While researching for my novels Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence and my work-in-progress called Time & Regret, I’ve come across many WWI diaries written by soldiers both young and not-so-young, by those in the infantry, the artillery, the signals corps and even the chaplaincy. Some entries are mundane, others full of the tragic circumstances of war.
Time & Regret tells the story of Grace Hansen who reads her grandfather’s diaries and decides to visit France in order to discover more about the man who raised her and the puzzling mystery he left behind when he died. The story contains many diary entries and I am grateful for the many soldiers who left behind their stories and to those who have made them public.
In one of the earlier chapters, Grace is in a small town in northern France, she’s just had dinner and is reflecting on both her travels and her grandfather’s diaries. Now that she’s in the places where he had been as a young man, Grace refers to him as Martin.
I had been in Ypres for three days visiting nearby towns and villages mentioned in my grandfather’s diaries. Each stop offered glimpses of French tradition: churches with tall, arched windows, chateaus set amidst splendid gardens, remnants of medieval walls and turrets and wide town squares hosting weekly markets full of brightly-coloured vegetables and oozing cheeses.
Wherever I stopped, I checked Martin’s diaries. I thought of him now as Martin not Grandpa, as though he were a character in an unfolding story rather than a man I had known for more than thirty years. From Grandmama’s photos I knew he had broad shoulders on a narrow frame and brown hair, his face angular rather than handsome as though waiting for him to grow into its contours, but I had no sense of whether he sought solitude or the company of others, was athletic or preferred books, told stories or would rather listen. He was twenty-one, far from the man he would become.
Bailleul, Abbeville, Hazebrouke, Eecke, Dranoutre, Vierstaat, Passchendaele, Cassel—all were places mentioned in the diaries. Now that I had visited them and the unfolding green countryside and the memorials and cemeteries marking war’s convoluted path, I felt closer to Martin, the words of his diary poignant with grief. So many names, so many young men who never lived. This thought reverberated like an unending barrage.
Near Eecke where Martin camped for a few days before reaching the front, I had stood on a hill next to fields of rich farmland and looked out across the gentle rise and fall of earth seeing no drama in the countryside, only a quiet sense of long tradition as though little had changed for hundreds of years. Just east of Eecke, on the road to Mont des Cats, was a wide, open space and with Martin’s diary in hand, I had imagined a sea of small white tents, men hurrying in various directions while others examined blisters, lathered up for shaving, wrote letters home or slouched against their duffle bags. I had conjured men flinching at the first sounds of bombardment, fear registering in a twist of gut or dry swallow. Untested men, many with the soft fuzz of new beards and slim waists of recent boyhood.
At the top of a hill near Vierstaat, I had spread a blanket beneath a tree with a view of a wide plain that in Martin’s time was gouged with craters and strung with barbed wire, a plain full of misery and death, rattling with machine-gun fire and mortars, oozing smoke and blood and sweat. That day the view had been peaceful. Purple irises and tall, green grasses had swayed in fresh breezes that chased away rain clouds. Birds had whistled and aspens had shivered overhead. I had reread an excerpt photocopied from a soldier’s memoir and felt anew the weary despair and grinding horror of war and imagined Martin as one of them, rotating off the field having lost men to one skirmish or another, little bits of his own humanity left behind with each passing week.
Ypres and Passchendaele had affected me the most. Listening to the haunting echoes of the Last Post beneath Menin Gate, its walls etched with thousands upon thousands of names brought the war close. Walking through the museum at Passchendaele, full of pictures and memorabilia from 1917, I wept at the utter devastation resulting from three months of battle for nothing except the skeletons of a few scorched trees remained, an entire town obliterated. Walking to and from the museum, I had cringed as name after name of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice echoed through loudspeakers with ghostly eeriness.
Who did Martin write the diaries for? When I first read them, this question did not occur to me but now I asked it repeatedly, wondering whether he wrote to document the weeks or pass the time or console himself. Perhaps Martin had needed a safety valve for all the pain and frustration. I could only speculate.
My dessert half-eaten, I picked up the map. Tomorrow I planned to drive towards Arras where I had reserved a room in an old chateau near Noyelle-Vion. Martin had been in the vicinity on two separate occasions. According to his diary, fighting in that area had been even more intense.