Sometimes I wonder why I don't read a book sooner and why it sits on my shelves waiting my attention. This is the case with The Ashgrove and I have been telling myself off over the last few days for my ignoring of this marvellous story. My only excuse is the size of my To be Read pile, well not pile, more a book case really. Anyway, I have now read it and read it in three hours straight through as I simply could not put it down once I had started.
The book opens with Rachel Elliot, a local reporter attending a planing meeting in Charlton Ambrose which has been called to discuss a proposed housing development. The developer naturally assumes he will get his way but is caught napping by the appearance of an elderly lady, Cecily Strong, who accuses them of planning to cut down the Ashgrove, a group of trees planted as a memorial to all the local men who died in World War I.
Rachel sets off to find out more and in so doing discovers she, too, has a link with those commemorated by the planting of the nine trees. Originally there were eight but a discovery is made that somebody has quietly and secretly planted another:
"She pulled her daughter, and his, into her arms and their tears mingled in the darkness with the falling rain. For a moment they stayed kneeling on the wet ground and then the mother got to her feet......'This is our secret ' she said gently 'You mustn't tell anyone about us planting this tree for your dad.....
The ninth tree stood peacefully in the moonlight, an extra tree in a new made grove of remembrance"
So who is the soldier for whom this tree was dedicated and why was it planted? Diney Costeloe takes us back to France in World War One where Sarah, the daughter of the local squire and her maid, Molly are working in a hospital attached to a convent, where Sarah's aunt is one of the sisters. Here Molly meets Tom, an orphaned young man who has never had any family and they fall in love. Their involvement has to be kept secret as fraternisation with the patients is frowned upon but they become engaged before Tom is sent back to the Front. His commanding officer is Captain Hurst, Sarah's brother, and it is to him Tom turns to obtain a special pass to return to the Convent for a day so he can marry Molly, now pregnant, as he wishes her to have the status of an army widow should anything happen to him, and not be frowned upon because she has an illegitimate child.
Told that he can have his pass but not until the big push, due very soon, is over Tom finds himself under fire, isolated and miles away from his unit. He manages to find his way back to the lines, helping bring in a wounded soldier and, in the confusion and mayhem, assumes the so called Big Push is finished and he can now fulfil his promise to Molly. Unfortunately, his uniform was destroyed while in the mud and the rubble and the pass has been lost.
By this stage I had guessed what was going to happen to him and just hoped I was wrong, but I wasn't. He is picked up, accused of being a deserter and arrested. Despite his good record, the fact that he has rescued injured men before, that he has fought in the War since the beginning, he is not believed. Captain Hurst was killed and, therefore, cannot confirm that he had given him his pass and his story is derided and he is accused of cowardice, court martialled and executed.
My apologies for telling you this, but it is impossible to continue writing about the book and its implications to our society without doing so. So do forgive me for giving away the plot.
I freely admit that by this stage I was in tears. I gather that over three hundred British soldiers were executed for cowardice during the First World War. Many were confused, suffering from shellshock and totally traumatised and many were under age. Their court martials were rushed and they were inadequately defended. There has been a campaign over the years to have these verdicts overturned and the names of those executed be added to a role of honour and the taint of being a 'coward' be removed from them. It took a long time, far longer than it should have done, but altering an entrenched government view over many years, is not easy to do. However, there is such a memorial now, see this link, and though it is far too late and overdue, these soldiers have now been recognised.
I found The Ashgrove moving and captivating and kept me pinned to my armchair all one afternoon so engaged was I. Diney Costeloe has told me that part of the inspiration for this book was The Avenue of Remembrance in Colchester, where I live.
"This avenue is part of the old 1930’s Colchester by-pass. It was planted in memory of the men of Colchester who were killed in WW1. It is a true picture in blossom time and autumn. As late as the mid-1960’s each tree had a plaque commemorating the clubs and societies who planted the individual trees. A couple of years ago there was a proposal by the Borough to fell all the trees on one side of the Avenue to put in a park & Ride Bus Lane. This crass act of disrespect was savaged by the people of the town. Now the Council says it is “committed” to preserving the trees. It is replacing dead and dying trees with semi mature replacements"
This little excerpt from a local archive sums it up really. A Bus Lane. Well, as I have lived in Colchester for over thirty years and watched the town turn into a soulless, boring, characterless place surrounded by housing developments to which the local Council seems in thrall, this is no surprise. I am firmly of the view that if the Council could get away with selling off Colchester Castle and turning it into luxury flats, they would.
I read another one of this author's books a few years ago, Evil on the Wind, reviewed here. Again, profoundly moving and I note from this review that I knew it was going to be upsetting and I hesitated to read it. I felt the same way about The Ashgrove but am glad that I read this and Diney's earlier book as they remind us of events that should never be forgotten.
Strongly written and heartbreaking this is a book that should be read and, particularly, in this year when we are remembering World War I. Diney will be appearing at the Felixstowe Book Festival which takes place at the Orwell Hotel on 28 and 29 June. We would love it if you could come along.
My thanks to Diney for sending me a copy of this marvellous book. I am glad I read it.