Writing about the World Wars

This post first appeared in One Writer’s Voice on June 8, 2010.

Many of us know (or have known) someone who fought in one of the world wars – a grandfather, father, uncle, cousin, possibly even a husband – and we may also know someone who stayed behind, enduring fear, uncertainty and the pain of loss. When I began writing, my grandparents’ lives inspired me to write about this period – both were dead by then, but my mother recreated their history and told me stories. I added my own memories of their personalities and how they looked, dressed and talked. Ultimately, of course, they became fictional characters who bear only the slightest resemblance to Leslie and Marjorie James.

Reams of material are available about these two devastating wars – weaponry used, trench construction techniques, how long it takes to die in a gas attack, the use of pigeons to carry messages, tools of espionage, battle strategies, casualty statistics, the sounds of bombing, speeches by leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill, radio broadcasts, rationing and regulations on the home front.

As I read I reeled at the thought that my grandfather, who was eighteen when he enlisted for WWI, would have experienced these conditions. Every story became personal as I imagined what might have happened to him. He walked the duckboards where a misplaced step could lead to drowning, climbed the parapets risking sniper fire, slept in filth while rats scoured for food around him, shot at other men to avoid his own death . . . he survived Vimy Ridge. My tall, reserved, good-looking grandfather – who never, ever spoke of the war – did these things. They all did.

And when WWII occurred, twenty years later, he volunteered to serve once again. He did not go overseas but instead, according to family lore, became part of Canada’s espionage training group.

My grandmother played her part in WWII, turning their backyard into a victory garden, finding creative ways to look after her family under a complex system of rationing, volunteering for the Red Cross, leading an organization that supported the wives and families of soldiers who died or were prisoners of war, enduring uncertainty and loss, and knitting innumerable pairs of socks.

The more I read, the more furious I became, for politics and ego played a part in these wars as well as greed and stupidity, just as they do today. I’m convinced, there will never be a war to end all wars. War is the darkside of the human condition.

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

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