and scale.
    To realize how worst of circumstances bring out our inner most personas sometimes, unknown to our own selves. Choices made by Stephen, Isabelle – at her later stage her own introspection, Jack – an ordinary person turned someone serving in the army. Elizabeth – how she discovers her grandfather through the writings, the armistice.

    So many people in the midst of the war through innumerable direct and indirect roles they played during the war would’ve aged in just 4 years of the war.
    Different times now, indeed! And yet I am grateful I wasn’t living in those times. Thank you for bringing this tapestry to life via your reviews, it gives us perspective

    Liked by 1 person

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