Somewhere in France – 2nd April 1916

Henry Tod writes his parents about a mine blowing incident – that’s mine blowing not mind blowing, although the latter could also apply.

Dear Mother and Father

I am not quite sure where I left off in my last letter. Sufficient anyhow that we were relieved and clear of the front line trenches just in time. [Imagine receiving his earlier letter then waiting to hear whether he lived or not.] I think I told you we were going to spring a mine on our front and had everything planned to occupy and establish communication with the crater. The question was whether we or the relieving battalion would do the job.

We knew the Germans also had a mine ready under us, or nearly ready, according to our sappers, but we would probably blow first. We had just been relieved by an Irish regiment and got as far as the reserve trenches on our way back, when the Bosche blew his mine and rather badly strafed our Irish friends. (A euphemism to be sure.] We came in for some of the bombardment which invariably follows on these occasions but nothing to what the front line was getting and altogether we thought ourselves very lucky fellows.

We stood by while it lasted in case of an attack on our lines but this did not develop and eventually we resumed our way to billets. The Irishmen had heavy casualties and a long stretch of their trench was knocked in, while a new geographical feature called ‘Munster crater’ was added to their responsibilities. [The name might have derived from the name of the Irish regiment – pure speculation on my part.]

Photo source – https://graphics.wsj.com/100-legacies-from-world-war-1/

We are now out of the line for a couple of weeks rest and training and are at the same place where we spent our last Divisional rest, at Christmas time. The weather is perfect and I got a football sent out for the men. The other companies are following suit and already there is fierce rivalry between them. My company (B) drew with A company last night after a great tussle – one goal each. There were two casualties of a minor nature. I get plenty of riding exercise and so far we are having a nice easy time. The men are getting brushed up in their drill and have received a complete refit in clothes and kit. We also do a lot of shooting and wiring practice. Nothing further to report meantime.

If you are interested in the work of mines and sappers and the underground world of WWI, read the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. It’s one of the most popular novels about the war and a chilling look at what men endured.

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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.

 

Somewhere in France – 20th December 1915

Another instalment from Alexander Henry Tod’s letters home from France during WWI.

Source PBS Newshour

I have your letters of 23rd November and 1st December. I think I have now received all your letters and am sorry my little grouse has disturbed you so much. The only thing outstanding is your Christmas box but that will turn up all right. There are probably about a million parcels to be delivered to the troops at this time and that will take some doing.

As you know we are presently enjoying Divisional rest, well behind the line, but it is rather dull being stuck here doing routine work and we are all hoping to get away on short leave to England. The chances are we shall get it, in due rotation of course, but at this game one mustn’t take too much for granted. I have been detailed to attend a Divisional course of instruction on special subjects, at some other place than this, and will be detached from the battalion for a week. One officer per company goes every week and I was second on the list. I shall be glad to get away as I think we are all beginning to see too much of each other. I go off the day after tomorrow and will rejoin the battalion for the Christmas festivities.

Today is Sunday and I am orderly officer. That’s twice it has fallen on a Sunday and I don’t like it. The duties of the O.O. are rather vague, but comprehensive, and the chief hardship is that he must be on the spot. He has to go round and see that everything is in order – inspect billets, cook houses, prisoners and everything there is to inspect. It is all right on weekdays when he can be excused parades by pretending to do something else.

I took the Roman Catholic contingent to church early this morning but didn’t wait for the service [as far as I know, Henry is not Catholic] as breakfast was waiting for me. There is a strong Irish element in the regiment and we have a ‘padre’ to look after them. He is a good sort and a great favourite with us all and he does full justice to the hospitality of the different messes! [perhaps the padre was a little plump?] He also takes full advantage of his position and the grim business of war to bring home to the men the immediate need of their living better lives and so forth.

source PBS Newshour

We are recruited chiefly from Glasgow [Henry is from Glasgow] and Lanarkshire and the strong local accent is still music in my ears after being away from it so long. The men are wonderful in the trenches under the most trying conditions and there is always someone who can see the humorous side when things are most depressing. I hope some day to tell you all about them when the clouds roll by.

We managed to get a photo taken of the company the other day by a woman photographer, who is in this line of business in the village. We couldn’t all get into the picture so we had to make the best of it. I hope the censor doesn’t grab them. Tea has made its appearance so will close.

I found this comment on the PBS Newshour site about WWI soldiers playing soccer in their off times:

It’s a way to hide the horror under one layer of spectacle and another layer of moral virtue — a way to pretend that war is like a game, that there are rules, that there is safety. A way not to look into oblivion. We missed the cruel irony in all those soccer balls that show up in World War I photos. Nothing is a metaphor for war. War is a metaphor for nothing.

 

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.

 

4 Photos – Seeds for the Next Novel

At a small French cafe in 2010, Time & Regret was born. My husband and I discussed the plot all evening, the twists and turns becoming more elaborate as the bottle of wine disappeared. We took lots of pictures that summer, some of which offered inspiration for Lies Told in Silence; others are now providing ideas and texture for my next novel, Time & Regret.

Here’s the premise: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband, Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather’s WWI diaries along with a puzzling note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret he kept hidden for more than seventy years.

Hotel in HonfleurThis first photo is the place where my husband and I stayed in Honfleur, a small town across the Seine from Le Havre. In Time & Regret, Grace stays here for the first few days of her trip to France.

