Sisters of the Great War – Women in WWI

Suzanne Feldman and I connected during an animated discussion of the World Wars at this year’s historical novel society conference. With Suzanne’s new novel set during WWI and my three novels set during that time period, we immediately had a common bond.

Here’s Suzanne to talk about the inspiration for her latest novel Sisters of the Great War.

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In the fall of 2016, I was looking for my next writing project. My debut novel, Absalom’s Daughters, had come out in July, and I was casting around for The Next Thing. I was in my last year of teaching high school, and as I walked into my empty classroom at about seven in the morning, it came to me that I wanted to write something epic, yet intimate, and what could be a better topic than war?

I knew I didn’t want to write about WWII. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I’d heard all the stories I ever wanted to hear, from him, around the dinner table when I was growing up. Which left me wondering about WWI. As I looked for source material, I noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Great War were about men. An exception, by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, is an outstanding memoir about women in the war, but in general, it took place outside the field of battle. The more I researched, the more I realized the battle was what I wanted to write about. 

But how does one go about writing about a war that’s been so beautifully summed up in All Quiet on the Western Front? The answer to that, I discovered, was to write about the women. 

When I started writing Sisters of the Great War, I knew I wanted to explore the lives of the women on the front lines. This led me to look more closely at the medical corps—the nurses and ambulance drivers. The drivers, I discovered, were mostly women, transporting the wounded away from the chaos of the front lines. The nurses, of course, were right there beside them, elbow deep in the conflict.

To keep the book intimate and personal, I began my research with the memoirs and diaries of women who served in the medical corps. Some of the diaries were incredibly compelling. Anne Powell’s Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War, is a compilation of the diaries and journals of women from all over the wartime map. I found narratives from the European theater as well as from Serbia and Poland. The ones I was looking for, from France, Belgium and other locations along the Western Front, were there as well, in vivid detail. 

One book in particular, really informed my novel, and that was a slender volume entitled ‘Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War,’ by Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press 1989). The author, a British woman and a veteran of the Ambulance Corps, outlines the day-by-day horrors of picking up wounded soldiers and transporting them to the Casualty Clearing Stations (Hospitals). Her story is unwavering, blunt, and gripping, but what really struck me was the ending. The war, having been won, was over. Everyone was sent home, and Ms. Smith went home to London where her experiences and contributions were unacknowledged. Despite the celebrations, victory touched the women who had been at the Front differently than the men. The men were hailed as returning heroes—survivors. The women, as made obvious in Ms. Smith’s final passages, were left out in the cold to mull the differences in their roles in war and society, and to reach their own conclusions about each. Ms. Smith’s own conclusions are made evident in her title. 

Unlike Ms. Smith’s memoir, my novel, Sisters of the Great War returns the main characters to lives transformed. The two naïve young women from Baltimore, who fled their controlling father and their limited futures to volunteer in a war zone, find that their wartime roles provide them with an independence rarely granted to women. In the midst of bombings, heartache, and loss, they come to understand their own capabilities and worth. This hard-won sense of self will guide them through the challenges yet to come. 

Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman ~~ August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort—Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.

Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war’s harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.

Sisters of the Great War releases today! Many thanks for sharing the story behind Sisters of the Great War, Suzanne. I love WWI novels and have already added yours to my TBR list. Best wishes for success.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The 100th anniversary of the end of WWI

Today marks 100 years since the end of WWI. What a horrifying and devastating war. Tragically, the terms of the armistice led to economic distress and resentment in Germany, which when combined with a toxic man like Hitler, who promised to tear up the Treaty of Versailles, led to WWII.

Each of my three published novels features the end of the war. Here’s an excerpt from my first novel Unravelled when Edward Jamieson is remembering his experience.

After Valenciennes, Germany was ready to surrender. On November eleventh, unaware of any official communiqué, Edward and his comrades instead became conscious of the absence of gunfire, a quiet filled with birdsong, the rustle of leaves and the creak of an unhinged shutter. Bells began to chime. Wild shouts filled the air as voice after voice swept the news along.

Clustered in front of their homes, in the fields and along the roadside, the French people seemed stunned at first. But soon Edward’s unit heard the sound of drums and the unmistakable rhythm of the Marseillaise. Responding to the call of their homeland, families began singing. Then a procession formed as a man with only one arm held the French flag high in the air, leading whoever would follow into town. Cafes and restaurants filled to capacity, windows and doors opened wide, the smell of food wafted into the streets as though the town itself brimmed with joy.

