The beginning of battle – Vimy Ridge April 9th 1917

Central figure of the Vimy Memorial (personal photo)

April 9, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the battle for Vimy Ridge, a battle where thousands of Canadian soldiers distinguishing themselves by taking this important ridge from the Germans. To commemorate the anniversary, I’ve featured excerpts from each of my three published novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret – which feature this battle. Today’s excerpt is from Lies Told in Silence.

~~~

Helene Noisette and her brother Jean have been observing the preparations for Vimy Ridge. One night they race to their hilltop post as battle begins.

Dressed in heavy coats and knitted hats, they left the house without a sound and ran, fear pounding with every step, following familiar paths, leaping across melting streams, scrabbling through ferns and bushes and as they approached the hill, she heard the opening roar, a deafening sound that shook her body. In an instant, a second crash followed, splitting the sky directly overhead, penetrating her world like a never-ending drumroll.

Helene and Jean clawed their way up the hill. The guns grew even louder, and a sharp, acrid smell filled the air. Her legs had almost given out when they reached their perch and stood with no need to crouch down and hide, for no one could possibly notice them given the furor of action rippling across the battlefield. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined such a scene.

Instead of orderly drills or the calm stacking of sandbags and trucks waiting to load or unload, below them was a sea of churning mud; grey dawn streaked the sky; there were sharp flashes of red, the rumble of airplanes overhead. In the far distance near the ridge, an orange glow hovered like a bulging midnight sun. Shells burst from all directions, illuminating soldiers advancing, bayonets flashing with deadly purpose.

Helene looked at Jean, a mix of fear and awe on his face. She said nothing, for what possible words could make sense of the destruction carried out below? In the preceding weeks, what they had heard and seen—the bright snap of flares and answering clouds of smoke, the stuttering back and forth of machine guns, the sharp whine as planes breached the horizon, the gentle drift of observation balloons—were only the barest hints of reality. They were silent, standing vigil over an unfolding battle, honouring those who fought for their freedom, men they would never know.

Wherever she looked, troops moved forward, less than thirty metres behind exploding bombs launched by their own artillery. This barrage was their shield, a curtain of steel protecting them from German counterattacks. Step by step they advanced, scrambling across uneven ground, thick clumps of earth flying through the air around them.

Gradually, the sky lightened, bringing the battle into sharper focus then a sudden flurry of snow obscured her view, and she wondered how the soldiers could possibly find their way. The snow left as quickly as it had appeared, and in the far, far distance, she saw white and black puffs of smoke; then a plane, trailing black streamers, emerged from the far left and flew low over the scene, its klaxon sounding like an ancient battle cry.

Vim Memorial is set on top of the ridge taken by Canadian soldiers in 1917 (personal photo)

While they watched, Helene thought of Guy. Had he grown accustomed to these mind-numbing sounds mixed with exploding bursts of earth and shrapnel? Was this what it had been like when he was wounded? Was he brave, or did he fear for his life? Did he lead his men with care? Did he shout at death as it whirled around him? How could he face battle again and again, her wonderful brother who laughed and teased, enjoyed the give and take of argument, took pride in his studies, loved his family? How could any of them?

The first post commemorating the 100th anniversary can be found here – Preparing for Vimy Ridge 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.

Would you read further?

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 10.29.53 AMI’m doing final edits for Time & Regret and thought I would share Chapter 1 with you. If you have a few moments, I would love some feedback.

  • does it interest you enough to read further?
  • does anything strike you as out of place? poor use of language?
  • does it read easily?

Time & Regret – Chapter 1

I saw the man a third time in Bailleul. Now seeing someone once means nothing. Twice is mere coincidence. But a third time is cause for apprehension. A third time made me wonder if I was being followed.

From the shade of a sweet-smelling linden tree, I glanced his way, recording a few more details of the man’s appearance beyond the blue cap he wore: pale brown hair, narrow shoulders, slouching physique, and a t-shirt with Mona Lisa on the front. He raised his head and to disguise my scrutiny, I looked down at the brochure I held.

Why on earth would someone follow me? I have nothing to hide and brought nothing of value with me except my pearls. I was in France; ostensibly to visit places my grandfather had served during World War One, but in reality, searching for clues to solve the puzzle he had left me. Not that I had found anything yet. I shook my head to dismiss the notion of being followed into the wild-imagination bucket where it belonged.

A blond woman holding a clipboard emerged from the tourist office.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am Juliette Devere your guide to historic Bailleul. On our tour today we will visit the Grand Place, the town hall, our beautiful belfry and Maison de la Dentelle—the lace house. Then we will travel a few kilometers to see our cemetery and memorial for the war and a replica of a casualty clearing station. This is acceptable, yes?” Heads bobbed in agreement.

