Book review: The Shadow of War by Stewart Binns

One hundred years after hostilities began, here’s a chance to witness the slow unfolding of the First World War and its impact at every level of British society.
The Shadow of War by Stewart BinnsThe Shadow of War by Stewart Binns
The Shadow of War by Stewart Binns

BAFTA award winning documentary writer Stewart Binns, who was born and bred in Burnley, is making a name for himself as an author of factually compelling historical novels, including the much-acclaimed medieval Making of England series.

And now he turns his expertise and knowledge to the Great War and a superbly researched and intelligent new series which will see a book for each year of the conflict.

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The Shadow of War is the first chapter of a remarkable fictional account which relates the story of the war through the eyes of men and women from different social classes as they follow Britain into the biggest conflict the world has ever seen.

From a working men’s club in Burnley and an impoverished Welsh farming community to the baronial splendour of the Duke of Atholl’s Scottish home and the offices of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, this is the war played out on a domestic, social, military and political scale.

Combining authentic history, some based on his own family’s war service, with a cross-section of real and fictional characters, Binns gives us an extraordinary blow-by-blow narrative which opens a door onto a world teetering on the brink of disaster.

The clear skies of June 1914 are misleading because the chill winds of social discontent are starting to stir around Britain and a terrifying storm is fomenting in Europe.

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In the small town of Presteigne in Radnorshire, Wales, three farming brothers – Hywel, Morgan and Geraint Thomas – and their sister Bronwyn are contemplating a difficult future after their widower father dies leaving the family struggling to survive hard times.

At the Royal Fusiliers’ barracks in the Isle of Wight, Cockney army veterans Maurice Tait and Harry Woodruff have seen service all over the Empire and reckon they are inured to the barbarity of warfare.

Hundreds of miles north, Burnley weaver Tommy Broxup has found an unexpected friend in collier ‘Mad Mick’ Kenny from Colne while their feisty wives have discovered a shared interest in socialism and the Suffragette movement.

Head further north again to Blair Atholl Castle in Perthshire and we find the 7th Duke of Atholl berating his eldest son and heir John (‘Bardie’) Murray over Bardie’s ‘unsuitable’ friends. One of the few things they agree on is the importance of their secret work on a prototype aeroplane which is being developed on the massive estate.

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And at the heart of government is 39-year-old Winston Churchill, the baby-faced First Lord of the Admiralty and a seasoned veteran of politics, war and controversy. Witty, energetic, brave, a born leader of men but haunted by bouts of ‘Black Dog’ depression, Churchill fears the advent of a major European war and Britain’s lack of experienced soldiers.

Together they will all share in the tragedy that is to come. All that they have known will be changed forever by the catastrophic events of the Great War…

Binns weaves a terrific tale in The Shadow of War, setting the scene for four years of brutal fighting, social change and international upheaval. From the highest circles in the land to the mill workers of Lancashire, these are the people who fought at the front, toiled at home and made life and death decisions.

As much at home in the War Office as he is with the ordinary ranks crouching in the trenches, Binns brings us white-knuckle action, compelling drama and emotional intensity as and how it happened.

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And to help put the conflict into context, Binns provides 60 pages of maps, references, background, genealogies, an invaluable glossary and even a guide to the East Lancashire dialect.

An impressive opener to what promises to be one of the best series to come out of the Great War centenary…

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £12.99)

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