A Casualty of War
The term war casualty refers to anyone who dies of injuries sustained in battle. The phrasing seems almost benign, as if the horrible loss were simply a mild byproduct of a causal event. In A Casualty of War the writing duo of Charles Todd brings home the fact that war is not in the least casual but awful, exhausting and debilitating and that the causalities of that event are not just those who fall on the battlefield or are wounded there, but all those who stand on those bloody fields and everyone who has ever cared for those who do.
This is the ninth book in the Bess Crawford series and I would strongly suggest reading them in order. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think the tale is enhanced by being familiar with the recurring characters, not just Bess but also Simon, Sgt. Lassiter and Colonel Crawford. That said, there are no spoilers in this review for the series.
It’s been a long day and army nurse Bess Crawford is happy to grab a cup of tea and bowl of soup in the canteen at the end of it. Unfortunately, there are no empty tables but she is able to snag a seat across from the congenial Captain Alan Travis. Bess and the amiable Captain have a great conversation and part as friendly acquaintances when the ambulance arrives that will serve as her ride to the aid station she is being transferred to. She doesn’t give the captain another thought through the weeks that follow as she keeps busy with the business of trying to keep men engaged in brutal combat alive from the wounds received during battle.
Then the Captain is brought in to her aid station having sustained an injury to his head – a heavily bleeding groove that cuts through his hair on the left side, deep enough that the skull is showing although it clearly wasn’t penetrated. The doctor judges that no brain damage has occurred but the Captain tells a story that has others skeptical of that fact. Captain Travis is convinced that he was wounded by deliberate friendly fire and that the man who shot him was none other than his cousin from an estranged branch of the family. No one believes him; all seem convinced that he simply became confused as a result of the injury and the violent disorder of the battle in which he was hurt. Bess is disturbed by the tale but when the Captain returns to the front she puts him from her mind. Then he comes back – once more having been shot, once more convinced that his cousin did the shooting. She patches him up again and sends him on his way, though this second time she is deeply disturbed by the tale he tells. However, there’s nothing she can do about it and she soon becomes busy once more with the hard work of caring for the latest of her patients. And possibly the last of her patients, for while the hospitals and aid stations remain busy, the war has officially ended. Then something thoroughly unexpected happens; Bess is given leave to go home to England. But while there, Bess finds Captain Tavis strapped to his bed in a clinic for patients suffering from shell shock and mental incapacitation due to head wounds. It seems the Captain has continued with his story of the murderous cousin and the powers that be have determined it’s a result of battle fatigue. The tale has always seemed improbable but the fact that all evidence points to said cousin having been killed in battle over a year ago place it firmly in impossible territory. Horrified by the poor treatment he is receiving, Bess and Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, a lifelong friend and confidant, travel to Suffolk to learn more about the deceased cousin and the mysterious events surrounding the Captain’s injuries.
A large part of the power of this story comes from its setting. The war may be coming to its end, but the death toll continues. Men are shot and killed by the minute as the diplomats do their dance towards peace and it is very disconcerting to hear of amnesty on one hand and the horrors of death and blood Beth faces while they wait to hear it’s over on the other. It’s also heartbreaking to realize that for many, peace has come too late. Not just the dead but those grievously injured who will have to carry their wounds into whatever shadowy tomorrow they can create for themselves. Captain Travis is very much a symbol of these men, someone we are introduced to as a charming, intelligent, handsome, energetic person in his prime and see debilitated into a near death state before it is all behind him. It’s heartbreaking.
The mystery here is good, a bit predictable but the authors do a nice bit of storytelling to keep it engaging. The secondary characters, with one exception, behave in realistic manners that help the story move forward at a brisk but never neck-breaking pace. I did think the pacing flagged at times but never so much that I lost interest or made the story a chore to read.
A Casualty of War works well as part of a mystery series since the characters are established in earlier works and the suspense plot is the major thrust of the story. Fans of the saga will be delighted with this latest edition and will find it well worth picking up.