Friday, January 24, 2014

Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell

November 11, 1918. Three men. Three destinies that will come together in the final hours of the Great War.

Axel Meyer is heading to the Front with his fellow German soldiers when a terrific explosion jolts him awake on the train he's traveling on. Axel, who is from Wansdorf, just west of Berlin along with the other German soldiers is ordered off and told to march. Alex is befriended by Erich Becker, a young German about his age who has lost his three older brothers to the war. Exhausted, Axel hopes they are being marched to a barracks to rest but instead he finds himself in a tiny village called Saint-Libert, to be sent to the front. Alex and Erich along with a group of soldiers are marched to the village of Aulnois where the two boys are ordered into the tower of the Church of St. Nicholas as lookouts. They are expecting an attack any time now.

Eddie Hertz is a pilot in the American Air Service First Pursuit Group. with 4 kills. Eddie who now has four kills, one short of making him an Ace, has been stationed at the airbase at Doullens. He's been in France now for nine months and early in the morning of November 11, he too hears a catastrophic explosion. Eddie's family is the wealthy Hertz family who have an apartment on Upper East Side, across from Central Park. Eddie, along with his younger brother Bobbie has had the best education money could buy and a privileged life. He's just lost his girlfriend back in America, Janie Holland, but Eddie doesn't mind because he's met a lovely French girl, Celine who works at a field hospital close to the base. When Eddie learns that the war will be over at 11 am on November 11th, he decides to take his Camel out for one last mission, to try to get his fifth kill. As an excuse to go up, he decides to provide air support for the American troops under Colonel Miller as they attack Aulnois.

William (Will) Franklin's C Company, of the 'King's Own' Royal Lancaster Regiment is resting by the roadside He thinks back to his sweetheart, Alice Hayworth, whose father, Dr. Hayworth convinced Will to enlist despite his being too young. Will now realizes that Alice's father wanted him as far away from Alice as possible. Will hadn't really wanted to enlist especially since his older brother Stanley had died at Passchendale, and his other older brother Jim was already overseas fighting. When Will enlisted his parents managed to have Will serve alongside Jim, in the same company. Will's unit is to attack the town of Saint-Libert while the Americans will attack the village of Aulnois. Will and his unit survive a gas attack and is sent with his brother Sergeant Jim Franklin to reconnoiter the woods nearby for Germans before the attack. Shortly after Jim and Will's patrol leaves for the forest, a runner arrives at their unit with the new that the war is over. The soldier sent to tell them the new is shot dead by a sniper.

Meanwhile in a railway carriage in the Compiegne forest, north of Paris, negotiations to halt the war with the surrender of Germany, are ongoing. The fictitious Captain George Atherley is recording the terms of surrender. Representing Germany is Matthias Erzberger, representative of the coalition formed after the abdication of the Kaiser and Count Alfred von Obersdorff. Representing Great Britain is First Sea Lord, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. The French delegation includes Marshal Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies. No American representatives are in attendance. The papers are signed and the war is declared over at approximately 5 am in the morning. The Armistice would come into effect at 11 am, Paris time. There were six hours left for war to rage and men to die.

On that last morning of the war all three men and the soldiers they are with will be drawn together partly by circumstances beyond their control but also by the choices they make. For some it will be the last day of their lives, for others the beginning of the rest of their lives.

Eleven Eleven is a realistic portrayal of war by Dowswell, author of  the novel, Auslander. Dowswell is an excellent historical fiction writer, capable of bringing history to life for his young readers. His portrayal of the horror of war and the terrible fear young men endured when confronted with the realities of the battlefield are  subdued but realistic.  Readers will generally get the idea that many of these soldiers suffered terrible wounds from shrapnel, mines, gunshot, shells and mustard gas.

Dowswell has chosen to focus on a very specific time period in this novel, from 2:00 am in the morning of November 18 until 1:00 pm in the afternoon on what would be the last day of the war. The end of any war is bittersweet. It's wonderful that the war has ended but bitter because of those last few men who die in the final hours. We experience these emotions intensely near the end of Eleven Eleven; the men who managed to survive four years of war only to die in the final hour of the war or even after the Armistice went into effect.

One aspect of this novel that stands out is how Dowswell portrayed each of the different soldiers, Americans, Germans and British as ordinary people who are remarkably similar to each other despite their different nationality. Each recognizes the fear in his enemy's eyes, sees the exhaustion and can even manage to look past the uniform to see another young person there just like them. Flashbacks for each character allow the reader to see that life at home for these soldiers is not all that remarkably different, whether they are German or British. They still struggle with the same problems, suffer the same losses, experience similar joyful moments.

I can't really recommend enough the novels of Paul Dowswell. He's a wonderful historical fiction writer whose novels are engaging and well written.

Book Details:
Eleven Eleven by Paul Dowswell
New York: Bloomsbury
224 pp.

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