Thursday, 6 March 2014

In Foreign Fields - A Review

In Foreign Fields

A review of In Foreign Fields by David Hough
Reviewed by Stuart Laing

As we reach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War it seems fitting that with renewed interest in the conflict that there are more and more books being published which recollect the carnage on the Western Front.

This novel by David Hough is set in the opening weeks of the war as the Germans launch their lightning strike through a neutral Belgium in order to outflank the French. They hope that by doing so they can ensure a swift victory and a short war. With hindsight we know their hopes came to nothing and Europe was condemned to four long years of bloody slaughter in the mud and filth of Flanders.

The story begins in August 1914 with the British Expeditionary Force in retreat following the Battle of Mons. While the Tommies fall back Captain Victor Wendel roars through the crowds of refugees and soldiers in the wrong direction.

He is a British secret agent on a deadly mission to reach the Château Sur-Le Massevigne where the head of German military intelligence, General Van Hahndorf is recovering from a heart attack. Captain Wendel's mission is simple - find Hahndorf and kill him!

German troops advancing across Belgium in 1914
He is aided by two glamorous French women, Brigitte Clostermann and Mariele Bach who are prepared to do anything to assist him even at the risk of their own lives. Almost by accident a young Irish soldier Billy Donohoe joins the mission after being separated from his own unit.

While the German army advances through a ruined landscape Captain Wendel and Brigitte make their way behind enemy lines and deeper and deeper into danger.

Back in London another British officer named DeBoise, who would rather be a priest than a soldier, is persuaded to join the fledgling British Secret Intelligence Service. He is sent to find Wendel and warn him that one of those who is with him is a double agent. DeBoise must reach Wendel and kill the spy who is working for the Germans before they can betray Wendel and hand the Bosch an intelligence coup.

With this as the basic plot the story rattles along like a runaway horse from one thrilling scene to another and for me this was one of the problems with the book. This constant breathless chase means that the opportunity for the characters to be fully fleshed out a little more as they rush from one moment of drama to the next is largely missed. That is not necessarily  a bad thing however, you are given just enough of the main protagonists back story to have an inkling of their motives to fill in the missing pieces yourself as you read the story. Some readers prefer this to having every nuance of a character's motives and reasoning spelled out for them.

cartoon showing anti-German propoganda
One slight issue for me is that there are no shades of grey here. The British, French and Belgian characters are generally good while every German is bad. From the highest ranking officer to the lowest soldat of the Deutsches Heer all are portrayed as vicious thugs with murderous intentions. As a device this works (look at the movie Braveheart for a classic example of this) and allows the reader to get fully behind the main characters in the quest and in the latter stages allows them to commit acts which could be viewed as slightly less than honourable, although necessary. 

However sometimes less is more and I feel that David Hough could have dialled back the 'beastly Hun' theme at times without losing any of the emotional impact of the scenes of horror which the population suffers at the hands of the advancing Bosche.  

He does creates a vivid image of the rape of the city of Leuven as the population is expelled while the city burns around them. 

David Hough does a terrific job in recreating the image of a nation in ruins as the tide of war sweeps over it leaving destruction and grief in its wake. It is an old fashioned, edge of the seat page turner that holds your attention as Wendel and his friends finally reach the château and prepare to complete their mission. There is no denying that by the time the reader reaches this point you are cheering the British on and booing the baddies as the book reaches it climatic finale where through the flames and smoke of a night of high drama and horror crimes are avenged and hopes for a fresh start are tantalisingly close.

This is the first in what promises to be a series featuring Wendel, Deboise and Donohoe and I confess that despite my reservations about things being black and white it is a series which I will follow. 
Like the old Saturday morning adventure shows where each episode ends on a cliffhanger In Foreign Fields keeps you on the edge of your seat. You may shake your head at certain aspects of the story but you know that you will come back for more.

Purchase Link


  1. Sounds likeman interesting read and I love this period in history. Thanks for the honesty about the depths of character. It's often the case that we need to be reminded that not all of the German nation were bad. This is something masterfully portrayed in All Quiet on the Western Front.

  2. Sounds like a riviting read. and its a time we should always remember