Battle unfolds – Vimy Ridge April 2017


The 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge is on Sunday, April 9th. Some of you will know that I’ve featured WWI with all its tragedy and horror in three novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. To honour this anniversary, I’m posting excerpts from each of them. This excerpt from Time and Regret features action on the battle front.


Martin and his men assembled in Zivy Cave, a vast space where brigade and battalion staff waited along with hundreds of soldiers. Equipped with electric lights, running water, tables, kitchens, and telephones, the cave had been a hub for the Nineteenth Battalion, its spokes connected with all other battalions through a maze of trenches and tunnels. With so much snow and rain, the roof dribbled in sections, coating the floor with gray slime. The air reeked of tobacco and sweat.

At four a.m., they moved into Zivy Tunnel, where they remained jammed shoulder to shoulder for the last ninety minutes before the attack. Martin watched Butler moving around the tunnel, checking the men, clasping a shoulder here and there, his voice jolly, as though the day’s objectives were nothing unusual. His captain looked like he could sleep for a month.

“Remember, men,” Butler said, eyes sweeping around the darkened space, “we’ve practiced each step. You all know your parts and how to step in for others. Remember, the artillery conquers, and it’s our job to occupy. You’ll do well. I know you will. I’m proud of you all.”

Butler often said, “Artillery conquers, infantry occupies,” as though imbuing their role with grand purpose. Once Martin and Pete had discussed the validity of that phrase, trying to decide whether it somehow demeaned the infantry, whether their captain would have preferred being in the artillery to leading foot soldiers like them. Pete had observed the contradiction between a culture slavishly adhering to command and the chaotic disorder of battle. Pete would approve of today’s orders, Martin thought.

Waiting for battle to commence, he briefly stretched his back to ease the strain of standing so long and shook his head to clear his mind; sharp powers of concentration were essential for what was to come.

At exactly five thirty, as a colossal roar of artillery began, the Nineteenth Battalion rushed forward. Having practiced every stage and every move a hundred times, Martin’s men executed the opening sequence with precision. Within three minutes, they gained their first target and by five fifty-one crossed the German front lines. Exhilarated, Martin and his men pressed forward in preparation for taking their next objective.

The artillery barrage paused to allow reserve units to move up, and for a few minutes he could hear himself think. So far, enemy retaliation had been weak, and Nully confirmed with a quick nod that their platoon was intact. Looking right to check that Bill remained on his flank, Martin caught a glimpse of his friend’s hefty shoulders, but as he turned left to look for Simon, German machine-gun fire erupted, forcing Martin and his men to take cover. When the guns fell silent, Butler motioned them forward toward Furze Trench.

Across the muddy sky, signal flares marked Allied advances while green rockets indicated German panic. Crouching low, stretcher-bearers fanned out to search for casualties, and through the mist, Martin saw a small cluster of prisoners straggle past.

“Bavarians,” Nully shouted, to be heard above the barrage.

Martin nodded but said nothing. He was worried that decreasing visibility from the rain and sleet would hamper their efforts. German barrages still concentrated on positions they’d left more than an hour ago, but it wouldn’t be long before they adjusted their sights to put the Nineteenth in danger. Continued movement was critical.

“Not much opposition,” Martin said to Nully.

“Can’t last, sir. Have to get on with consolidating our position.”


Martin heard the rumble of tanks advancing on their left and checked his watch. Beyond the hulking machines, he could see the vague outline of soldiers from another brigade. These men would leapfrog the Nineteenth and continue the push forward, leaving German forces almost no time to exit their deep dugouts and defend against the infantry advance. Once again, the sky filled with howling madness.

“Dig in. Over here, dig in,” Martin shouted to be heard. “Bernstein, get your machine gun working. Hurry. I need it now.”

Less than ten feet away, Bernstein knelt on the ground and flipped open the front legs that steadied the gun. Kirby stretched beside him and readied a belt of ammunition. The rest of Martin’s platoon fanned out along a low ledge of sandbags. Nully crouched nearby waiting for orders. A group of signalers began to dig a cable trench, two of them carrying a huge roll of wire. Shells burst to their left.

“How are we supposed to know whether it’s clear up ahead?” Nully’s mouth was only an inch from Martin’s ear.

“I don’t fucking know, Nully. You figure it out. Kendal!” Martin shouted for his signals corporal, and the man wiggled close. “Can you reach Butler?”

“No, sir. Our lines aren’t working yet.”

The scene looked anything but orderly as clumps of men, scattered over a wide swath, made their way up the ridge. Martin and Nully looked at one another. Martin nodded only once. They would proceed.

In a sudden spit of rifle fire, Kirby toppled over. Bernstein’s gun fired in return, spraying shells in a narrow arc at the source of German attack. Another man took up Kirby’s post while Martin motioned for three of his platoon to take out the enemy’s position. He watched them crawl forward, and upon hearing their grenades explode followed by the sound of screaming, twisted his mouth into a grotesque smile.

