WWI Fiction – Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class by Pat BarkerIn the past seven years I have collected and read many books dealing with WWI, so many that friends think I am going slightly crazy. This, of course, could be true. Had you asked me ten years ago about reading books of this nature I would have laughed. Who me? Someone who hated history and would never have put her mind to topics as dreadful as battle strategy or trench warfare or the causes of world war one.
Each book offers a new window on the war experience, a fresh perspective, a piece of information that is astonishing or horrifying or both. I underline and make notes looking for an idea to extract or explore further, taking a phrase here and there and adjusting them to my own characters and their purpose. I return to my books when in need of inspiration, leafing through the pages until something strikes me.
After all, Rule 25 of Steven Taylor Goldsberry’s The Writer’s Book of Wisdom says “Borrow (and steal) from your favourite writers.”
Pat Barker’s novel Life Class is a case in point. Paul Tarrant, the protagonist, does not go overseas until half way through the book and I recall considering whether to chuck the novel for something else but then I read the first sentence of Part II:

Everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene.

Aha, at last we are getting somewhere, I thought, using my pen to underline these words.

Two miles away, no more noticeable than the beating of his heart, the guns thudded: the usual early-morning intensification of fire.

Great metaphor. Who would think of comparing heart beats to guns firing?

We were crawling along most of the time, edging past columns of men in wet, gleaming capes and helmets, like mechanical mushrooms … close to the front people move only after dark, with dawn and dusk the most dangerous times. That’s when the heaviest bombardments are.

Mechanical mushrooms – lovely image. And danger at dawn and dusk, an interesting tidbit.

Men who die at a CCS [casualty clearing station] are generally buried as close to it as possible. They’re surrounded by these little dark crosses that always look like bird footprints to me…

Crosses like bird footprints – incredibly poignant.

there came a long whistling roar so close it seemed to be caused by the movement of his chest. When he was next aware of himself he was staggering around in smoke with the screams of wounded men all around him.

They lived in a world of confusion and disorientation.
And so my reading goes, accumulating information and images, looking for sights and sounds and smells, deepening my understanding of how soldiers and others involved existed while attempting to survive.

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5 Responses

  1. Also part of Stephen King’s advice as well about reading widely. I felt while reading one of your extracts earlier on the blog the horror and smell of WW1 I had read about in factual books had not been captured. Perhaps it is easier to be credible in text in fact than fiction. I suppose it is why in my writing I felt I could not capture and write about scenes at the front line in WW1 because I have never experienced any war first hand. As I read my father’s war record on micro fiche in the Public Records Office in Kew UK I was left speechless and numb. No wonder my father said ’nuffin’ about WW1. A pity all his experiences are now lost, unless we meet again. By the way while working through my pile of paper cuttings I have found some slightly different points about WW1 which I could scan and send you if you wish. I am not sure whether you see UK information or not. Best wishes Alexander.

  2. The United States Naval Medical Bulletin from 1920 shows the human side of war from a clinical viewpoint. It is a wealth of information regarding the care and treatment of the sick and wounded. Included are very graphic & heartbreaking pictures of reconstructive surgery patients, some of the men with half (or all) of their faces missing (!), pictures of operating rooms and surgical instruments, in-depth descriptions of the work of the VAD nurses, treatment techniques like bone grafting, detailed menus of hospital diets, charts of the chain of command, details regarding salaries, etc.
    In some cases, they were able to get the men looking decent again. In other cases, it is clear the men were performing their last act of self-sacrifice by refraining from committing suicide in order to allow surgeons to continue practicing the latest plastic surgery techniques on them. (i.e. growing new noses on the outside of the face, skin grafting, etc.) This book gives you the most graphic illustration of the aftermath of war and the enormous toll it took on human lives.
    Perusing the pictures in this book has given me a much greater appreciation of the horrors our soldiers endured, as well as putting a human face on their suffering. In fact, I feel these pictures are a greater testament to the enormity of their sacrifice than all the WWI monuments put together.

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