by Theresa Breslin
Remembrance of the Great War is locked into emotions and senses; entwined with images and sounds, engendering feelings of helplessness, anger, humility, pride and terrible sadness.
The subject is an overwhelming one for a writer to
address, and at first I thought to concentrate on one major character,
a young boy, who runs away to join up. However, preliminary research
immediately indicated that there was more than one story to tell.
There is a vast amount of material available to consult on World War 1. Literature of all kinds, film and sound archives, museums and websites. The literature alone has a staggering amount of detail, histories, personal and military, biographies, articles, letters, and newspaper files.
Library and archival staff were an invaluable help, from my local public library to the National War Museums in Edinburgh Castle and London.
Not only can they give you precise specialist information (the exact section of the Front Line held by a particular battalion at certain time) they are a fund of knowledge which stimulates the progress of the book - it being a case of sometimes not knowing what I was looking for until I found it.
To begin with I did initial background reading concentrating mainly on the books written by those who took part in the war e.g. Captain James C. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, the letters of the women who nursed the soldiers, and the poems of Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon and others. By consulting military histories I began to choose key events and locations where I wanted to place my characters - Ypres, the first day of the Somme, the battle of Passchendaele etc. It then becomes necessary to consult war diaries, and, as REMEMBRANCE is set in the Borders, one of these was the Regimental history of the King's own Scottish Borderers.
Some specific sources were the Websites of the War Graves and the Imperial War Museum, general newspapers of the time, and specialist magazines. A useful article in The War Illustrated contained information about the war-time progress in medicine vis. treatment of typhoid tetanus new antiseptics. Information gleaned from this gave me the substance for a conversation between two of the main characters, Francis and Maggie, which then leads them to discuss the industrialisation of war. It is an example of how research provokes book content contributing to the storyline and character development.
Reading through the newspapers is interesting… There was a report in the London Times which said that under Allied bombardment the enemy's barbed life "melted away" and said that life at the Front could be "frightfully trying" The huge amount of advertisements for domestic servants clearly shows the vast amount of girls who had left these positions to join munitions work and is a marker for social change. As the war went on and the need for men became desperate there appeared a significant report about the relaxation of recruitment rules regarding age and literacy.
Occasionally one has an unexpected "find"
While on holiday in the south of France I came across some French magazines
and journals with illustrations depicting America entering the war and
liberation day Le Jour est arrive…
I was privileged to be allowed to read through some family papers which contained letters from a young soldier who was killed on the Somme. From them I learned of the way that soldiers "coded" their mail to let their families know where they were. He mentions the lice, the rats, the primitive toilet conditions. These letters contain descriptions of daily life at the Front, display his pervading sense of duty, and show his loving feelings for his family. He ends what was to be his last letter to his mother with the words:
goodnight my Dear Mother…
Ever Yours Devoted
There were also his field cards, the telegram to let his family know that he was missing, the letter from his C.O. telling of his death, and the telegram of sympathy from the King and Queen. It was not until 1935 that his parents' enquiries were answered with information to locate his grave.
When researching the book I travelled through France
and Belgium and saw schoolchildren from Britain and other European countries
visiting the memorial sites which now occupy the land where the book
is set. They push their poppies into the spaces between the stones of
the Menin Gate and the little wooden crosses purchased in Ypres are
crowded onto the grave of a young soldier age 15 - their age.
Near this boy's grave is the Yser Canal where the Canadian John McCrae wrote his poem In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place;
And there were poppies, hundreds of them. My visit to the area was just after November 11th. Despite it being so late in the year, school educational trips were still taking place and it was poignant to witness our teenagers as they saw the ages of the young men who were killed.
Around Ypres there are preserved field dressing and casualty clearing stations embedded in the banks of the Yser Canal. These show the fitments for the steel doors where the stretcher-bearers sheltered during heavy bombardments.
There is the incredibly interesting Flanders Fields Museum in the Cloth hall at Ypres There is the breathtaking memorial arch at Thiepval which dominates the Somme countryside where the youth of a nation was squandered… and much, much more…
At this time of a new century I thought it was important to write this book. I wanted to show the many and complex aspects of war. The soldier who firmly believes he is doing his duty and is prepared to sacrifice his life to protect his family. The soldier, disillusioned, who feels his very soul is being corrupted by contact with militarism.
The girls who went to nurse, wanting to help the war effort or looking for adventure, and finding in some cases a self-fulfilment they never would have had if the war had not occurred. And… the terrible grief of those left behind.
The publication of REMEMBRANCE has been overtaken by world events. But perhaps now it is even more vital that we do remember.