“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”

At the start of the centenary of the 1914-18 war I had a notion that we would by now, as a nation, have found some sort of collective closure on the individual suffering of the dead of the Great War, and be ready to move on, to toss their bones in the air as it were, and free the spirits of the fallen to join with our distant ancestors.

As a writer, I agreed with Pat Barker’s comment that World War I had “come to stand in for other wars … it’s come to stand for the pain of all wars.” Our stories might be about that particular conflict, but the larger subject was war itself.

Researching and writing my own First World War novel, The Goose Road, dented that conviction. Wherever I looked, the power of individual suffering endured and the personal stories were endlessly shocking, intimate and enthralling.

I fell under their spell time and again while listening to the first-hand accounts of veterans of the Western Front, their scratchy voices forever locked in a sound archive, or when reading a collection of letters home, or interviews granted to earlier researchers. I’d suddenly be caught unawares by a moment of humanity or courage, or dark gallows’ humour.

Occasionally an old soldier would admit to cruelty. More often they shared memories of the drudgery of the trenches, punctuated by terror. To walk those trenches – or at least one of the few fragments that remain, in Beaumont Hamel, say, zig-zagging through a meadow – is to walk in a haunted place.

Near Verdun, there’s a hill called Mort Homme. The name isn’t connected to the 1914-18 war, although the WW1 artillery battles fought there between the French and the Germans were so fierce that engineers found afterward that meters of the entire hilltop had been blown off. Local farmers still aren’t allowed to plough its soil because of the human remains.

When researching closer to home I found that WW1 objects as well as places had the power to take my breath away. Once I was in the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich Arsenal, investigating a particular week in October 1916 and a specific section of the Western Front near the occupied French town of Peronne. The archivist bought me out a trolley laden with original material from that time and that place, on top of which was a small moleskin notebook, written in pencil by an English major, the pages still stained with the mud of the Somme. I sat and stared at it for ages, feeling as if the battle itself was within touching distance.

Just before I returned for the second of four research visits to France, my mother died unexpectedly. It was a release: she’d been ill for a long time. Among the heirlooms she left to me was a forget-me-not locket with a photograph of her father, Frederick Clarke, in his WW1 uniform. A stern old lady stares out of the locket’s other frame – my great-grandmother, Selena, I believe.

Mum also left me a heart-shaped locket, which I think must have belonged to Selena as it contained the pictures of two uniformed soldiers, her sons. One is Frederick, who served in the 10th (Irish) Division as a medical clerk and stretcher bearer in the Dardanelles in 1916 and later in Salonika. The other is Frederick’s older brother, Thomas Clarke, a private in the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment, killed in action on the Somme, on July 30th, 1916.

I’d never seen Thomas Clarke’s picture before I inherited this locket. Mum thought he’d died near Ypres, and as far as I know, until my husband tracked down his regiment’s military records, no one in the family knew the details of his last day. The official War Diary and Intelligence Summary of that engagement is chilling:

“29/7/16 battle position in the MALTZ HORN TRENCH.

30/7/16 BATTLE began. Zero hour 4.45 am. The Battalion reached its objective, but suffered heavy losses, and had to evacuate its position owing to no reinforcements. At 12 noon the roll call was 7 officers and 43 men.

Total casualties were: Lieutenant-Colonel G. Rollo wounded.

KILLED. [Six officers named]

WOUNDED. [One officer named.]

WOUNDED AND MISSING. [Three officers named.]

Total casualties in Other Ranks: 425, of which 76 were killed, 172 wounded, 177 missing.”

Barry Cuttell’s account of that morning in 148 Days on the Somme is more detailed: “Morning mist prevented communication by visual signals, and almost all underground cables had been damaged. The only way of relaying messages to divisional headquarters was by runner, which would be a dangerous task once the fog had lifted as the runners had to cross the open ground between Guillemont and Trone’s Wood, over which German machine guns … enjoyed an excellent field of fire.

“While waiting for zero hour, 19/King’s Liverpool were subject to High Explosives and gas (shelling) … The 19/King’s in the centre was also badly hit by enemy fire, only a few men reaching the road. A little further north, a company of the 19/King’s succeeded in getting forward towards the south-eastern entry to Guillemont.” But later that morning, “Under the impression they were cut off, the 19/King’s withdrew from the edge of Guillemont.”

Thus out of 486 soldiers of the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment who advanced at dawn on that summer’s morning, north and east from the Maltz Horn Trench towards the German artillery and machine guns, only fifty remained standing seven hours later. The rest were wounded, dead or “missing”, that is, their bodies were either too badly mutilated for individual identification or otherwise unrecoverable from the battlefield.

The rolling fields where Thomas Clarke fell were bronzed with ripening wheat when I saw them, flanked by the once devastated trees of Trone’s Wood. My husband, a former Royal Marine, returned there on July 30th, 2016, to pay our respects, both on the battlefield and at his graveside in the Bernafay Wood cemetery. Perhaps his locket – the brother to the forget-me-not one I inherited – is buried there with him.

