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“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.

When the urge to give up is overwhelming

Back in February this year, in the run up to the launch of The Goose Road, the work-in-progress stalled and I was seriously thinking about quitting the world of fiction. Three months later I’m up to my ears in historical research again, and carefully crafting the opening scenes of Book 2.

Why the change of heart?

Because in the intervening months I came face-to-face with the reality of not writing another novel – and ran away screaming.

I won’t go into details about the alternative career path I thought I could follow, beyond saying it would have been full-time for at least 18 months, then, potentially, given me some free time to write.

What I will admit is that on Day One of the initial training course I found myself in tears, because beneath the surface of the rational decision ‘to get a proper job’ there were demons who turned out to be worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

These demons demanded more than time in return for a wage. My public behaviour and the sort of values I would have had to promote were also prescribed. When faced with such a loss of autonomy I couldn’t go through with it.

There were other, more practical factors at play as well, but standing at that cross-roads, with a yes/no decision to make, I saw more clearly than ever what a privilege it is to be able to express one’s worldview through fiction, and how much I’d regret turning my back on the opportunity to do it again.

So where next?

In terms of the work-in-progress it’s back to France, this time in 1944.

Continue reading the full post on Awfully Big Blog Adventure here.

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

princip

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:

Articles

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.

 

Giveaway update

THANK YOU to everyone online who’s tweeted, liked, shared or reviewed The Goose Road over this launch fortnight. It means the world. Truly. Today is the last day for Faye Roger’s giveaway. Thank you so much to her, Jemima Osborne and Louise Twist for all their support: your competitions have been amazing successes in spreading the word. Good news, too: the marvellous Michelle Toy has FIVE copies to giveaway. Hurrah! Massive thanks to her and Walker Books for being so generous with these prizes. Here’s where you can find online competitions to win a free copy of the book:

Rhoda Keller here.

Alex Pattinson via http://alexsfictionaddiction.tumblr.com Details nestled at the base of my post about the inspirations behind The Goose Road

Faye Rogers retweet her giveaway tweet and follow her on @daydreamin_star

Alyce Hunt retweet her giveaway tweet and follow her on @everythingalyce

Emma Stickley details at the end of the fourth extract  here.

Michelle Toy follow @ChelleyToy & RT her (currently pinned) tweet about my final article in the blog tour: the 5 best bits about being a debut author – and the 5 worst!

Finally a huge THANK YOU to @TorchlightMAWYP for including The Goose Road in their giveaway bundle of stories from fellow alumna of Bath Spa University’s MA in writing for young people. I’m SO proud to be in such great company, and extremely impressed by the quality of your work in the Torchlight’s anthology. I hope your launch is a massive success as well, and leads to great things for you all.