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.


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


The Power of Historical Fiction by Darrell Duthie

Darrell Duthie and I connected over WWI fiction – his and mine both involving the heroic deeds of the often overlooked Canadian soldiers serving in that war. Darrell offers insights into what historical fiction can do to illuminate history in ways that non-fiction can’t.

The Power of Historical Fiction by Darrell Duthie

For the historically minded, historical fiction is often viewed with scepticism, and the boundary between fiction and history is sometimes blurred. Yet historical fiction has the power to be far more insightful than nonfiction. Few, if any, history books are able to draw you into the world of the past in such a visceral way as good fiction can. To be carried into the past is to experience history, not simply read about it, and that gives it an impact that pure history so often lacks.

My own novel is set in the First World War, and anyone who is familiar with that war is almost certainly familiar with Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or, at the very least, the film of the same name. For all the truly excellent WW1 histories, none have been able to paint so vivid a picture in the minds of so many about the experiences of warfare on the Western Front, as that single book.

Through dialogue, descriptions of the weather, a character’s clothing, or even the smell in the air, novelists enliven history so as to make it real. They can tell us about personal relationships and emotions, and seemingly small, but crucial details that escape the historian focused on the “big picture”. No historical account can ever truly evoke the same depth of understanding that comes from a reader feeling like he or she was there. And that is the wonder of historical fiction.

Take one episode from the infamous bloody battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The historian might write: “After progressing 1700 yards on wet ground towards the Bellevue Spur, the 9th Australian Brigade’s advance was ultimately checked by fierce machine gun fire and a band of unmapped wire.” The novelist might write: “With a grunt he pulled his foot from the mud and stumbled on up the shallow slope of the Spur, crouching low as another concrete pillbox began spitting fire. To his side the cheery bloke from Perth went down. Through the smoke, tangled spirals of wire suddenly appeared. Damn, that wasn’t supposed to be there. ‘Pull back,’ roared the sergeant.’” One plainly states the facts, while the other invites the reader in to experience the battle. Which is more likely to leave a lasting impression? Do the plain facts or the fictionalized story better convey the essence of that fateful day?

The best authors of historical fiction ensure that they get their facts straight. It is, after-all, historical fiction, and that is more than just a story in the past with a few splashes of colour in which history is molded like so much clay to fit a narrative. Robert Harris – one of the masters of the genre – remarked that where the demands of a good story conflicted with the history, he willingly sacrificed the latter in favour of the former: a logical choice. But historical fiction without solid research is simply fiction, and Harris recognizes that too.

The challenge lies in trying to craft a tale which is both true to the past, and compelling reading. In my own novel, for example, I couldn’t very well have my worthy protagonist staring out over the parapet, on a specific rainy, wind-swept night, awaiting a trench raid, when the war diaries described the daily weather as fine, and put his division twenty kilometres from the front! What I could do – borrowing from history – was to have him sneaking across a snow covered No-Man’s-Land with a handful of others and a tube of ammonal explosive in a trench raid to capture German prisoners, hereby illustrating the changing nature of warfare in early 1918, the specific tactics of the Canadian Corps, and telling a true story at the same time.

Philip Kerr, author of the Berlin Noir historical detectives, once said that the little details – which brand of china his characters were eating on – was the key to authenticity, and he is surely right about that. The small touches, largely irrelevant and mostly ignored in any history book, are curiously invaluable in historical fiction. They too inform us about the past in a way that the broad, factual strokes cannot. They add context and detail, and further our understanding of how and why events happened as they did. However, it is ultimately the combination of well-researched facts, plus all the subtle techniques of fictional drama, which is unique to historical fiction. Together they can lift a novel beyond fiction and tell us things about the “truth” of history in a way that history alone can never do.

Many thanks, Darrell. I’m certain your readers will appreciate the lengths to which you’ve gone to create just the right blend of history and compelling fiction so they can learn, enjoy and feel like they were there.

Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War by Darrell Duthie

Fall 1917. The Western Front is in stalemate.

Captain Malcolm MacPhail of the Canadian Corps has been in the trenches for longer than he cares to remember. He’s just landed a new job on the intelligence staff, but if he thinks staying alive is going to become any easier, he’s sorely mistaken.

The rain is pelting down, the shells are flying and the dreaded battle for Passchendaele looms. Malcolm reckons matters can still get worse. Which proves to be an accurate assessment, especially as his unruly tongue has a habit of making enemies all on its own.

The Allies are fighting desperately to swing the tide of war, and Malcolm’s future hangs in the balance, so keeping his head down is simply not an option…

Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War is available from Amazon, Kobo, and select retailers.

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

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 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