Frontline by Dr Hilary Jones: Enthralling, enlightening and poignant – book review -
Two teenagers – from opposite sides of the tracks but both driven by their desire to help others – are destined to meet amidst the carnage and chaos of the First World War.
The seemingly unremarkable collision of their young lives sets in motion a family dynasty that will be at the forefront of medical advances from the killing fields of Flanders and a devastating flu pandemic right through to the discovery of penicillin and the birth of the NHS.
Doctor Hilary Jones, a General Practitioner and regular contributor to newspapers and television shows, has dug deep into his medical experience, knowledge and imagination for this epic new series charting the rise of a prominent medical family in the 20th century.
With fascinating facts on caring for the sick and wounded, the life-saving developments in medicine which were hastened by war and disaster, and featuring the bravery and resilience of the medics who risked their lives to save others, Frontline is packed with real history and drama.
Grace Tustin-Pennington, who was born into the landed gentry, grew up with five brothers in rural Gloucestershire and soon proved to be the most impulsive, impetuous and fearless of the sibling brood.
A risk-taker who is quietly efficient, confident and more than an intellectual match for her brothers, Grace decides to confound all her mother’s expectations about marrying and having children, and instead spends two years training to be a nurse.
And when the Great War breaks out in 1914, and despite her father’s vow that none of his sons would ever go to war, it is Grace who is first to volunteer with the mounted First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and she heads off to France with the British Expeditionary Force.
Her job is to provide first-aid treatment on the spot but nothing had prepared Grace for the ‘maelstrom of death and destruction’ there. Soon she is tending grievously injured men with terrible wounds at casualty clearing stations, and working through the day and night after bombardments.
Meanwhile, Will Burnett is the teenage son of a dockworker in Chiswick in London. A studious boy, Will likes to read about biology and the natural world, and opts to apprentice as a porter at a local hospital where he is soon noted for his interest in medicine and his exceptional care of patients.
Driven to enlist by patriotism and the thrill of adventure, Will is sent out to France with his battalion but he has talents far beyond firing a gun and is quickly transferred to the Royal Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer, a job which entails risking bullets and bombs on the battlefield.
When Grace and Will meet in a field hospital in France, an instant connection is forged between the dedicated nurse and the handsome, unassuming and sensitive young soldier but as the war draws to a close and rumours of an armistice begin to circulate, so does a mysterious virus, carrying with it an unimaginable death toll across the globe...
In many ways, Frontline is an eye-opening and disturbing read as Jones makes clear the true devastation of war and its life-changing and life-ending impact on those who suffer terrible injuries. Treatments in the early days of the conflict were basic and sometimes brutal as doctors faced primitive, limited conditions and a lack of medicines and battlefield wounds know-how.
But we also witness how necessity becomes the mother of invention as new procedures, new treatments, the development of prosthetic limbs and a growing knowledge of hitherto unrecognised conditions like shell-shock become part of the medical armoury.
And alongside the exploration of pioneering medicine is a powerful and emotive story with authentic detail of the personal cost of war both on and off the battlefield, and moments of heartwarming kindness and empathy which pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of the medics who risked their own lives without question.
Enthralling, enlightening and poignant, Frontline is written with passion and heart, and is just the opener to what promises to be an exciting series.
(Welbeck, paperback, £8.99)