CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 2. . . .September 11, 2015
Dark Terror is Wilson’s second book in the “Tales of War” series, with the first being Wings of War which followed a Saskatchewan teenager, Edward Simpson, who was a fighter pilot on the Western Front during World War I. Like Wings of War, Dark Terror is organized chronologically, in this case from June 7, 1915, to June 7, 1917, with a date forming part of each chapter’s title. Readers first encounter 15-year-old Alec Shorecross as he labours underground in a copper mine in Coachman’s Cove in northern Newfoundland. At age 10, Alec had left school to support his family after his father was crippled in a mining accident. For the first two years, Alec was only permitted to work above ground at the mine, but, for the past two, he’s been an underground hard-rock miner. With the mine’s imminent closure, Alec, along with mining buddy Jack Foster, decides to join the army. Alec is only 15, but he notes, “I look older than my years, and from what I hear, the recruiters aren’t being too choosy.”
As members of the “Blue Puttees”, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Alec and Jack are first posted to Egypt, expecting that their unit will reinforce Gallipoli. But, when Alex sees a badly wounded soldier, he questions his decision to join the army and seeks a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Though Alec is granted an interview, his request to become a pilot is rejected; however, his mining background causes him to be recruited as a “Mole” or combat miner. By becoming a Royal Engineer, Alec would be paid six shillings a day, six times what he was earning as a regular soldier. With the opportunity to send more money home and assuming that “mining would be a safe occupation – away from the shells and machine guns”, Alec accepts the offer, not knowing the “dark terrors” that await him as he helps to construct tunnels beneath the battlefields of the Western Front.
For today’s middle school youth, World War I is likely just a dry chapter or two in a history book filled with dates and the names of places. As Wilson did in Wings of War, he uses a teen central character to present the harsh realities imbedded in the various new weapons and forms of combat that were introduced during this conflict. During World War I, the tunnelling was both offensive and defensive, with both sides trying to dig one or more tunnels that terminated in a “room” under the other’s front line trenches. This space would then be filled with explosives, a “mine”, that would be detonated in support of a major attack. At the same time, both sides constructed defensive tunnels that were meant to intercept the other’s offensive tunnels. If an intercept occurred, a “camoulet” or explosive charge was then used to collapse the other’s tunnel. In constructing both types of tunnels, one of the most important jobs was that of the “listener” who employed a geophone, a stethoscope-like instrument, to detect nearby digging by the enemy. As long as enemy digging could be detected, the situation was more or less safe. However, a prolonged silence could mean that your tunnel had been detected and that the enemy was about to employ a camoulet. Because of his excellent hearing, Alec is tasked with the responsibility of this role.
Those familiar with Wings of War might recognize Eddie, the pilot whom Alec meets on the troop ship and then later visits at the Front, as being Edward Simpson, the main character of the earlier book. Perhaps Wilson is also setting up a connection between Dark Terror and a forthcoming novel in the series as he introduces a romance between Alec and Manon, a Belgian nurse, after Alec is injured . At an early point in Alec’s role as a listener, he is tricked by “Fritz” who explodes a camoulet that kills two of Alec’s fellow Moles while injuring Alec and a companion. During the time Alec is being nursed back to health by Manon, he falls in love with her and believes his affection is being reciprocated. Before Alec can directly tell her of his feelings, she abruptly disappears. At the book’s conclusion, Alec receives a letter from Manon that says, in part: “I am dreadfully sorry that I rushed away from the hospital without saying good-bye. The officer who came for me said that we had to leave urgently, and that I couldn’t tell anyone where I was heading or what I was going to do....I have been offered a way that I can help my country and I have to take it.” My guess? A spy!
Though Wilson’s “Author’s Note” acknowledges that there was no 169 Tunnelling Company, the battles in which the book’s mines were employed really are part of the historical record. Contributing to the novel’s sense of reality are 18 black and white period photos. A concluding “Glossary” defines or explains 35 terms from “Ace” to “Ypres”.
Readers who have enjoyed Wilson’s first two books in the “Tales of War” series might also want to read two of his earlier World War I-based novels, And in the Morning and Shot at Dawn: World War I. (I Am Canada). (Vol. XVII, No. 31, .April 15, 2011) as well as his nonfiction book, Desperate Glory: The Story of WWI. (Stories of Canada). (Vol. XV, No. 1, August 29, 2008)
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.