Somewhere in France – 2nd March 1916

It seems fitting to post one of Alexander Henry Tod’s letters to honour Remembrance Day and to give thanks to those who served and who serve in the cause of justice and freedom.

2nd March 1916

Just a line to acknowledge your letters of 7th February before going up to the trenches tonight. The snow has almost disappeared but our advance party reports the trenches to be knee-deep in mud and water, so it is going to be no picnic trudging up there tonight. We have had fairly comfortable billets this time and as permission had been given to the native population to return to this area we were able to get some washing done. They have become quite accustomed to shelling in the back area and the children spend their days looking for souvenirs in the form of fragments of shells bursting in the vicinity. We only get the odd one now and again, as the bulk were dropping beyond us seeking some of our batteries.

The children can all sing “Tipperary” and “Keep the home fires burning”. Although we get on well with the civilian population, we have a feeling that there are spies about us. I am certain I missed an opportunity of nabbing one and have been kicking myself ever since. I was taking a walk along a country road a little way out of the village and at one of the few places where you can get a sort of bird’s eye view of the enemy country in the distance. I overtook a fellow officer wearing a burberry [yes, the classic trench coat] and a Royal Scot glengarry [seems to be a cap with a badge on it]. I greeted him in passing and was inclined for a chat as we were going the same way. He was rather curt in his greeting and unmistakably allowed me to go on ahead.

At first I thought little of it and that he was just an ill-mannered youth and then I began to think that his appearance and behaviour were a little strange, apart from his rudeness. I decided to take some action to satisfy myself. I had meantime gotten some way ahead of him round a bend in the road and came on a motor lorry with two A.S.C. men [Army Service Corps] tinkering at the engine. I told them to stand by and be ready to help me if necessary and explained what was in the wind. They were to go on working while I accosted my friend. Next minute he whizzed by on a motor cycle before I could recognize him and looking back I could see a civilian running into a wood some way off the road. They were spies beyond a shadow of a doubt. [Sounds like something you’d read in a novel!]

Army Service Corps

Two of the enemy observation balloons broke away the day before yesterday and drifted over us and on the same day our anti-aircraft guns brought down two of their aeroplanes, which was quite a good day’s work. We are still awaiting the result of the German offensive at Verdun, which may have a considerable bearing on the rest of the line.

This is all for the present. I have sent you the Regimental Chronicle which you may find of interest.

Germany and France fought one another in the battle of Verdun from February to December 1916. Over 156,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers died. I wrote a scene or two about it in Lies Told in Silence. I’m sure Henry’s battalion saw a lot of action in their portion of the line before this battle was settled.

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. 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.

Readers recommend WWI books

Mary's PoppyIn honour of Remembrance Day, I’m reblogging a post from last year on WWI novels.

Not long ago, I asked readers what books they are reading about WWI. Through this blog, Facebook and Twitter I received quite a few responses and thought I would share them with you. Lots of reading options here. A few non-fiction or memoirs and many fiction. Some love or family stories wrapped around war, many gritty stories of the war itself and the lasting effects it had on those who served.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 6.59.57 PMBefore the Fall by Juliet West – “Beautifully wrought, utterly compelling and with a twist that will leave you breathless, Before The Fall, inspired by a true story, hurls you into a London torn apart by the First World War and paints a vivid and haunting portrait of one woman’s struggle.”

Wake by Anna Hope – “three women must deal with the aftershocks of WWI and its impact on the men in their lives—a son, a brother and a lover.”

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman – “Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman has brought to life again the people and events that led up to World War I. With attention to fascinating detail, and an intense knowledge of her subject and its characters, Ms. Tuchman reveals, for the first time, just how the war started, why, and why it could have been stopped but wasn’t.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.00.31 PMSomme Mud by E.P.F Lynch – “Somme Mud tells of the devastating experiences of Edward Lynch, a young Australian private (18 when he enlisted) during the First World War when he served with the 45th battalion of the Australian Infantry Forces on the Western Front at the Somme, which saw the most bloody and costly fighting of the war.”

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth – “Revealing the horror and heroism the creator of Middle-earth experienced as a young man, Tolkien and the Great War also introduces the close friends who spurred the modern world’s greatest mythology into life. It shows how the deaths of two comrades compelled Tolkien to pursue the dream they had shared”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.01.23 PMSix Weeks by John Lewis-Stempel – “The average life expectancy of a subaltern in the trenches was a mere six weeks. In this remarkable book, John Lewis-Stempel focuses on the forgotten men who truly won Britain’s victory in the First World War – the subalterns, lieutenants and captains of the Army, the leaders in the trenches, the first ‘over the top’, the last to retreat.”

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally – “In 1915, two spirited Australian sisters join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father’s farm and carrying a guilty secret with them. Used to tending the sick as they are, nothing could have prepared them for what they confront, first near Gallipoli, then on the Western Front.”

