Transported into a WWI Trench

Having written three novels featuring World War One, I’ve learned a lot about trenches. I’ve even been in one or two although of course, they’re now sanitized and bear no resemblance to the muck and horror soldiers would have experienced.

When I started out, I had only a vague sense of trenches as reinforced ditches deep enough to house groups of soldiers holding the line against the enemy. Writing realistic scenes involving skirmishes and battles meant that I had to know so much more. Novels, books, movies, photos, diagrams, websites, letters and diaries – these were my sources. How did soldiers go ‘over the top’? What happened during a gas attack? Where were reserve troops located? How did messages get to frontline commanders? Where did the men sleep? Did stretcher bearers take the wounded back through the trenches? How did those manning artillery make sure they didn’t hit their own men? And so on.

Here’s a diagram I found illustrating the the connections between different parts of the trench system and another showing the cross section of a frontline trench. [Source: History On The Net]

Of course, you can’t include all these details but as a writer you have to understand them well enough to transport your readers there. Here’s an example from my novel Unravelled: Edward is in Signals, the group responsible for communications. He and several fellow soldiers have been assigned to place microphones in no man’s land to assess enemy positions.

“A week later, in the pitch black of a half-snowing night, Edward and eleven others made their way from the tunnels via support and reserve trenches to the forward lines. Taking each step with care, they trudged through narrow, zigzagging paths, passing men snatching sleep, cooking, playing cards, cleaning equipment – the tasks of soldiers at rest.

As they turned a sharp corner, an explosion shook the section of trench not far behind them. The blast rattled Edward’s eardrums; screams of pain indicated the injuries suffered by men he had passed only minutes earlier. Whistles blew, summoning stretcher-bearers to carry what was left of the wounded away for treatment, and others to restore the trench. Edward knew the medics would waste little time on those who were beyond saving, just the barest of comfort, if that.

Battle savvy after months at the front, Edward steeled himself not to turn around, and instead put one foot in front of the other as he moved himself and over fifty pounds of equipment forward. He thought back to another night, sitting at a small wireless station, receiver in hand as an explosion ripped a section of the trench no more than thirty feet away. The blast crushed a nearby soldier as support beams, earth, and sandbags caved in. Numb to such destruction, he had continued his transmission without interruption. Edward shut the memory away and focused on the present. Distraction could be fatal.”

Doing research I found many other bits of information: a sketch of a German trench (you can find that in 10 Facts about WWI Trenches), a document outlining orders soldiers were to obey when on trench duty (you can find it here), Pierre Berton’s descriptions of trenches in his book titled Vimy. Berton wrote of others describing trenches as “this strange ribbon of deadly stealth”. He said that in reality there were little more than ditches.

It’s difficult to find the right words: horrific, disgusting, filthy, foul, noxious, hazardous, precarious, death traps, rat infested, slimy … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.

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.

 

Bringing Past and Present Together

What struck me most profoundly when I first began researching World War One was the incredible slaughter involved. Yes folks, slaughter – according to Collins English Dictionary, the “indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people”. Wave after wave of soldiers sent ‘over the top’ to certain death. And if that wasn’t sufficient to make me reel with horror, add in the hellish conditions under which men lived for weeks, months and years, every day expecting to die some horrible death.

My grandfather was there. He was tall, dark haired, rather angular in limb and face. And he was smart, dedicated to his family, a man who believed in God and went to church every Sunday. Occasionally he was funny, although I remember him as a generally quiet man. The war took one of his lungs – a gas attack – and he died at the age of seventy-five.

MKTod NovelsMy first novel, Unravelled, was based very loosely on his life and that of my grandmother. My second, Lies Told in Silence, told a parallel story of the fictional woman he met in France and is also rooted in World War One. In each novel I’ve attempted to help readers appreciate what that war was like for soldiers and civilians, men and women.

As children we find it hard to understand our parents, to empathize with their worries and cares. As grandchildren, it is even more difficult to understand the lives of someone fifty or sixty years older. But now, I feel a deep sense of connection to my grandfather and grandmother. Through research, travels, novels, conversations with my mother, and my grandfather’s and grandmother’s scrapbooks I now understand the circumstances of their upbringings, the strictures and taboos of the time, the aspirations they had, the way they lived, the clothes they wore, the role religion played in their lives. Through visits to memorials and museums, the diaries of men who fought in WWI, and the exploration of government and private websites dedicated to WWI, I understand the devastation my grandfather experienced on the battlefield and the lingering effects of the war on soul and psyche.

Time and Regret – my latest novel – is set partly in WWI and partly in the 1990s and I like to think of it as reflecting my own journey into the past.

While attempting to solve the mystery her grandfather has left for her, Grace Hansen, the heroine of Time and Regret, explores her grandfather’s past and the war he fought in. Through his diaries, conversations with her grandmother, and her journey to the battlefields and memorials in France, Grace comes to know a different man from the one she knew as a child.

I too know my grandfather as a different man than the Grandpa of my childhood, and I admire him more than ever.

PS – that’s him on the cover of Lies Told in Silence at the age of nineteen going off to war.

You can preorder Time and Regret from Amazon.comAmazon.caAmazon.co.uk and other Amazon sites.

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 will be 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.