This article first appeared on The History Girls on March 18th, 2018. See the original post here including comments and photographs.

On the centenary of the death of Gavrilo Princip: WW1 assassin, poet – and victim?


Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918)

His is a haunted face: thin, sunken, hollow-eyed, vaguely familiar perhaps as the teenager who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the act that precipitated tit-for-tat mobilizations across Europe and the slaughter of millions in the First World War.

Details of the deaths of his victims are infamous: on June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand had been travelling through the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, with his wife, Sophia, in an open-topped Graf and Stift automobile.

When the driver slowed at the corner of Franz Josef Strasse and the Appel Quay, the assassin stepped forward and fired a 9 mm Browning semi-automatic pistol into the couple at close range.

Sophia died of wounds to the abdomen, Franz Ferdinand from a bullet in his neck. The death of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is less well known.

He confessed to the crime, was tried and sentenced, and sent to Terezin prison in what is now the Czech Republic but was then part of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He died there on April 28th, 1918, as far from his home as the Hapsburg authorities could send him.

His peasant mother never visited him; none of his family did.

By the time of his death Gavrilo’s body was wasted to the bone by tuberculosis of the skeleton. His ulcerated skin suppurated and his right arm had been amputated.

He was buried under a path in the prison cemetery, along with a delinquent’s corpse: a deliberate insult.

But the young Czech officer in charge of the burial party, Frantisek Lebl, sketched the grave’s supposedly secret location, and returned to it after the war to place a Czech flag on top of the body, the Hapsburg Empire having collapsed under the colossal burden of its own contradictions and military defeat.

By then, the Czech people were recognised by the United States of America as oppressed nationals, rather than part of an enemy Empire, and thus the Czechs ended the war on the side of the victorious Allies.

Gavrilo’s objective – the overthrow of the hated Hapsburg oppressors – had been achieved.

A small irony? A mere footnote in history? I don’t think so.

From what I’ve read in these centenary years of the 1914-18 war, there is a great deal more to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip than is generally taught in schools.

I have read, for example, that a powerful Austrian politician knew perfectly well what the half-educated, impoverished 19-year-old Gavrilo was planning in Sarajevo that fateful June day, and did nothing to stop him.

I’ve even read that this powerful Austrian prevented the local Chief of Police from foiling the assassination plot in order that the attack could create the conditions for Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia.

If true, such events would imply that the war-guilt so often laid on Gavrilo’s thin shoulders is ill-deserved, and that generations of schoolchildren have been misled.

And I can’t help wondering, too, that if Gavrilo’s mother had known he’d been used in this way, would she have disowned him?

Balkan political history is a thickly layered, complex and highly contended subject, one which deserves to be treated with caution and respect. Thus I’m not for one moment pretending to know the truth about that assassination.

But on the 100th anniversary of Gavrilo’s death, I am publishing these snippets of intriguing, second-hand information to mark the beginning of a personal research journey into the life and death of this small-framed, Bosnian Serb poet-assassin in the hope of one day understanding his role in the great events that enveloped the world.










UPDATE: The Goose Road launch articles & interviews

Today’s the last day of The Goose Road giveaways over on Twitter so I thought I’d pull together (one final time) all the links to the launch interviews and guest articles published in the past few weeks, in which I think I’ve said pretty much all that’s worth saying about writing the book.

There is one article outstanding: the acknowledgements, which are lengthy and will appear in due course, because I’d rather say something meaningful about the contribution of people I want to thank, rather than list names and gush generically about them, which won’t mean anything to anyone else.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s to be found online already:


Books as emotional stepping stones to World War One on ABBA

WW1 research and remembrance on The History Girls

Myths, mistakes and other inner debates about the title The Goose Road on JoshAndABook

Why is it still so hard to hear female voices from World War One?  SarahLikesBooks

Why I love (some) historical fiction. Ramblingmads

Tips on getting published.  TheBumblingBlogger

5 best bits about being a debut author – and the 5 worst on Michelle Toy’s Tales of Yesterday.

“Inspirations that led me along The Goose Road” is on a Tumblr account that inserts the entire thing directly onto WordPress (!) so I won’t post the link here. It’s locatable via Alex’s Fiction Addiction and is also pasted in full in this earlier blog.

Interviews with:

Kerry Drewery on  Author Allsorts

Louise Twist on  Books For Boys

Carly Chambers on fictionfascination.co.uk

Torchlight Anthology here.

Author interviews by me & lots more articles about the craft of creative writing, hazards of a writing life, the First World War and more can be found via the Practical Writing Tips search box on the Welcome page of this website.


WW1 & Votes for Women

Today, as the centenary of legislation which gave the vote to some British women is being celebrated by women MPs in the House of Commons, on an all-woman BBC Radio 4 Today Programme – at last! Hurrah! – and (hopefully) in schools across the country, here’s a quick look at The Representation of the People’s Act 1918, and how it passed through parliament during the First World War.