In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl – “Iris followed her fifteen-year-old brother, Tom, to France in 1914 intending to bring him home. On her way to find Tom, Iris comes across the charismatic Miss Ivens, who is setting up a field hospital in the old abbey of Royaumont, north of Paris. Putting her fears aside, Iris decides to stay at Royaumont, and it is there that she truly comes of age, finding her capability and her strength, discovering her passion for medicine, making friends with the vivacious Violet and falling in love. But war is a brutal thing, and when the ultimate tragedy happens, there is a terrible price that Iris has to pay, a price that will echo down the generations.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.02.06 PMTestament of Youth by Vera Brittain – “Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, Brittain served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war’s end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. Testament of Youth is both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation.”

Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson – “Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.”

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy – “From a village in Nova Scotia to the trenches of France, P. S. Duffy’s astonishing debut showcases a rare talent emerging in midlife. When his beloved brother-in-law goes missing at the front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing to join the war and find him. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly into battle.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.10.41 PMThe Girl You Left Behind by Jo Jo Moyes – “In 1916, French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything – her family, reputation and life – in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.”

A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith – “The United States Congress in 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of the fallen soldiers of World War I to visit their sons’ graves in France. Over the next three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made the trip. In this emotionally charged, brilliantly realized novel, April Smith breathes life into a unique moment in American history, imagining the experience of five of these women.”

Au-Revoir la Haut by Pierre Lemaitre – this is my feeble translation of a Goodreads description in French – “After the Great War, Albert and Edouard quickly understand that their country doesn’t want them. Misfortune to the victors! France glorifies the dead and forgets the survivors. These two survivors of the inferno, Albert, who has lost everything, and Edouard, who is crushed by his family history, embark of a swindle of national proportions with absolute cynicism.”

The Last Summer by Kirsty Macleod – “Drawing heavily on memoirs and biographies from the Edwardian/Georgian period, McLeod offers a mosaic-portrait of English (mostly London-centered) life through the legendary summer of 1914, month by month: the intent, more or less, is to offer some balanced perspective on ‘the myth of the golden age and of the last golden summer’–a myth which has been periodically punctured in the decades since. Thus, McLeod reminds us that ‘the golden summer of the few in 1914 was guaranteed by the servitude of the many’.”

Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd – Bess Crawford is a WWI battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth.

Anne Perry’s WWI novels – Perry wrote five novels one for each year of the Great War. These novels follow the story of the Reavley family as they endure the war and gradually uncover “the sinister figure they call the Peacemaker, who is trying to undermine the public support for the struggle–and, as the Reavley family has good reason to believe, is in fact at the heart of a fantastic plot to reshape the entire world”.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.02.37 PMJacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series – The period of time from the mid-1900’s until the 1930’s was a time of unprecedented change in Britain. The devastation of The Great War, mass emigration to America and Canada, rapid social changes—not least votes for women—to be followed by the Roaring Twenties, the General Strike and the Depression. It was a time of burgeoning artistic expression, with the movements that we now know as Art Nouveau and Art Deco demonstrating a dramatic departure from the Victorian age … The Great War demanded that there was hardly a field of endeavor left untouched by a woman’s hand, so that men could be released for the battlefield … It is in this world that Maisie Dobbs came of age.” In 1929 she sets up her own private investigation agency. There are now 10 mysteries in the series. 

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves – “In 1929 the author went to live abroad permanently, vowing ‘never to make England my home again’. This book is an account of his life up until that ‘bitter leave-taking’: from his childhood and desperately unhappy school days at Charterhouse, to his time serving as a young officer in the First World War that was to haunt him throughout his life.”

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker by Louis Barthas – “Along with millions of other Frenchmen, Louis Barthas, a thirty-five-year-old barrelmaker from a small wine-growing town, was conscripted to fight the Germans in the opening days of World War I. Corporal Barthas spent the next four years in near-ceaseless combat, wherever the French army fought its fiercest battles: Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Argonne. Barthas’ riveting wartime narrative, first published in France in 1978, presents the vivid, immediate experiences of a frontline soldier.”

Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery – this is #8 in the Anne of Green Gables series – “Anne’s children were almost grown up, except for pretty, high-spirited Rilla. No one could resist her bright hazel eyes and dazzling smile. Rilla, almost fifteen, can’t think any further ahead than going to her very first dance at the Four Winds lighthouse and getting her first kiss from handsome Kenneth Ford. But undreamed-of challenges await the irrepressible Rilla when the world of Ingleside becomes endangered by a far-off war. Her brothers go off to fight, and Rilla brings home an orphaned newborn in a soup tureen. She is swept into a drama that tests her courage and leaves her changed forever.”

During 2015, I’ve read a number of other novels set during either WWI or WWII:

  • The Heroes Welcome by Louisa Young
  • The Foundling’s War by Michel Deon
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Death of a Century by Daniel Robinson

Please add your suggestions.

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.

Remembrance – a compelling time

PoppiesEvery November the poppies come out. We wear them with pride and pause on November 11th for a minute of silence to honour those who served and those who are serving.

For some reason I feel the sense of loss and sacrifice even more this year. Perhaps it’s the publication of Unravelled that has stirred my emotions. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that next year will mark the 100th anniversary of WWI, a war of such senseless proportions that the rational mind is outraged. Perhaps it’s the conflicts that continue to shatter innocent lives in places like Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere.

Or perhaps it’s the sorrowful awareness that war is part of the human condition.