We've had the opportunity to read and review a number of Malcolm Archibald's historical novels and had high hopes for "Last Train to Waverley". We were not disappointed, and we suspect that no-one else is going to be either. The timing of the publication of the book, one hundred years to the day after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 is no coincidence. What we have here is Malcolm Archibald bringing his considerable skills as a historian and an author to bear on the first truly global conflict, and a war that in many ways helped shape the world we live in today.
The First World War was a war that many who joined up thought and hoped would be over by that first Christmas, and it seems unlikely that anyone who volunteered early in the war believed it could possibly continue to kill men in their thousands, day in and day out, for over four years. The action in "Last Train to Waverley" all takes place in a single week in March 1918, a week during which the German army launched its Spring Offensive on the Western Front, its last great attack of the war, gaining more ground more quickly than at any time since the war had stagnated in fixed lines of trenches early in the conflict.
Lieutenant Douglas Ramsay has just arrived back at the front to join 20th Royal Scots after recovering from wounds suffered earlier in the war. As the Germans attack he finds himself and his few surviving men cut off, miles behind the new and still fast moving enemy lines. It falls to Ramsay, Sergeant Flockhart and Corporal McKim to find a way of getting their men back across war-torn Flanders. Only Ramsay quickly realises that he and Sergeant Flockhart have their own deeply personal reasons to be mortal enemies, and knows it is only a matter of time before Flockhart remembers who Ramsay is, and adds one more to the list of those trying to kill him.
The book's prelude is set in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, in June 1919, so we know that Ramsay emerges alive from Flanders. But in finding out how he achieves that unlikely outcome we also learn a lot about the nature of warfare in the latter stages of the Great War; and about society in and around Edinburgh at the time. The result is an excellent read that nicely balances the horrors of war with the constraints of life in Scotland a hundred years ago.