It’s World War One and Snow doesn’t know why he’s there. Then he meets Cozette in a tiny French village and begins to understand. Ninety years late his son George travels to the same village and makes an astonishing discovery.
Northern France, April 1917, the Germans are retreating and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) is in hot pursuit. Snow’s battalion, the ‘Old Bat’, captures the village of Hermies and a Victoria Cross is won. But the Germans are not retreating, merely consolidating. Exhausted, the battalion is flung back into a bloody, drawn out and ultimately futile battle at Bullecourt.
Depleted and demoralized the unit is rebuilt over summer and then rushed north to join an Allied assault in Belgium. Rain turns the battlefield into a quagmire and the Old Bat is sent for a long rest in Grand Sec Bois, a tiny French village in the heartland of the Flemish nationalist region. Billeted on a farm, Snow meets Cozette Vandenberghe, the daughter of a pro-German nationalist father and a patriotic French mother. A romance develops and the young couple spends a happy summer together.
In autumn the Old Bat leaves again for Belgium and terrible battles at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Ridge. Only Snow’s love for Cozette and his hopes of seeing her again on leave sustain his will to live through these, the darkest days of war. After his best friend is killed and leave is refused, his morale plunges and his mental condition, deteriorates. Seriously wounded at Passchendaele, he is hospitalized in England and loses contact with Cozette.
The following spring Snow rejoins the Old Bat in northern France. It's a ‘company of ghosts’ now, with most of his comrades, dead, mad or wounded. Rushing to meet head off a last-ditch German assault before the Americans arrive, the Old Bat passes French refugees and Snow and Cozette meet briefly. The Germans are halted, citizens begin returning to their homes and the lovers are reunited for one last time.
The story cuts to Sydney in 1999. Snow’s son, George, finds a manuscript, written by his long deceased father relating his war experience and a letter, addressed to him:
"My darling son, George
The first thing I’m going to tell you is that I’m not going to tell you everything. There are things a father need not, should not, divulge to a son as you will know if you are fortunate enough to have a family of your own when you read this; things that have happened in our lives as men, too horrible or intimate for anyone else to know.
There are things I did in the Great War and things which happened to me, of which I cannot speak to your mother or anyone else other than a few weeping Diggers on Anzac Day.
My darling boy, after your mother and I have gone, I pray you read my story, which I begin on this day of your birth, and understand the miracle it is that we both exist, how much I love you and hope you will always remember me … lest we forget."
A decade later George travels to Grand Sec Bois to find out more about Cozette Vandenberghe, his war hero, to whom he believes he owes his own life by inspiring his father to go on living. He is astonished by what he finds. A touching resolution brings the book to a satisfying conclusion.