Retreat, A Story of 1918 by Charles R. Benstead was first published by Methuen in 1930, as First World War fiction was moving from positive accounts of combat heroism towards narratives of disillusionment and loss.
Retreat spans both phases through its tragic portrayal of an army chaplain driven to madness when his Christian values hold no sway against the bloody realities of war and through its heartening vision of how devotion to duty can fortify soldiers' sense of purpose and self-worth in the absence of spiritual faith.
Retreat is based on the author's combat experiences as a Fifth Army artillery officer during the massive German advance in March 1918, adding historical depth to the literary value of the novel.
The book centres heavily on the British retreat as experienced by Padre Elliot Warne, an egotistical churchman ill suited to the bitter realities of combat at the front.
Warne shepherds a flock whose lack of interest in religion undermines his sense of significance to the war effort; and in the shadow of the overwhelming German army, he finds his faith gives way to fear.
In Retreat, Benstead captures the cruel injustices of war as he knew it and demonstrates the inadequacies of religion as a balm to the harsh realities of war.
In the introduction to this edition, war historian Hugh Cecil provides historical context for the novel's plot, a biography of the author and a survey of the book's critical and controversial reception.
Charles R. Benstead (1896-1980) served with distinction as an artillery officer in the First World War and as a naval training officer in the Second World War.
He wrote twelve books in all on topics ranging from naval combat to Cambridge history but none achieved the same critical success as Retreat. Hugh Cecil is an honorary lecturer at Leeds University and co-founder of the Second World War Experience Centre in Leeds.
His many publications include The Flower of Battle; How Britain Wrote the Great War; Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced, and At the Eleventh Hour with Peter H.