This is Sam Angus’ first novel and she has chosen to write a story based on the work of the Messenger Dog Service established in 1917, to provide a vital messenger service from the trenches of the First World War. Stanley is the second son of a man who has been changed beyond recognition after the death of his wife. Stanley’s elder brother Tom is at the Front, and Stanley lives a hand to mouth existence helping his father breed and train dogs and horses. But he runs foul of his father after Rocket is allowed to run free on heat and as a consequence have mongrel pups. Stanley tries hard to keep Soldier, the runt of the litter but after he thinks he has seen his father drown the pup, runs away at fourteen to join the army and search for Tom. He is encouraged to join the Messenger Dog Service and trains Bone for this vital work. He is eventually sent to the Front, despite his Commanding Officer’s misgivings because of his age. In a harrowing piece of the story, Bone dies after valiantly getting a message through, and Stanley vows to return home, but is persuaded to take on a new dog, Pistol. Against the background of the Battle at Villers-Bretonneux, Pistol is sent out and against all the odds makes it back, through a mustard gas attack and a huge advance by the German troops. But Stanley also suffers under the gas attack and is blinded. He is separated from Pistol whom he thinks has died. Eventually he is repatriated to St. Dunstans where he regains his sight and suffers no ill effects from the gas. There too he is miraculously reunited with his father and Pistol who turns out to be Soldier all along.
This last passage is where the author has let herself down. In trying to give the story a happy ending she has stretched the reader’s incredulity too far and it is a great pity as this is a good story, well told, with graphic descriptions of the Front and most importantly of all, about the bond between boy and dog. Stanley’s story is a poignant one and his character shines through, as does the friendship and care of his fellow soldiers, looking out for one so obviously under-age as must have happened at the time. The toll of the fighting at what was not one of the great battles of the First World War is clearly told and this puts this story at the top end of the age range. The author has done her research and the notes and bibliography will encourage readers to read on.