Hilary Green’s WWI stories

The Historical Novel Society review of eleven WWI novels prompted author Hilary Green to contact me – and I’m so pleased she did. Green has written three novels celebrating the roles that women played in WWI and has several other published novels. Her website is titled Novels of Love and War – definitely a kindred spirit to me! Below she describes the women whose real life contributions inspired her novels. Many thanks for guest posting on A Writer of History, Hilary.

Daughters of War by Hilary GreenI first came across the intials FANY when I was researching my quartet of books set in World War ll. One of the characters becomes a secret agent working for SOE, the Special Operations Executive, and it was obvious from the context that the FANY was some sort of women’s organisation which was closely involved with SOE, but the acronym meant nothing to me at the time. Following it up, I discovered that it stands for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a remarkable organisation founded in 1907 by a retired cavalry officer, as a corps of mounted nurses who could gallop onto the battlefield when the fighting was over to tend the wounded. The corps had a distinguished career during World War l, becoming the first women to drive ambulances under fire, but by the start of WWll their function had been subsumed by the regular army. However, when SOE was formed, it was so secret that not even the army high command were supposed to know it existed. This made it impossible for them to turn to the ATS or any other regular women’s company for help as radio operators, coders etc, without giving themselves away. So they turned instead to the FANYs, who were not part of the army and took orders from nobody but their own commanders.

This discovery gave me the basis for two WWll novels, but when I was seeking inspiration for my next books I decided to go back to the earlier history. It was then that I came across three amazing women, whose names and exploits seem to have been largely forgotten.

The first was Grace Ashley Smith, a young Scotswoman who took over the command of the FANY in 1912, at a time when its fortunes were at a low ebb. She modernised the organisation and instituted a training regime that included stretcher drill, first aid, camp cookery, signalling and a host of other useful skills. She was so successful that by 1914 her work had been recognised by the Head of the Red Cross, and the members confidently expected that when war was declared their help would be warmly welcomed. It was not so! The old men at the War Office could not countenance the idea of women anywhere near the Front Line. One poor lady was told, ‘For God’s sake, madam, go home and sit still! We want no petticoats here!’ Fortunately, the French and the Belgians were not so hidebound. Grace was offered a disused convent in Calais to turn into a hospital and from there the FANY girls branched out into their intended function, taking ambulances up to the front line to tend the wounded. Several of them were decorated for their courage.

My second unsung heroine is Mabel Stobart. She was a suffragiste, who believed that if women wanted the vote they first had to prove that they could play their part in defending the country, and show the same courage and endurance as men. She initially joined the FANY, but then broke away to set up her own organisation, the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy. When the first Balkan War broke out in 1912, between the Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs on one hand and the Ottoman Turks on the other, she saw an opportunity to prove her point. She took a party of volunteers to Bulgaria, where, in the face of great hardship and difficulty, they set up the first military hospital to be entirely staffed and run by women. Then, when WWl broke out, she took another group to Serbia, which was now fighting with the British and their allies, to care for their wounded. When the Serbs were overwhelmed and forced to retreat through the Albanian mountains in the dead of winter, she went with them, spending eighteen hours a day on horseback, although she was by then in her late forties. The story of that retreat is an epic in itself. Conditions were appalling and the roads almost non-existent. Thousands died of exposure and starvation, but the survivors reached the Adriatic and were taken off to Corfu.

With them was my third heroine. Flora Sands went out to Serbia with Stobart, but became separated from her colleagues and was taken under the protection of a company of Serbian soldiers. Feeling that she could not sit back and let them do all the fighting, she asked to be given a gun so she could play her part. She, too, made it through the mountains, but when they reached Corfu she saw that no proper preparations had been made for their reception and men were still dying for want of food and medical attention. Single handedly, she persuaded the military authorities who had taken over the island for the duration, to provide the essential supplies. By this time she had so impressed the Serbian commanders that she was given the rank of sergeant, the first woman to be admitted as a fighting soldier in a regular army. In this position, she stayed with her new comrades when they were tranferred to Salonika and fought with them as they made their way through Macedonia, until they were able to retake their capital city of Belgrade.

Passions of War by Hilary Green Given three such amazing stories, what could a novelist do but use them as inspiration for a new book – three new books, as it turned out? My heroine is Leonora, an upper middle class girl with a rather unusual upbringing as the daughter of an amateur archaeologist. Growing up amidst the excavations of Troy and Mycenae she has acquired fluent Greek and Turkish and been educated in the classics by her father. None of which stands her in good stead when she is sent back to live with her grandmother in London to learn to be a ‘lady’. According to her grandmother, she will never find a husband because she is ‘too tall, too clever and too arrogant’. A new friend, Victoria, introduces her to the FANY and together they run away to join Stobart in Bulgaria. Her much more conventional brother, who is an officer in the Guards, is horrified and insists that his best friend, Tom, goes in search of her. DAUGHTERS OF WAR is the story of their adventures, with all the dangers of being caught up in a very brutal conflict, but also the opportunities for romantic encounters that it provides.

Harvest of War by Hilary GreenThe second and third books in the trilogy, PASSIONS OF WAR and HARVEST OF WAR, follow the same quartet of characters through World War l, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to the work of the FANY in France, on through the Gallippoli campaign and the Serbian retreat, to the horrors of the trenches and the final victory.

What remarkable women! I’m so glad you’ve used them as the basis for your stories, Hilary.

Surprising Facts Inspire Intriguing Fiction

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.