By nightfall, he and his men were situated on the crest of Vimy Ridge, the land behind them torn to bits, the land beyond the ridge showing evidence of massive German retreat. From time to time, a shell dropped far away, spurting mud in all directions, but otherwise the scene was calm. Farther east, shells were exploding on roads leading north to German-held territory and the towns of Lens, Avion, and Mericourt.

You can read other posts commemorating the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge at Preparing for Vimy Ridge, The Beginning of Battle, and Opening Hours.

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

Opening Hours of Vimy Ridge

The 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, a WWI battle where Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves by taking a German-held ridge after two earlier failed attempts, is on Sunday, April 9th. Some of you will know that I’ve featured WWI with all its tragedy and horror in three novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. To honour this anniversary, I’m posting excerpts from each of them. This excerpt, from Unravelled, illustrates the early morning beginnings of that battle.


A burst of light in the distance. Edward checked his watch. At five fifteen, a still-hidden sun smudged the black of night and after hours of random machine-gun fire, the Germans were quiet. Through stinging sleet, shapes in no man’s land were barely visible. A cart, lopsided in the mud, the carcass of a horse, a lightweight howitzer damaged beyond repair, remnants of a large wooden barrel. The massive ridge loomed four hundred yards away.

Five twenty-five. Edward scanned his unit.

“Tell Robertson to keep alert,” he whispered to the soldier on his left.

The reminder was unnecessary but he could not restrain himself. Time ticked away as hordes of men held their collective breath.

At five thirty, the ripple of light was strangely beautiful, spreading like an endless wave in that instant of calm before the fury of one thousand guns erupted. Though Lieutenant Burke had described the battle plan in detail, no words could have prepared them for such brutal vibration. Shockwaves compressed Edward’s chest, his ears distinguished nothing but pain, his legs braced to remain upright while he fought for breath. Death crooked its finger.

In the distance, flames erupted over German trenches followed by a continuous line of red, white and green SOS signals. Edward’s platoon sprang into action as messages poured in.

Night receded inch by inch, revealing the field of battle. German artillery stuttered, then replied with more conviction, deadly shells flashing against the clouds. Reaching for his earphones, Edward saw a red light mushroom beyond enemy lines, followed by a boom that scattered bits of clay across his makeshift table.

“Christ, that felt close,” Eric Andrews said.

“Ammunition dump?”

“Probably. But theirs, not ours.”

Edward grunted at the friend who had been with him since the beginning, then cocked his head as another message came through. He hunched forward, a gas mask around his neck, rifle propped against a wall of sandbags. His job was to keep information flowing, whatever the cost.

By six a.m., sleet had turned to drizzle while thirty thousand infantry advanced in three waves of attack.

“Snowy,” Edward used Eric’s nickname, “get a runner for this message.”

“Binny is ready. Just back from the sap.”

“He’ll do.” Edward tore the message from his pad as the telephone rang. “Wait a minute till I see what this is.” He scribbled a few words. “Yes. Yes. Got it.” He held out the second message. “Tell Binny to take this one too.”

Another member of Edward’s team staggered in covered in mud. “It’s hell out there but we’re advancing on schedule.”

Edward twisted around to look at his linesman. “What about casualties?”

“Hard to say. Germans are getting the worst of it. Their shelling is weak compared to ours.”

“That’s good news, Arty. I need you to head back out. The line from here to Duffield crater is down. Take Simmons and Tiger with you and get it repaired.” The telephone rang again. Edward turned back to his work without waiting for a reply.

Hours passed like minutes. Duties swept Edward and his men from forward trenches to command posts stationed up to five miles behind the lines. Twice he was blown off his feet by the concussion of exploding shells. His mind quivered with the unceasing flash and rumble of guns. Falling shrapnel screamed overhead.

As they worked to install new lines and roll out signal cable behind advancing troops, shells roared liked angry beasts and confused men stumbled to find their way. Silent prisoners filed by. Edward heard bagpipes and sudden shouts and the anguished moans of wounded men. All the while, British planes buzzed overhead, swooping low to assess the damage.

Edward is modelled after my grandfather, Ernest Leslie James, who was in Signals during WWI. He survived the war, returned to civilian life, father two children, and served again in WWII. In the photo he is about to head overseas at the age of nineteen.

Other posts commemorating the 100th anniversary: Preparing for Vimy Ridge and The Beginning of Battle.

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

Historical Fiction – WWI and WWII Favourites

MyBooks1So many books, so little time is a frequently heard mantra amongst readers. The same notion applies to writers crafting new stories. Reading is essential to writing. According to master storyteller Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

My own collection of books bulges with historical fiction and historical non-fiction as well as a number of books on the craft of writing. Those concerning WWI and WWII have relegated other favourites to lesser shelves and basement hideaways.

mybooks3Some personal favourites:

BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks is the “story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experience of the war itself.” In the introduction, Faulks declares that the theme he explored was “how far can you go?” and “what are the limits of humanity?

