Transported into a WWI Trench


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Having written three novels featuring World War One, I’ve learned a lot about trenches. I’ve even been in one or two although of course, they’re now sanitized and bear no resemblance to the muck and horror soldiers would have experienced.

When I started out, I had only a vague sense of trenches as reinforced ditches deep enough to house groups of soldiers holding the line against the enemy. Writing realistic scenes involving skirmishes and battles meant that I had to know so much more. Novels, books, movies, photos, diagrams, websites, letters and diaries – these were my sources. How did soldiers go ‘over the top’? What happened during a gas attack? Where were reserve troops located? How did messages get to frontline commanders? Where did the men sleep? Did stretcher bearers take the wounded back through the trenches? How did those manning artillery make sure they didn’t hit their own men? And so on.

Here’s a diagram I found illustrating the the connections between different parts of the trench system and another showing the cross section of a frontline trench. [Source: History On The Net]

Of course, you can’t include all these details but as a writer you have to understand them well enough to transport your readers there. Here’s an example from my novel Unravelled: Edward is in Signals, the group responsible for communications. He and several fellow soldiers have been assigned to place microphones in no man’s land to assess enemy positions.

“A week later, in the pitch black of a half-snowing night, Edward and eleven others made their way from the tunnels via support and reserve trenches to the forward lines. Taking each step with care, they trudged through narrow, zigzagging paths, passing men snatching sleep, cooking, playing cards, cleaning equipment – the tasks of soldiers at rest.

As they turned a sharp corner, an explosion shook the section of trench not far behind them. The blast rattled Edward’s eardrums; screams of pain indicated the injuries suffered by men he had passed only minutes earlier. Whistles blew, summoning stretcher-bearers to carry what was left of the wounded away for treatment, and others to restore the trench. Edward knew the medics would waste little time on those who were beyond saving, just the barest of comfort, if that.

Battle savvy after months at the front, Edward steeled himself not to turn around, and instead put one foot in front of the other as he moved himself and over fifty pounds of equipment forward. He thought back to another night, sitting at a small wireless station, receiver in hand as an explosion ripped a section of the trench no more than thirty feet away. The blast crushed a nearby soldier as support beams, earth, and sandbags caved in. Numb to such destruction, he had continued his transmission without interruption. Edward shut the memory away and focused on the present. Distraction could be fatal.”

Doing research I found many other bits of information: a sketch of a German trench (you can find that in 10 Facts about WWI Trenches), a document outlining orders soldiers were to obey when on trench duty (you can find it here), Pierre Berton’s descriptions of trenches in his book titled Vimy. Berton wrote of others describing trenches as “this strange ribbon of deadly stealth”. He said that in reality there were little more than ditches.

It’s difficult to find the right words: horrific, disgusting, filthy, foul, noxious, hazardous, precarious, death traps, rat infested, slimy … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


Somewhere in Africa – February 1917


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RMS Walmer Castle – nearing Cape Town

This finds us completing the second part of our voyage and we should be in port again the day after tomorrow. I wrote you from Sierra Leone that we are doing the voyage in three stages. [That letter seems to be missing.] We have already been six weeks on board, so it is going to be ‘some’ journey. Apart from the life and incident on board there has been nothing very exciting to record, except on the day after we crossed the line [the equator] when we were all agog on account of the whole convoy and escort putting about and making for the port (S.L.) we had left a few days before. For 18 hours we were steaming in the wrong direction and then again put about and resumed our course. The reason for this manoeuvre was never divulged and we are still wondering what it was all about.

We were a full week at that West African port and as we were allowed ashore, it made for a pleasant break. The first thing I saw on dropping anchor was a big shark, about 12 feet long, which leisurely cruised round the ship. I was informed it was a sea-shark, hence its size, which had evidently followed us in and are seldom to be seen near shore, like the ground or sand shark. I saw another one the other morning which kept alongside for a little, just showing the tip of its dorsal fin. Flying fish are about as common as sparrows and lately we have run into big shoals of porpoises, hundreds of them.

It was much warmer north of the equator than what it has been south of it, which would appear to be the exception. The weather has been very fine but for the last few days we have been getting some heavy rollers coming up from the south, which may well get worse nearing the Cape.

The voyage has not been so tedious as it looked like being, thanks to an energetic programme of sports and entertainments for both the troops and passengers. There have been some very good boxing contests, in which soldiers, sailors and marines have taken part, but one, Gunner George, has so far been invincible. He is up against a tough proposition this afternoon however and the excitement is great.

The little bit of Africa I have seen so far was quite interesting and pretty in its way, but they tell me there is not another place like it on the whole West Coast. We rowed ashore in one of the ship’s boats and I tell you they take some handling in the little bit of sea that was running. I had the misfortune to break a fine pipe Uncle Fred gave me in the rather clumsy descent I made into the boat from the accommodation ladder. I took a hand at one of the oars but it seemed more like a telegraph pole. We landed at the river bank, which rises to a wooded hill. There were palm trees and other sorts of foliage which I shall never know the name of.

Freetown is spread along the shore and reaches some way up the hill side. It was very hot walking about and when we spied a local taxi – sort of a hammock slung on poles carried by natives – three of us made a sprint for it. I got there first but fell out of the contrivance in my hurry and the next man got it. We took a short railway ride up country and had a good look round. The natives are of a strong Mahommedam [sic] or Arab mixture, who originally trekked across the Sahara desert and have settled at various points along this coast.