By 1916, two years into the war, the British electoral register was no longer fit for purpose. Had a new register been prepared along pre-war lines, only half of the country’s eligible electors would have been able to vote because war work had taken the other half away from their homes – and residency was a condition of registration. Politically, this was unacceptable since it meant British soldiers fighting abroad were among those disqualified to vote. The vital war work being done by women also undermined pre-war arguments against granting them the vote, too.

A Special Register Bill (1916) attempted a temporary solution, but failed to address the problem of disenfranchised soldiers; this Bill was dropped.

Finally, in 1918, all previous voting rights were repealed by The Representation of the People’s Act, which gave male soldiers aged 19 and over the right to a vote, as well as all men aged 21 and over. Women had to wait until they were 30. They also had to qualify to vote in local government elections through property ownership – or be married to a man who was – before they could vote for their MP.

The 1918 Act did give single women over 21 the right to vote in local authority elections, and ended a ban on people in receipt of poor relief or alms from voting. Conscientious objectors, however, were prohibited from registering to vote until five years after the conclusion of the Great War.

Equal voting rights for men and women were never seriously considered under the 1918 Act. That was because gender equality would have given 14 million women the vote, a majority over men. At the time it was considered unacceptable that men who’d fought in WW1 could be out-voted by women who hadn’t. Instead, the 1918 Act gave 8.4 million women a parliamentary vote so male voters would continue to outnumber females.

While special provisions were made for serving soldiers, including proxy & postal votes for those still in France and Belgium, munition workers who’d had to move house to be near armament factories were excluded from the 1918 Act, so they couldn’t vote for the next government.

It took a further ten years before The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave equal voting rights to men and women for elections in the UK.



Books as emotional stepping stones to the past

Before I could begin the story that became The Goose Road I had to give myself permission to write about a subject as shocking & sad as the First World War.

Today, after years of research, that seems odd. I now feel on firm mental ground in WW1, eager in fact to return. But back then I felt presumptuous. Almost guilty. How could I possibly begin to imagine what it was like?

Yes, I did a ton of research in books and online, in lecture halls and museums. I had to get the facts right out of respect for the dead. But that wasn’t enough. I needed a deeper, more visceral connection. With hindsight, two types of research were critical to building that emotional bridge to the past.

First was place, by which I mean being there physically, walking through the cemetery-strewn fields of the Somme and the rolling hillsides of Verdun, or standing in a zigzag trench at Beaumont Hamel, or paying my respects to the broken & greying skulls of French and German soldiers, laid to rest together.

Second came a few, critical books.

Out of everything I’ve read about World War One, fiction and non-fiction, I now believe it was just five books that led me to a sufficient level of understanding that I finally felt I had the right to trespass into – and then to inhabit – the world of the Great War. They were stepping stones, and I’ll always treasure them.

4 Wilfred Owen

The first, chronologically, was a venerable copy of The Complete Works of Wilfred Owen which I took with me to Étaples, the Channel port where I knew my story had to end. Owen himself had spent time in this place. Like all British Empire infantrymen and officers, he passed through the huge reinforcement and hospital camp, which dominated Étaples’ old town, on his way to the Western Front. I’d been deeply upset by his war poems when we studied them at school. And here I was, a grown woman, weeping over them again.

the price of glory

The second book, The Price of GloryVerdun 1916, is a brilliant piece of journalism and narrative non-fiction by Alistair Horne. First published in 1962, he resurrects the dramatic personae of that gruelling battle with dexterity and detail, populating the horrific statistics of slaughter with living, breathing men.

storm of steel

The third book that opened unexpected doors in my mind was Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, a German officer who survived the war. Dedicated to The Fallen, Junger gives an alternative perspective to the ‘pity of war’ that is deeply embedded in the British tradition of remembrance, thanks in part to the anti-war poets such as Owen.

I brought Junger’s unapologetic account of courage and comradeship under fire in the bookshop at Thiepval, the Commonwealth war memorial to the missing of the Somme – that is, to soldiers whose bodies were so torn apart (evaporated even) by artillery bombardments that they were beyond identification as individual men.

The Ghost Road

The fourth & fifth books which stands out in my memory are both by Pat Baker, being the first and last in her Regeneration trilogy. If anyone asked me which single WW1 novel they should read, I would say The Ghost Road, the finale, every time.

It may be that Owen is important here too, since he is a character in these stories, and his death vividly told. His fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon – at the time far better known than Owen – is central to the narrative too. But I think it is the complexity of Dr Rivers that makes these novels so compelling, and the depth of the irony that, as a military psychiatrist, his job is to make officers who are suffering the most awful mental torment as a result of what they’ve seen and done in battle, well enough to go back to fight and kill and quite probably die, like millions upon millions of others.

Dear God, never again.

This post first appeared in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on January 15th, 2018.