Paul Dowswell’s Eleven Eleven covers the last nine hours of the First World War with the intersecting stories of three young soldiers.
Serving in the Imperial German Army, Axel is struggling to understand why his company seems so unsure of itself. Will Franklin, an infantry soldier from Lancaster, has wangled his way to the front despite being only 16; Eddie Hertz is an American fighter pilot obsessed with making ranking as an ace, and Dowswell focuses on the similarities between both boys. Their responses are believable: each existing in a war without much idea of what it means, they focus on the mundane. German Axel and British Will – from the exhausted Old World – are fixated on food. Eddie – an optimistic Yank – wants to impress girls.
This tension between the scale of war and the suffering of the individual is made most clear when Dowswell depicts death; there is no grandeur in the moment and the images he creates are bathetic in their simplicity. His background in non-fiction serves him well here: talk of fighting tactics and use of German terminology is well executed and apt. The naivety of youth is shown alongside its fatal consequences – a metaphor, perhaps, for the whole war. Though the classic clichés abound (cowardly French, arrogant Americans, plucky Brits), Eleven Eleven frequently surprises and keeps you hooked until the end.