Apparently we are only to be a day or so at Capetown, from where I will post this, with a P.C. [postcard?] or two.

Note: I found these images on

As someone who can get seasick standing on the dock, Henry’s lengthy voyage would have been torture for me.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Transported in time and place – with author Susie Murphy


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When I saw Susie Murphy’s cover for her novel A Class Apart, I had to invite her to talk about my favourite topic – transporting readers in time and place. She graciously agreed. Over to you, Susie.

My intention with A Class Apart is to transport readers back to the 19thcentury, to the year 1828, and the location of Ireland, specifically a grand manor estate in Co Carlow. I want them to become immersed in an era when the divide between the upper and lower classes was insurmountable, when the minority Protestant Ascendancy ruled the majority Roman Catholic population, and when the spark of uprising could be so easily lit.

Before I talk about my efforts to accomplish that, I should first confess to the gigantic error I made in the very beginning: I initially wrote the novel without any historical research at all…! *winces at the memory* I was only sixteen years old when I started writing it (in 2002, exactly half my life ago), and at that stage I was very much a pantser – caught up in the raw magic of writing, I simply made everything up as I went along. It didn’t even occur to me to check the details. At the time, I was writing for me and no one else.

Many years passed as real life got in the way, but by the end of 2010 I knew I wanted to do my level best to become a published author. So I revisited my book, made plans for a whole series, developed my writing across several drafts, and – in 2016 and thus very belatedly – got stuck into the research. The value of doing proper research before writing the story was very much a lesson I learned the hard way. I ended up changing huge parts of my book because there were so many incorrect things in it. I had to fix wrong usage of noble titles (just because a man is rich does not mean he’s a lord), clear up complex points about inheritance (tricky to navigate – certain parts of the law could have ruined the premise of my book entirely), create new characters because I was missing essential people (such as the butler, a rather crucial individual in a 19thcentury manor house), and remove anachronistic terminology (I couldn’t use the phrase ‘her voice cut like barbed wire’, given that barbed wire wasn’t invented until the 1860s). The surgery I performed on my book during this time was well overdue and comprehensive.

What emerged from my research was a great deal of clarification. While I had always known the book was set in Ireland, in my early drafts I had been very vague about when the story took place. No need to be too specific, silly teenaged me had thought. Of course, with constantly changing fashions, modes of transportation, politics, and so much more, this wasn’t feasible without making the book completely bare of any defining details – and hence losing the tools to transport readers in the first place.

I knew it was around the 1800s. Recalling my study of history at school and exploring the political background of that century, I settled on the year 1828. The longstanding conflict in Ireland that stemmed from English rule on Irish soil would be the backdrop for the story, and 1828 was just thirty years after the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798, so the memory of that uprising would still be strong in the people’s minds. (It also served to align the timeline with important political and social events occurring later in the century that would affect the following five books in my A Matter of Class series, whose plots I continued to develop while refining the first book.)

In addition, the vast social divide which existed at the time was well suited to act as an impediment to the budding romantic attachment between my two main characters, Bridget Muldowney and Cormac McGovern. Bridget is an heiress and upper class; Cormac is a stable hand and lower class. She is Anglo-Irish and of the Church of Ireland religion; he is Irish and Roman Catholic. While they grew up as childhood friends, everything about their situation as adults is designed to keep them apart. The growing unrest in the Irish countryside could only add to the complicated nature of their relationship.

As for location, almost the entire novel takes place in the environs of Oakleigh Manor, Bridget’s ancestral home. Oakleigh is a fictional place so, to know how it truly feels to walk around such a house, I visited Palmerstown House in Co Kildare. While it is from a slightly later time period, the majesty of the place is the same. It was a pleasure and a privilege to wander its halls and rooms, get a sense of how both the family and servants lived in it, and convey a similar impression in my depiction of Oakleigh.

Lower class dwellings also feature in my book, in particular Cormac’s family cottage. Visiting Bunratty Castle & Folk Park in Co Clare gave me a wonderful insight into the various aspects of an Irish village and its humble buildings. However, the best connection I could make to that – and I would not have called it research at the time – was staying at my grandparents’ old Irish cottage when I was a child. Everything about it, from the whitewashed walls to the smell of the turf fire, gave me all the details I needed to recreate it in my book.

Though I came at my research the long way round, I’m glad to say I finally got there in the end! In writing A Class Apart, I have endeavoured to transport readers to a time and place of significant upheaval in Ireland’s history and to show it from the perspectives of both sides of the class divide.

Thanks, Susie. Anyone familiar with Downton Abbey will recognize those servant bells!

A Class Apart by Susie Murphy

It’s 1828, and Ireland is in turmoil as Irish tenants protest against their upper-class English landlords.

Nineteen-year-old Bridget Muldowney is thrilled to return to the estate in Carlow she’ll inherit when she comes of age. But since she left for Dublin seven years earlier, the tomboy has become a refined young lady, engaged to be married to a dashing English gentleman.

Cormac McGovern, now a stable hand on the estate, has missed his childhood friend. He and Bridget had once been thick as thieves, running wild around the countryside together.

When Bridget and Cormac meet again their friendship begins to rekindle, but it’s different now that they are adults. Bridget’s overbearing mother, determined to enforce the employer-servant boundaries, conspires with Bridget’s fiancé to keep the pair apart.

With the odds stacked against them, can Bridget and Cormac’s childhood attachment blossom into something more?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website