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Gabriele WillsI’m very pleased to welcome Gabriele Wills to A Writer of History today. Gabriele and I stumbled upon one another in the way people do these days … a google search on my part, if I recall correctly, which in turn led to her novels which she calls The Muskoka Trilogy. I also discovered that we share an intense interest in WWI. 

In her guest post she talks about research and the serendipitous route from unusual facts to compelling fiction. Over to you, Gabriele.

At the outbreak of The Great War, the Duchess of Westminster did “her bit” by turning her seaside villa in Le Touquet, France into a hospital, with the help of the Red Cross. In the early days of the war, she and her friends would dress in full evening regalia, including diamond tiaras, to greet the incoming wounded whatever time of day. “It’s the least we can do to cheer up the men,” the Duchess would say, her wolfhound at her side.

When I read that in Lyn Macdonald’s excellent history, The Roses of No Man’s Land, I was as astonished as the muddy soldiers upon meeting the glamorous young Duchess, and knew that I had to include this quirky scenario in my novel, Elusive Dawn. So my fictional Duchess of Axminster was born.

Extensive research flushes out these fascinating tidbits, and whatever delights or excites me becomes the springboard for new plot lines.

When I discovered the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), I knew that my heroine must join them in Elusive Dawn. The FANY – which I called the Women’s Ambulance Transport Service (WATS) –  was a group of upper class and aristocratic young women who drove ambulances and ran field hospitals in war-torn Belgium and France. There was actually one Canadian among them.

Plucky and stoical, they transported wounded, ill, and dying men from trains and barges to hospitals and ships, often at night and in all weathers, frequently driving through bombardments. During one of 197 air raids on Calais, shrapnel so narrowly missed injuring some FANY in their nearby camp that it shredded bits of their clothing and was embedded in their bedroom walls. During a major offensive, like Passchendaele, they worked endless days without sleep or time for proper meals or even a wash, snatching naps on stretchers in their ambulances while awaiting yet another hospital train.

They maintained their cars mechanically, but also had to cleanse them of blood and other bodily effluences. Those on night duty in winter had the arduous task of hand cranking vehicles hourly to keep them from freezing up. Being unconventional women, they had to deal with skeptical or even hostile military personnel, and a public that dismissed them as eccentric or berated them for unfeminine behaviour. Far from being paid for their difficult and dangerous work, the “girls”, as they called themselves, had to pay a weekly stipend, which was used to run this volunteer organization.

But they also had fun when off-duty, and were renowned for their hospitality – hosting teas, dances, and entertainments for officers, many of the ladies being accomplished musicians. This juxtaposition of harrowing ordeals and genteel tea parties is surprising to many, but was how men and women snatched moments of sanity and relaxation amid the horrors they witnessed. Of course, some romances ensued.

FANY members earned 136 medals and decorations during WW1. One of them was Pat (Waddell) Beauchamp, who lost a leg in the line of duty. She recounts her experiences in her engaging memoir, Fanny Goes to War. The FANY is still in existence.

Other gently bred girls also stepped from chaperoned parlours into life-altering experiences when they became Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses. Like their brothers and sweethearts, these energetic young women craved the excitement and independence that “their war” offered.

Growing up with servants, most of them had never washed a plate or boiled an egg.  But with only a few weeks of training by St. John Ambulance in First Aid and Home Nursing, women over 20 became qualified to work under the guidance of professional nurses, who usually resented these amateur “do-gooders”. Of course, many lied about their age!

While VADs spent much of their time changing linens, sterilizing equipment, serving meals, and so forth, they were just as readily asked to hold down the exposed intestines of a mortally wounded soldier, as was Canadian Doreen Gery on her first day in a British military hospital. Her protest to the Nursing Sister that she would rather die than do that, earned the retort, “Well, die then! You’re no good to me if you can’t do the work!” Like other VADs, Doreen valiantly got on with the job. Giving up was considered the equivalent of cowardice in a soldier.

In makeshift hospital cities of tents or wooden huts near the battlefields there was no running water, rats scurried about under the beds, and the tents sometimes collapsed in fierce gales that howled off the English Channel during two of the coldest winters in living memory. Wounded often streamed into these base hospitals filthy and crawling with lice. One VAD, after two weeks of unending work, discovered that she had “collected some of the notorious ‘grey-backs’… when I was brushing my hair, and I was so exhausted that I just collapsed in tears. It seemed the last straw.”

I pay homage to all these intrepid women in Elusive Dawn, drawing heavily on facts and the experiences of real people.

And for readers who wonder if my strange tales are at all realistic, I have plenty of historical notes at the end of the Muskoka Novels – The Summer Before the Storm, Elusive Dawn, and Under the Moon. I also created a website of “Odd, Intriguing, Surprising Facts About WW1”.

Thank you, M. K. Tod, for this opportunity to discuss a subject very dear to my heart!

Thank you, Gabriele. The Muskoka Novels — The Summer Before the Storm, Elusive Dawn and Under the Moon — begin in 1914 and end with the Jazz Age. If you haven’t had the pleasure of exploring Muskoka, a beautiful, rugged area full of lakes and bush and rivers roughly two hours north of Toronto, you should put it on your ‘must visit’ list and read Gabriele’s novels to get a taste of the pleasures waiting for you there.

Gabriele Wills has written two other historical novels: Moon Hall and A Place to Call Home.