It is 1 August 1914 and war is just days away. For German immigrant and meat merchant Rudolf de Witt, his English wife Verena and their four children, tensions are greater than for most. A village party hosted by the de Witts ends in humiliation, snubbed by the villagers, a trivial event in itself but a sign of how lines have been drawn between the British and those who are now regarded as the enemy. For youngest daughter, 15-year-old Celia, this is a time to cast off her childhood clothes and to raise up a notch her flirtation with servant and groom Tom. Her sister Emmeline is about to marry Sir Hugh, sealing the respectability of this half-British family, while no one would seem to hate the Germans more than brother Michael. Of Arthur, the eldest brother and away in Paris, there is not a word.
But when war breaks out on 4 August everything changes for the de Witt family and their servants, leaving only Verena safe in her grand home of Stoneythorpe, bewildered and abandoned. Celia, Michael, Tom and Rudolf undergo years of horror, each leaving mental and physical scars, and it is their stories that come alive in this fine family saga.
The Storms of War is essentially a novel in two parts, the first preparing us – and the characters – for what is to come in the second. The point of view shifts through the novel, spending time in turns with Michael and Celia in particular. Celia’s story is initially a domestic one, continuing her lessons, dealing with her sister and mother, and coming to terms with the absence of Michael, Tom and her father. Michael’s perspective is unbearably different, surrounded as he is by the fear, dread and danger of trench warfare. Kate Williams, a historian whose love of the past shines through these pages, brings the horror to the fore through descriptions of dealing with the lice, the rats and the dirt. It’s a riveting read.
Once Celia embarks on her adulthood, her story rivals – and exceeds – that of Michael in its depiction of war. Celia’s experiences as an ambulance driver in France are enormously powerful and horrifying. The camaraderie between the girls, brought together from a range of backgrounds and motives, mirrors that between the men in the trenches, the men that these girls collect in pieces.
The descriptions of war are outstanding, all the more so because Kate Williams has made us care so much for the characters – whether major or minor. The contrast between the chapters set in London and Stoneythorpe and those set in France or in hospitals at home is dramatic and poignant. The trivial versus the fundamental. As a result, I had very little time for Emmeline and only slightly more for Verena. My feelings for Rudolf were also mixed, as they are supposed to be. But I had all the time in the world for Celia, Michael and Tom – especially poor, young Celia, brave beyond her years, with demands made on her that should never have been made and so much heart despite the efforts of some to tear it apart.
There is so much going on in The Storms of War, its pace is furious and never lets up. I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey and so I thoroughly enjoyed the saga’s great dramas, one after another, the characters that come and go, leaving devastation and turmoil in their wake, the twists and turns (pleasurable despite their predictability), and the tragedies that will endure for years. Despite the bloody war scenes, this is not a heavy read. Its purpose is to inform and to be enjoyed and it succeeds perfectly.
The Storms of War is the first in the saga. The next will take the history and story of the de Witt family through to 1927. Some characters are merely hinted at in this first novel – especially brother Arthur and the mysterious General – while others make enigmatic appearances – the American Jonathan for one. I can’t wait to see what Kate will do with them all next as the stormclouds of war disperse.