“Located in a grand three-storey house with imposing columns on either side of the front door, the hotel looked elegant and, after stepping inside, I rang the bell and looked around. The room just beyond the front hall was full of ornate antiques and overgrown plants, Persian rugs and gilded ceilings. In the living room an enormous mirror filled one wall, its frame decorated with coloured glass in the shape of vines. Flanking the mirror were blue Chinese vases, at least three feet tall, etched with red, white and pink flowers. Opposite the mirror on a marble-topped chest of drawers was a chess set, a vase full of blood-red roses, a turquoise urn and a brass lamp. I could not decide whether this arrangement was contrived or random. Scattered along the other walls, as if it was important to fill as much of the room as possible, were high-backed chairs with winged sides, their wooden legs carved and gilded, and their backs and seats covered in muted floral patterns. A baby grand piano stood in the far corner, topped with an old gramophone.

Since no one had yet arrived, I rang the bell again and stepped further into the living room. Two large doorways invited exploration, one led into the solarium where tables were set with crisp white cloths and potted geraniums filled every window ledge, the other into the dining room with a mahogany table and matching sideboard, three huge canvases and the marble bust of a black warrior above the fireplace. Enchanting, in a bizarre way.”

Musee de la Grande GuerreMusee de la Grande Guerre in Peronne was a wonderful if sobering experience. Simple displays made for more impact.

“Peronne was a larger town, its streets and squares decked with hanging baskets while citizens strolled about enjoying the sunshine. Housed in a medieval chateau, the museum’s collection was laid out sparingly for maximum impact. On the floor surrounded by ten-inch wooden frames were full uniforms and kits for French, British, Canadian and German soldiers. Similar frames housed rifles, ammunition clips and light trench mortars, medical instruments, ambulance supplies, and signalling equipment. Further on, a display of camouflage techniques showed a hollowed out tree trunk used as an observation post and a range of ingenious materials to disguise artillery and command posts.  Along the walls were posters exhorting civilians to donate to the cause or help in some other fashion.”

WWII American Govt certificateIntending to explore the areas around Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy where her grandfather fought, Grace stays at a hotel called Chateau Noyelle. Exploring the Chateau’s salon while waiting for cup of coffee, Grace finds this framed certificate.

“Stopping to order an espresso, I looked around the bar at comfortable chairs organised in small groupings for intimate conversations before dinner or perhaps a reading retreat on a rainy day. Large windows embraced by silk overlooked the front yard. I approached a display of sepia photos next to a tall curio cabinet and peered at the first one, clearly a shot of the building before it had become a hotel. Two women holding lacy umbrellas were in front of the chateau wearing long skirts and white blouses with wide sleeves and tight cuffs. Nothing alluring about those outfits, I thought. Beside them was a young boy holding a hoop in his hand, a straw hat on the ground nearby. Below the picture a silver plaque said Chateau Noyelle, 1879.

Beside that photo was a framed certificate bearing the American coat of arms. Curious, I bent my head to read the inscription: The President of the United States has directed me to express to Andre Justin-Gabriel Constant the gratitude and appreciation of the American people for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from the enemy. Underneath was the signature of Dwight Eisenhower as General of the Army. My imagination began to work, spies lurking in the corridors, an underground passage through the woods, secret doors behind . . .

“Your espresso, Madame.” “

WWI Craters and Shell holesTime & Regret is told through Grace’s voice, through her grandfather Martin’s voice and through the diary he kept. Bill Jackson, Michel Diotte and Pete Vanleuven are Martin’s friends. Butler is his commanding officer.

” “We’re gearing up for a major offensive,” said Captain Butler.

Martin was in the cellar of a house partially destroyed by shelling. He thought these brigade headquarters a distinct improvement over the dungeon HQ had occupied in December. Smelling of dried bat droppings and ancient slime, the air in that deep, dark space had created a feeling of doom as though the echoes of tortured screaming had only recently faded. He shivered, not from the cold but from the memory.

Jackson, Vanleuven and Diotte sat with Butler at a rickety table while Martin and the captain’s adjutant leaned against the wall. Rain slickers hung from hooks next to the entrance dripping remnants of sleet onto a hard mud floor.

“There’s an enemy salient near St. Eloi.” Butler stabbed at the map. “We’re part of the force ordered to eliminate it.”

“What are those, sir?” Diotte pointed to several numbered circles on the map.

“Craters.”

Pete scratched the rash at the base of his throat. “Who occupies them?”

“That’s the problem,” said Butler. “We thought we occupied four and five and could attack craters two and three from those positions. Turns out the Germans still hold them. Our battalions couldn’t tell one crater from another. Fucking mess. We go in tomorrow night to relieve the Sixth.”

Captain Butler spent the next two hours explaining the operation and answering questions. Trench reinforcements would be the first objective, their brigade augmented for this task by two thousand reserve troops. A series of bombardments and infantry attacks would follow with the aim of securing four of the largest craters.

“Fucking mess is right,” Martin said to Bill as they slogged through the mud, the wind whipping sleet against their cheeks. He wiped his eyes and squinted. “Here’s the turn.”

“Doesn’t look promising,” Bill said.

“If the Sixth has lost more than five hundred you can imagine what we’re in for.”

April 10, 1916

Diotte has been wounded. Bill saw the stretcher bearers take him off but we’ve had no confirmation. Can’t leave my post to find out. I’ve prayed that Michel will be all right. Feels strange praying out here in the midst of what can only be described as hell.

April 12, 1916

Severe enemy bombardment. Spent the day reassuring men holding the line.

April 14, 1916

Butler said that aerial photos show all craters still in German hands. Lost Jimmy and Snowy last night. Both went down in the same scramble up the far side of a crater. Wilson and I dug them out but we couldn’t get any medics in time to save them. Snowy knew I was with him at the end. We don’t seem to make any progress. Communications often fail to get through so we are uncoordinated. No sleep. “

As they say – a picture is worth a thousand words.