Alors, I will begin. Bailleul’s history dates to the thirteenth century with the Counts of Bailleul.” As Juliette spoke of the families who owned the land and the battles that occurred as France and England fought for control hundreds of years ago, I glanced again at the man wearing the blue baseball cap. He seemed to be listening intently.

“During the Great War,” Juliette continued, “this square was full of military vehicles and men dressed in uniforms. My grandmother was a young girl at the time and she remembers having two British officers staying at her house.” Juliette nodded slowly for emphasis. “By 1918 more than ninety percent of Bailleul was destroyed, but through the good efforts of our town leaders, it has been rebuilt to an exact replica of what existed.” Our guide beamed as though she had been personally responsible for this feat. “The belfry first, mes amis.”

Juliette pointed across the wide cobblestone square lined with red brick buildings.

Dominating its north side was the town hall, an imposing sandstone structure with a whimsical turret at one end and clock tower and belfry at the other. The flag of France hung limply at the main entrance; red petunias spilled from the windows. The day was already hot, a few filmy clouds on the horizon, crows squawking from a nearby perch. Having spent six days on my own, I had decided to take a tour and visit the sites with others for company. I was tired of my thoughts—the plague of post-divorce angst, the annoyance of my grandmother’s self-centered behaviour, worries about how my sons would cope with parents who lived apart, and the vague sense that my job was no longer fulfilling.

An older woman sauntered along beside me. “Are you enjoying France?” she said.

“Very much. Although I’ve been here less than a week.”

“What brings you to Bailleul? It’s not usually on the tourist agenda. In fact, most tourists never get to northern France. Too wrapped up in Paris or the famous wine regions, I suppose.”

While keeping an eye on the man who might or might not be following me, I replied. “I’m looking at World War One sites. My grandfather served in France and I came to see where he had been.”

“Sounds like me,” she said, “but in my case it’s my father who served. I never knew him. He died in 1916, when I was two. My mother remarried and I had a lovely stepfather, but all my life I’ve wanted to know more about my real father. And here I am.”

Juliette called for our attention. “We are going to climb to the top. Many stairs, ladies and gentlemen, so if anyone feels unable to do the climb, please wait here. The rest may follow me.”

She unlocked a wrought-iron door and swung it aside so we could pass. Beyond the vestibule, stones steps lead upwards circling around and around so many times I lost count. The walls and slit windows and the odour of damp cold spawned a sense of long ago and I imagined the clatter of soldiers’ boots and the clang of swords as men fought their way up the tower. When we finally reached the top, I was out of breath and grateful for a chance to rest. Turning to stand by the railing, I noticed the man a few feet away taking a picture.

“Well, and here we are,” said Juliette. “Let me explain a little. Belfries were built as watchtowers. Bailleul sits on a rise of land, so guards on duty in this belfry could see for miles and if someone tried to attack, they could alert the town by ringing the bells. It was also a place to watch for fires. The first town hall was built in the twelfth century. Several times the belfry has been destroyed by wars or fire, but always rebuilt in the same style. If you look to the west, you can see the church spires of Hazebrouck and looking north, you can see Belgium. Ypres is just ten miles away, so you will understand why Bailleul was often threatened during the Great War.”

While one of our group asked a question, I gazed at the land spreading out in all directions, splotches of green in a multitude of shades mingled with pockets of trees and occasional bursts of reddish-brown suggesting fields left fallow for the season. Roads meandered this way and that; each intersection marked by a cluster of houses surrounding a church steeple. A ridge embraced the southern horizon. The land looked rich and peaceful. At the opposite railing, the man took another picture. Maybe he really is a tourist, I thought.

While walking through the lace museum, the British woman introduced herself as Pamela Collins and as we followed Juliette around, explained that her husband had passed away a year ago and she had made a spur of the moment decision to take a trip to the battlefields of World War One.

“Time to get on with life,” Pamela said. “I have my father’s records and I know he died at Ypres. My children think I’m slightly bonkers to have come on my own.” She chuckled. “They would surround me with cotton wool to keep me safe, if I let them.”

“As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can climb that tower can look after herself, Pamela. No one back home understands why I’m here either, except my best friend Joan. My ex-husband definitely thinks I’m crazy. Calls it a waste of money. Not that how I spend my money is any of his business anymore. And my grandmother is very annoyed with me.”

“Was it her husband who served in the war?”

I nodded. “You might think she would be pleased at my interest. But instead she’s concerned about herself. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.” I looked at Pamela. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear about my family problems.”

My grandmother never lost her English accent and at ninety-two was still a formidable woman. And a curmudgeon. She met my grandfather in London in 1917. When I had announced plans for a vacation in France, she had been anything but pleased.

“I don’t understand why you’re going,” she said. “What do you expect to find over there?”

Grandmama’s tone had been both querulous and demanding, a tone which often prompted deliberately contrary behaviour on my part. That day I kept my voice calm.