Gathering in the town square to hear Lieutenant Colonel Gill’s briefing, every soldier dreamed of home. The sun shone brilliantly. Gill’s voice rang out.

“Men, today marks the beginning of the future. You have fought tirelessly to secure freedom for family and friends, for our country and the Commonwealth. It is a momentous victory, which we have achieved together. You have given of yourselves unstintingly and courageously. You have seen your comrades suffer, seen death close at hand and yet, you have endured. It is a testament to your valour and commitment that Canada has contributed so magnificently to the outcome of this war. The war is over. Peace has been won. We have made the world safe for democracy and soon we’ll all go home to our families.”

Edward heard a rustle in the back of the ranks and then the applause and cheers began. On and on it went. Elated warriors filled the square with their shouts and four years of pent-up emotions released like floodgates opening on a narrow gorge.

Gill raised his hand and held it there for some time until the square was quiet again.

“Signals officers will be reviewing the needs of the army during occupation. We will assess each and every soldier and proceed in stages to return you all to Canada as soon as possible.” He stopped to look around the square as though he wanted to make eye contact with every soldier, one by one. “I am proud, so very proud, to have been your commanding officer for the past three years.”

Emotion thickened Gill’s gruff voice. He saluted his troops, holding his arm rigid for much longer than usual, then stepped down from the stage. Only a very few who were close enough saw the tears glimmering in his eyes.

The dead had lived on in Edward’s nightmares. He remembered feeling like an old man, withered and worn, wise in ways he wished he were not, aware of all that sucks humanity from the marrow of men.

The title UNRAVELLED says it all. Reading this again now, I’m filled with feelings of loss and the incredible damage to humanity that war brings about.

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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 www.mktod.com.

 

RMS Walmer Castle – 14th January 1917

I began this series as Somewhere in France – it looks like I’ll soon have to call it Somewhere in Africa.

This is our tenth day out and as I hear we are putting in at a place en route on the West Coast and I am taking this opportunity of writing. We eventually got away on the 5th inst., after many delays, a goodly fleet in all, comprising eight big ships with some well known liners amongst them, and a strong escort. We scattered during the first night out but reassembled on the third morning on the escorting cruiser, whose flashing signals we picked up in the haze.

We are in two columns with the cruiser ahead and a couple of destroyers in the offing. We occupy pride of place at the end of the starboard column, which honour I believe is due to the rank of our commander, who looks to be nothing less than an admiral with all his gold braid.

We have had very fair weather, although a bit blowy at first, and I had some anxious moments as to the fate of my first breakfast at sea – but all is well; and now in these warmer and calmer waters I feel a seasoned old mariner. There is a big muster of troops on board, drawn from every conceivable unit, and a sprinkling of passengers for South Africa. There is a regular program of sports, concerts and dances which helps to pass the day, but like all voyages it gets a little monotonous at times.

We are on full duty however and the K.A.R. officers [King’s African Rifles] have been attached to other units on board who are bound for other fields of service. Tonight for instance I am on guard duty from 12 to 4 a.m. and again for the same hours tomorrow afternoon.

It gets dark extraordinarily quickly and completely at night in these latitudes and one gets many a barked shin prowling round the ship, visiting the different guards, in the dead of night as of course all lights are forbidden. The men moreover are allowed to sleep on deck, which is an added snare to the unwary. We have not yet crossed the line, but do so soon after our port of call. Any smoke on the horizon is immediately hailed as a raider, but no luck so far! [Perhaps he’s jesting?] We had quite a good joke over the wireless yesterday, which was the British Admiralty repudiating a claim made by the Germans to have sunk in December the cruiser which is at present escorting us.

Letters addressed King’s African Rifles, Base Post Office, Mombasa will find me sooner or later. I will let you have a line from any port we touch at. I am feeling very fit and our physical jerks in the early morning is just what is wanted on board ship to counteract the tendency to eat your head off. You would be greatly entertained seeing a multi-coloured array of pyjama clad figures doing weird contortions by numbers and the final sprint on being dismissed to be first for the limited bath accommodation.

From what I can discover, it seems that many British officers were sent out to Africa in 1917 to augment the leadership of forces there. Henry Tod might have been in this category. We’ll see if subsequent letters support this assumption.

Mombasa is in present day Kenya. As you can see from the map, RMS Walmer Castle would have had to sail around the bottom of Africa to get to Mombasa and British East Africa. 

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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 www.mktod.com.