I have never been a student of history. Teachers presented the subject as an exercise in memorization and I never found the rhythm or rationale to glue together facts into a compelling canvas of people with competing interests. In the early days of writing a novel set in WWI, I struggled to find descriptions of battles that were not dense with jargon and the minutiae of warfare. VIMY RIDGE 1917 by Alexander Turner is a slim volume full of maps and timelines, pictures and diagrams all of which helped me understand the unfolding of that great battle and others like it.

While visiting the Vimy memorial in 2010, I purchased LETTERS OF AGAR ADAMSON. Norm Christie, the editor, writes “As a historical document the letters of Agar Adamson stands on their own. But what gives his letters even more depth is the complex and touching relationship with his wife, Mabel Cawthra.” Reading letters is not a narrative experience. Rather, it is one full of gaps, seemingly inconsequential details, occasional outbursts and names of people known only to the letter writer. But if you persist, Agar’s character shines through and you begin to appreciate the real experience of WWI.

Pierre Berton was a well-known and well-loved Canadian author and journalist who dedicated most of his writing to non-fiction tales exploring Canadian history and heritage. VIMY is his account of that famous battle, the horrific conditions of trench warfare and the intensity of preparing to take a ridge that had defeated two earlier assaults. “Drawing on unpublished personal accounts and interviews, Berton brings home what it was like for the young men … who clawed their way up the sodden, shell-torn slopes in a struggle they innocently believed would make war obsolete.” My grandfather survived Vimy Ridge which prompted my desire to incorporate this battle into two of my novels.

Anne Perry wrote a series of WWI novels, one for each year of the war. Although each novel is a self-contained story, collectively they tell the tale of the Reavley siblings, Joseph, Judith and Matthew, and an ominous character called the Peacemaker whose actions threaten the very survival of Britain. I first read AT SOME DISPUTED BARRICADE, and when I realized it was part of a series, read the rest in order: NO GRAVES AS YET, SHOULDER THE SKY, ANGELS IN THE GLOOM, WE SHALL NOT SLEEP. These absorbing stories illuminate the realities of WWI, painting pictures of those who struggled to survive, those who offered support and those who led others to small and great victories.

One day, browsing the shelves of my nearby bookstore, I found DEAFENING by Frances Itani with its story of Grania, a young deaf woman, who falls in love with Jim, a hearing man. “As the First World War explodes across Europe, Jim leaves to become a stretcher bearer on the Western Front, a place filled with unforgiving noise, violence and death. Through this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania attempt to sustain their love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful.

mybooks4WWII is rife with spy stories. Several have kept me up late at night fearing at any point the capture and torture of one or other fearless agent. Sebastian Faulks comes through with another winner, CHARLOTTE GRAY. “In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission – officially to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action.

And who did not weep when either reading or watching THE ENGLISH PATIENT? This novel by Michael Ondaatje is a complex but moving tale of love and redemption set in North Africa and Italy during WWII.

With espionage as a theme in one of my novels, THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay called to me immediately. I had to know what happened at Britain’s code-breaking centre and the personalities who worked there. McKay delivers, bringing “stories of the ordinary men and women who made it happen” to life while explaining the intricacies of that highly confidential work and world.

My copy of VESSEL OF SADNESS originally belonged to my stepfather. It is a story of those who fought and died in 1944 at Anzio, Italy. After the invasion of Sicily, the Allies slowly made their way into Italy, taking piece by painful piece of that country from the Germans. An assault originally imagined to be swift, played out over months and months of gruelling effort. Vessel of Sadness spares no detail of the true story to capture the Alban Hills. Based on his own experiences in the British army, William Woodruff’s tale is brutal and achingly human.

Erik Larson writes non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. The New York Times review of his book IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS said “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds [William, his wife Mattie, daughter Martha and son William Jr], characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises.” If you seek to understand pre-WWII Germany, this is one of the best and most readable sources.

Below is a list of some other novels and non-fiction works I have on my real and electronic shelves. All have played a part to inform my writing.


  • Marching as to War – Pierre Berton
  • The Serpent’s Tooth – Michelle Paver
  • The First Casualty – Ben Elton
  • Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
  • A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Halprin
  • Life Class – Pat Barker
  • Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
  • Fall of Giants – Ken Follett
  • Elsie and Mairi Go to War – Diane Atkinson


  • Resistance – Anita Shreve
  • Hornet Flight – Ken Follett
  • The Good German – Joseph Kanon
  • The Spy Who Spent the War in Bed – William B. Breuer
  • Unlikely Soldiers – Jonathan Vance
  • Inside Camp X – Lynn Hodgson
  • Restless – William Boyd
  • Fallen Skies – Philippa Gregory
  • Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre

I’m sure I’ll find and read more, unless, of course, I decide to write stories of another era 🙂