When Tommy Evans regains consciousness after being injured on the battlefield of modern-day Afghanistan, the world around him is not the same. Filled with cannon smoke, gunfire and the whinnying of horses, Tommy inexplicably finds himself transported back to 1880 – back to the eve of one of the British army’s worst defeats in the second Anglo-Afghan war: the Battle of Maiwand. Now he must find his way back home or face the very real possibility of perishing along with most of the soldiers of the 66th Foot, the Berkshires.
Forever the Colours is a fascinating blend of military historical fiction and science fiction. The story begins in the present day with the main character, Tommy Evans, fighting for the British Army in Afghanistan. The author, Richard Thomas, paints a colourful picture of life in the Army, and of the relationship between Tommy and his fellow soldiers, as well as their interaction with their officers. Tommy is very much a modern, working-class kind of guy, moderately educated but completely at home in the Army, and comfortable in the male-dominated environment. During an attack on the base, Tommy sustains a head injury. When he wakes up, he’s being transported in a horse and cart, and so begins his timeslip adventure in 1880’s Afghanistan.
Richard Thomas does a grand job of comparing and contrasting military life in the present day and in the past. We see that although life has changed in many ways, relationships were not in fact so different back then. Tommy makes friends with several rank-and-file soldiers as well as some officers, has a boxing match, gets drunk, and goes into battle, and all this is drawn with accurate historical information, conjuring up a vivid picture of nineteenth-century army life. Thomas uses common language of the day, and while some of the British accents may prove challenging for American readers, the author is skilled at explaining the wide variety of upper- and lower-class and regional differences between the officers and the men.
The last third or so of the book concentrates on the battle of Maiwand itself, and I especially loved this section, which reminded me of Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, and indeed made me want to re-read them all! The Afghan advance, the cannons, the hand-to-hand combat, the destruction, the filth and horror and confusion of battle, the retreat of the regiment, and the deaths of those Tommy had grown to know was all described in great detail.
The science fiction element is slight - there is no attempt made to explain why Tommy has slipped back 134 years into the past, but the author does allude to some element of reincarnation when Tommy sees characteristics of a few people from his own time period reflected in people he meets in the past. Has he somehow slipped back into the body of an ancestor of his who fought at the battle? Is he reliving a previous life? Or has he physically time-travelled to the period? Thomas leaves the question answered, but I shall just say the ending has a special twist.
I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the period, or those who love military fiction such as Cornwell’s Sharpe series, Forester’s Hornblower books, or O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels.
I really enjoyed this book as it was so different to anything I have read before. I felt Tommy's frustration at not being able to change history as no-one would listen to him. I enjoyed the piece when he managed to win some money for his friend the Lieutenant by winning the fight against the Indian champion. The author captured the flavour of the time especially with uniforms and weapons. It reminded me of the fights with the Zulus with all the chaos. Tommy admired the RSM although he saw him fall. I felt the author handled the chaos and the retreat of the regiment very well and brought it to life and I look forward to reading the next book to see what time involves him in next.