Four dimensions of researching WWI

The scope of WWI is vast and multi-dimensional. Not being a student of history, when I first began writing, I flailed about for a long time seeking ways to piece findings into a coherent picture. Since I was living in Hong Kong at the time, initially the internet was my primary source and the bits I grabbed were like a 1000 piece puzzle with no guiding picture.
Time became a tangible dimension and I found various sites with WWI timelines. At least that gave me a sense of major battles and the struggles face by Britain, France and their allies to counter the Central Powers.

  • offers a year by year look at major actions with the option to click on any single action to explore further. You can burrow deeper for a look by year and date or choose a given day – for example, June 14, 1915 – to find what if anything occurred that day.
  • A timeline of 1914 events from the June assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Christmas day.
  • British timeline of events illustrating four phases of the war: first encounters and digging in, entrenched siege warfare, second phase of siege warfare with Britain in a lead role, a return to open warfare with Germany unable to hold on.

The build-up to war and reasons for its outbreak were relevant to understanding alliances that had formed prior to the war’s outbreak, political circumstances of the primary players, the Balkan powder keg and so on.

  • The July Crisis tracks significant events by country and by topics such as Naval Arms Race, First & Second Moroccan Crises, Entente & Central Powers, and Assassination of Franz Ferdinand. I read this document several times while writing scenes for Lies Told in Silence. By the way, the home site (last updated in 2006) includes timelines for many early twentieth century events and topics.
  • I read an outline of Germany and the Next War by Friedrich von Bernhari posted on Proejct Gutenberg to try to understand the German perspective for WWI.
  • An excerpt from Sidney Bradshaw Fay’s The Origins of the World War describes in detail The Haldane Mission which was an effort to quell the friction between Great Britain and Germany in 1912. This excerpt considers many major political and military players of the time and the issues involved particularly over naval power.

Maps were another crucial dimension to understanding the war. I found a map of the Balkans prior to WWI, one showing Europe in 1914, a map of the planned German advance for 1914, maps of major battles, maps of trench lines at various points in time (see example below) and so on.
Trench Line September 1916
Edward Jamieson, the main male character of Unravelled, is in the Signal Corps and hence I needed to understand that world. What on earth did signallers do to help the war effort? Again, I found a range of sources online including pictures and found several references to the actions of signallers during battle and battle preparation in Pierre Berton’s book about Vimy. I also had access to my grandfather’s scrapbooks and although there was little about WWI signals, he had kept several items from WWII that helped me understand this crucial communications role.

  • A Canadian site dedicated to RC Sigs (Royal Canadian Signal Corps) provided historical background and an article about signals in WWI.
  • At the Military Research Centre in Ottawa, I found a book titled The Canadian Signal Service and read all about their role in WWI.
  • Pictures helped to explain the context of signallers at work: a signaller on the phone, a signaller climbing a telephone pole (notice the officer in uniform watching these men at work), signallers taking wire across a stream are merely a few I found. I also took my own picture of a salvaged signallers desk in a small museum in Northern France.

Model of WWI signallers at work
Research can be a never-ending task. I’ll write another post with more about using photos, information gleaned from memoirs and diaries, women in WWI, and trips to a few museums.

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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7 Responses

  1. Wow, this post is what makes your blog so awesome. It’s all about peeling away the layers of history to create believable characters, accurate settings and compelling stories. Great job!

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