“I told you the last time we spoke, Grandmama. I obtained a copy of his war records and now I know where he served, I’m interesting in visiting those places. And besides, I need a break.”

“Why do you need a break?” Grandmama emphasised the word you.

I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath before responding. “Divorcing Jim has been hard on me. I have a lot on my shoulders. I need a break. Simple as that.”

“But your mother and I need you.” Grandmama often brought up the subject of my mother to make me feel guilty.

With the phone crooked between head and shoulder, I tidied a pile of papers on my desk. “Mother hardly knows me anymore.”

“Well, I need you. I have no other family. You’re being selfish, Grace. It’s not becoming.”

In the past, such an accusation might have caused me to change my mind. “You can manage for a few weeks. Philomena will be there. You have my itinerary, and I’ve included the exact numbers you need to dial and the time difference so you can call me if you want.”

My grandmother harrumphed and then cleared her throat in an exaggerated fashion. “Well, I suppose I’ll just have to manage on my own.”

The call had ended abruptly.

Thankfully, Pamela asked no questions. “For some reason,” she said, “it’s perfectly understandable for a man to visit war memorials, but not for a woman.”

“Maybe that’s it. My grandfather kept a diary throughout the war. He mentions all sorts of places many towns and battles and describes his experiences. Each place I visit seems to be steeped in tragedy. Statues and cemeteries and museums all paying tribute to men like your father and my grandfather. It’s overwhelming, really. Isn’t it?”

“So true. When I stood at the Menin Gate in Ypres listening to the Last Post, I couldn’t stop crying.” Pamela’s face looked as though she might cry again.

“Perhaps we should talk about something else,” I said. “Do you see that man over there with the blue hat?” Pamela nodded. “Well, he keeps looking at me.”

“That’s not surprising, Grace. You’re a good looking woman.”

I laughed. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think he’s following me. This is the third time I’ve seen him. Once in Honfleur, once in Hazebrouck and now here in Bailleul.”

Pamela drew her eyebrows together and pursed her lips. “Surely not,” she said. “Lots of men wear caps like that, especially you Americans.”

“You may be right,” I said, deciding not to pursue the matter further with someone who was essentially a stranger, albeit a very friendly one.

But I was almost certain she was wrong.

All comments gratefully received! Many thanks.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Celebrating 3 years with a giveaway

ContestWhere does the time go?

I began this blog in early 2012 and here it is March 2015. Three years and 381 posts later so much has happened.

So I’m celebrating with a little contest. The prizes are one copy of UNRAVELLED and one copy of LIES TOLD IN SILENCE.

I hope you will enter. To do so, send me an email – mktod [at] bell [dot] net.

A few words about each novel.

Unravelled CoverUNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage.

In October 1935, Edward Jamieson’s memories of war and a passionate love affair resurface when an invitation to a WWI memorial ceremony arrives. Though reluctant to visit the scenes of horror he has spent years trying to forget, Edward succumbs to the unlikely possibility of discovering what happened to Helene Noisette, the woman he once pledged to marry. Travelling through the French countryside with his wife Ann, Edward sees nothing but reminders of war. After a chance encounter with Helene at the dedication ceremony, Edward’s past puts his present life in jeopardy. When WWII erupts a few years later, Edward is quickly caught up in the world of training espionage agents, while Ann counsels grieving women and copes with the daily threats facing those she loves. And once again, secrets and war threaten the bonds of marriage.

Barbara Kyle author of Blood Between Queens: “M.K. Tod’s skilful debut novel spanning two world wars deftly illuminates the subtle stirrings of the human heart as movingly as it depicts the horrors of battle.”

Maryline, blogger at M’s Bookshelf: “What a debut! It captivated me from the very first page until the very last and frequently moved me to tears.”

LTIS CoverLIES TOLD IN SILENCE

In May 1914, Helene Noisette’s father believes war is imminent. Convinced Germany will head straight for Paris, he sends his wife, daughter, mother and younger son to Beaufort, a small village in northern France.

But when war erupts two months later, the German army invades neutral Belgium, sweeping south towards Paris. And by the end of September, Beaufort is less than twenty miles from the front. During the years that follow, with the rumbling of guns ever present in the distance, three generations of women come together to cope with deprivation, fear and the dreadful impacts of war.

In 1917, Helene falls in love with a young Canadian soldier wounded in the battle of Vimy Ridge. But war has a way of separating lovers and families, of twisting promises and dashing hopes, and of turning the naïve and innocent into the jaded and war-weary. As the months pass, Helene is forced to reconcile dreams for the future with harsh reality.

Tony Riches of The Writing Desk: “This is without doubt one of the most moving and engaging books I have read in a very long time.”

Sharon Kay Penman author of Lionheart: “a novel that dramatically depicts the horror and heartbreak of war, while also celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.”

FOR MORE THOUGHTS ON HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (use follow widget on left margin)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.