It is 1914. As war engulfs the British Empire, Royal Navy gunner, George Royal awaits his next ship in his home port where his best friend falls in love with beautiful Carrie, a woman with secrets. But, when she is attracted to George she brings the two men into conflict. Unprepared for war, Britain's leadership is severely tested. The Prime Minister is preoccupied with his love for a young woman even during Cabinet meetings at which his bickering warlords make fate-changing decisions. Through the personal lives of Britain's leaders and George's coming-of-age through a love triangle at home and ferocious battles at sea, the story reveals how the machinations of leaders influenced the course of the Great War and the fate of those fighting it.
Some two years before the outbreak of war, Prime Minister Asquith, 59, fell in love with 24-year-old Venetia Stanley. Married and a father of five, Asquith confided state secrets to Venetia. Alongside him were politicians and military leaders whose bickering and antagonism towards each other simmered and often affected the decision-making process during the war. Among these were Churchill, Admiral Fisher, Lord Kitchener, Bonar Law and Lloyd George. Naturally, the common soldier and sailor sent to fight the politicians’ war were oblivious of the in-fighting and preening self-importance of their leaders. Which was just as well, for morale if not for the war itself.
One family who went to war was the Royals. George followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Royal Navy as a gunnery rating. The naval town of Gosport is brought to life, as are the hardships of serving at sea. Comradeship counts for much in those battleships. Time ashore is savoured and George spends much of it with his best mate, Bill, a tradesman who was deemed unfit for service. It is during one of his visits that he meets Bill’s live-in girlfriend, Carrie, who is an unwed mother.
The scene is set for a love triangle. Carrie and George don’t hit it off at first; perhaps they’re both jealous of the other stealing time from Bill. Anyway, Carrie has high hopes to better herself, for the sake of her baby Kate. She goads Bill into expanding his business; supplying food to the armed services could be very profitable.
Before any kind of relationship can be sorted for George, his ship is called to the South Atlantic to avenge a bitter naval defeat under the guns of German Admiral von Spee’s heavy cruiser Scharnhorst. The Falklands – one of several Royal Navy coaling stations – was a vital cog in the British Empire; without such depots, the RN could not command the seas and protect the vast number of merchant vessels from all four corners of the globe. George’s ship was sent with utmost despatch.
It seemed that no sooner was that action successfully concluded than Churchill, Admiral Fisher and the Prime Minister concocted a scheme to invade Turkey through the Dardanelles, thereby breaking through to relieve Russia. Little did they realise that this Gallipoli campaign would have dire consequences for more than one political and service career.
George’s ship was sent to the Dardanelles, where he would be involved in a landing party and life-and-death situations.
Inevitably, Carrie and George are drawn to each other, but life is not going to be simple for this ill-starred couple, it seems…
Daysh manages to juggle several balls with assurance during the narrative. The conditions at the home front are well depicted and the emotions of Asquith’s wife, Churchill and the confused Venetia are realistically conveyed. The narrative is aided by the inclusion of excerpts from Asquith’s letters to Venetia – he tended to write at least once a day to her. The battles at sea, and the rise of ungentlemanly submarine warfare, are recreated in suspenseful and taut prose. The bickering between Churchill, Lord Fisher and Kitchener make grim reading when it is realised how many lives are at stake. At one point, it is mentioned that the loss of ships is causing concern – they’re hard to replace, whereas men are plentiful. Saved for the closing chapters, there is an intriguing revelation from Carrie’s past that puts much into perspective.
All in all, Daysh has got the balance about right. We learn of Asquith and his ultimately deleterious infatuation, his peers and faulty decision-makers; we share in the trauma and loss of conflict at sea and on the Turkish peninsula; and we empathise with those left at home to pick up the pieces and make something of their lives during a period of grey austerity. Everybody seems to realise that no matter what the outcome of the war – and by the book’s close, the conclusion is not certain – nothing will ever be the same again.
Over By Christmas by William Daysh is a war novel. It is also a superb novel in which real events, imagined histories, human relationships and politics intertwine. These elements are combined via a beautifully paced narrative whose use of multiple forms only adds to its clarity.
While naval battles of the first half of World War One are described, we encounter some of the politics that generate their necessity. We see the in-fighting and posturing around the desire to avoid responsibility. We share the priority of a Prime Minister who, amidst the pressure of decision, remains obsessed with a young woman – and not for the first time! – a woman to whom he is compelled to write, often several times a day. There are numerous factual reports of the war. These provide the background, the context to allow us to position the experience of the book’s characters.
And central to these are the Royals, not the rulers in London, but a naval family in Gosport, Portsmouth. Jack the father and George the son are seamen, while Emily, wife and mother, is their home port. In his spare time, which seems to be quite sparse, George is a bit of a lad. He is a handsome, honest type who falls for two girls in particular, Carrie and Carla. The first is a single mother, left encumbered but compensated by a period of “service”. The latter, a minor character with a major role, is a dusky-skinned, half-Italian shop assistant.
And then there’s Bill, who takes up with Carrie, and then later with a Mr Paxman to further his growing business interests. But throughout there is the war. Throughout there is the threat of suffering alongside the daily reality of early death, the hell of battle. War, and especially this one, claims many lives and takes them arbitrarily, though never without loss for those who survive. The wounded, it seems, sometimes have to cope with more than death.
George emerges as the central character of Over By Christmas. We follow him repeatedly to and from Portsmouth. He sees The Pacific and the South Atlantic. He sails around Britain into the North Sea. He is in Malta and Gallipoli. Above all, he is in the war, perhaps not muddied in trenches, but permanently threatened by torpedo, shell and sea. He makes friends, is loyal, and gallant and is promoted. But throughout, his passion for Carrie remains. Chances to reconcile their differences, to realise their shared love are rare, but important moments. And then… And then this is the beauty of Over By Christmas.
The narrative engages the reader in its characters’ lives. In twists and turn it surprises, but in the end we have merely the complications of human relationships. Warfare is about sparring, about conflict, imagined gains and suffered losses. Affairs of the heart may demonstrate strikingly similar qualities.