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Covenant With Death

4.51  ·  Rating details ·  412 ratings  ·  53 reviews
They joined for their country. They fought for each other.

When war breaks out in 1914, Mark Fenner and his Sheffield friends immediately flock to Kitchener's call. Amid waving flags and boozy celebration, the three men - Fen, his best friend Locky and self-assured Frank, rival for the woman Fen loves - enlist as volunteers to take on the Germans and win glory.

Hardcover, 448 pages
Published October 27th 1992 by Hutchinson (first published 1961)
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Average rating 4.51  · 
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 ·  412 ratings  ·  53 reviews

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I've read a great many novels about WW1 and this is right up there among the best.

The language and the style takes a little getting used to - it was written in 1960 I think - but this is the first novel I have read that seems to truly capture the initial passions, the excitement and the sheer optimism of the volunteer Pal's Battalions, an array of feelings that are to be subsequently quashed by the reality of war.

The final chapters are utterly gut wrenching. They encompass just one day of the
Oct 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
John Harris was a Sheffield based crime writer who grew up listening to the veteran's stories he heard around the city. Among these were the stories of the survivors of the 12th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment; the Sheffield Pals. This book is based on those stories.

The Sheffield Pals (which included my great grandfather) were formed on the outbreak of war in August 1914. Richard A. Sparling, a veteran who became a sports journalist and wrote a history of the battalion, described
Sep 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
My grandmother was born in Sheffield. I can remember my great grandmother and grandmother telling me stories of what happened to the City of Sheffield after the battle of the Somme in World War I. My maternal great uncle was a member of the Sheffield City Battalion (12th Battalion) York Regiment 94th Brigade, 31 Division and died at the Somme. I have his regimental patch with the white rose on it. I grabbed this book Covenant with Death by John Harris because it was a historical novel about the ...more
Stuart jackson
Feb 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
A very enjoyable book, bringing home the clamour for war, followed by the expectation of glory that didn't survive it's encounter with reality before quickly turning to disillusionment and finally the grinding resignation that blighted a generation of young men during the First World War. The fact based story of an imaginary set of characters from a Sheffield regiment as they join up and eventually face the horror of the battle of the Somme. At times it was jaw droppingly real.
Alexia Chantel
Nov 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fen's story is haunting and important. Having stood in the trenches in France, even eroded for a hundred years, Covenant with Death took me back there to the mud filled holes with artillery exploding overhead and it was powerful. May we never forget those who fought for our freedoms.
Dannielle Potts
Aug 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Firstly, I Picked This Up From The Library Because Of My Love Of Historical Fiction, Even Though I Prefer The WWII Era. Something Told Me I Should Read This Book. The 500 Pages Was Deterring Me A Bit But Once I Started, I Finished It In Two Sittings.
I Feel Like This Book Should Be Up There With The Best Of The Books About WWI In Fiction, Although, By The Descriptions, Its Almost Possible To Believe This Book As Fact.
I Found Part 3 Of The Book Just Heartbreaking; Thinking What Those Men Went
Phil Altimas
Feb 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a raw and gritty book, it follows a young mans journey into WW1 , from the excitement of enlisting , to the boredom of the holding camps and the hell of being under fire

a great read and a real slice of history
Steven Kay
Sep 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sheffield-novels
I love finding a great book Ive never heard of: its like finding buried treasure. This was such a book: flagged up to me by someone on Sheffield Forum. It was first published in 1961 in a way thirty years too early. Had it appeared in the 1990s, after the renewed interest in the First World War, it might have been more celebrated. It is different from the later vogue books like Birdsong, Regeneration or the Michael Morpugo books it doesnt have that same filter of knowingness. Covenant with ...more
Tim Mitchell
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I bought this in a second hand bookshop in Bangkok of all places and it's spent the last thirty years travelling around the world with me. Superficially, it's a straight forward tale of Kitchener's Army (a thinly disguised version of the Sheffield Pals) from formation in 1914 to destruction on the Somme in 1916.

This has been widely reviewed already but its a far more subtle and nuanced tale than the 'Lions led by Donkeys' account some of those suggest. Harris wrote over 80 novels (perhaps the
Paul Budd
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Once in a while I read a brilliant book and it adds to the short list of those authors I am in awe of. I had never heard of John Harris. If I had paid more attention to the film credits of those old war movies I watched as a child, I might have picked his name out as author of The Sea Shall Not Have Them, but otherwise he seems to have faded into obscurity, and never crossed my radar.

I stumbled across Covenant With Death because I was searching for a hidden gem and found this extraordinary
Sep 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
I was loaned this book and it was described to me as 'The best book on World War I ever written'. I may take issue with that as I thought both Birdsong and The Last Casualty were excellent books dealing with WWI.


However, as it was written about 50 years ago, the style took a little getting used to and the writing, phrases etc were very dated. The storyline - friends joining up, going through training, building up a camaraderie with others in their battalion etc took rather a long time
Mike Fendrich
Apr 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If you can call a book excellent that breaks your heart, shows the folly of man as he lusts for war and power and immerses you in the human tragedy of combat, both for the military and civilians, then Covenant With Death is unbelievably excellent. Author Harris writes such a compelling story of ordinary English young men, going through normal military training and life to be put into the most extraordinary circumstances of the first day of the Somme battle, July 1, 1916. One day, 60,000 ...more
William Brown
Mar 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Written as a powerful anti-war polemic. You certainly get a feel for what the Sheffield City Battalion experienced. A story beyond tragic. I found Harris' writing style to be a bit lacking. But he certainly caught and seemed to deeply understand what happened, getting even the minutiae accurately.
Harris left out the intense religiosity of many of the troops, which radically alters the reality. This seems to clearly stem from his secular humanist world view. Harris even seems to subtly and at
walter Roethke
Feb 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

As I am an American veteran of Vietnam i thought only a vet could have written this. His portrayal of events from basic to battle are spot on. His criticism of general staff well founded as they are generally up to fighting the current war with new weaponry with the last wars tactics. In Vietnam they found American airpower, a key to victory in WWII and a save in Korea against superior Soviet armor, stalemated by asymmetrical warfare by a better general. A good and interesting read.

Joby Reeves
Dec 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book feels as though it perfectly captures the pre-war sentiment of the early 20th century in Britainin many ways a world lost, but maintained through stories from grandparents. It's not giving anything away to say that the vast majority of the book depicts life outside of direct conflict, but rest assured, John Harris leaves no qualms when taking on the brutal imagery of the front line, it's truly horrific, and not just in terms of the bloodshed. This book has excellent character ...more
Jane Walker
Sep 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, history
First published in 1961, this is now regarded as a classic. It's a fictionalised account of the Sheffield pals battalion and its destruction at the Somme. Harris draws on the accounts of those who went through the recruitment, the training and the lead-up to the carnage of that battle, and the 30 pages which deal with the actual attack and its aftermath are extremely moving and beautifully written.
grahame Pinches
Jan 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
War at its most harrowing

With skill which shines from every page, Harris takes us on Fenner's journey through training to the death fields called The Somme. The poignancy with which he portrays the lives so willingly and grudgingly placed in the hands of their country to be wasted so carelessly on the Somme takes your breath away, and leaves you eternally grateful for their sacrifice.
Bob Colvin
Nov 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brutal yet poignant tale of war

The novel is a thorough tale of what it was like to be a British soldier in The Great War. It doesn't analyze high strategy but gets down into the mud with the enlisted men. An engrossing tale of one of the tragedies of The Great War. Well worth the time of anyone interested in WW1.
Peter Jowers
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is so well reviewed by Ian and others that there is not much to add. I would add it to the reading lists of those who design computer games that glorify warfare. Also I think everyone who survived the Somme would have been diagnosed with PTSD today. In those days treatment under British Command tended to be shooting at dawn. ...more
Mar 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Whilst I wanted very much to finish this book, it was more than I could do - my fault perhaps, I should have read it more quickly to get a flow. Very real in its language and feel, you do get an attachment to some of the characters so their trials become shockingly real. I would attempt it again another time. ...more
Mihai Barbat
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A gruesome tale from the Battle of the Somme, two years in the making, ten minutes in the destroying. I read this book like a diary of death, of men herded into the line of fire like disposable pawns on a scale never seen until the past century.
Rob Miech
Sep 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
From a quaint, quiet English village into the heart of WW I, trench warfare, and the Somme ... profoundly sad.
Peter Davis
Jan 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best WW1 books

Such an intensely tragic story of the Battle of the Somme and those that suffered through it. The end of the book is heart breaking.
A very hard read, very well researched but it needed a better central focus and certainly needed some editing down - way too lengthy descriptions at times.
Jason Reist
Feb 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a very good book to read. Well worth the time. I was intrigued right from page one.
Jan 10, 2018 rated it liked it
I read this because of it being the centenary and found it interesting as a 'classic'. Our family lost a member on The Somme. The last chapters were very dramatic and painful to read.
Jill Meyer
May 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I found British author John Harris's novel of WW1, "Covenant With Death" in a note by Louis de Bernieres in his latest book, "The Dust That Falls From Dreams". "Covenant With Death" was originally published in the mid-1950's and is a chronicle of war - climaxing on July 1, 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. That day, the first day of a months-long battle, saw the greatest loss of life in a battle in British history. Bungled battle plans by the brass caused the senseless deaths and maimings of ...more
Miles Atkinson
Sep 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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Jim Smith
Jul 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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Oct 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book details well the contrast between the years of preparation and the moments of destruction of a single generation of a city's population. Great Britain raised itself to the challenge of stopping the monster that Germany created in its war machine. They didn't know what to do or how to stop it. In the process a nation united for a few moments of innocent glory and adventure until destruction took place. John Harris published this text in 1961, and calmly set about the faults of the ...more
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Image is a self caricature from the late 1970s.

From Wikipedia:
John Harris was a British author. He published a series of crime novels featuring the character Inspector Pel, and war books. He wrote with his own name, and also with the pseudonym of Mark Hebden. His 1953 novel The Sea Shall Not Have Them was the basis for a feature film of the same name in 1954. He was the father of

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