Today marks 100 years since the end of WWI. What a horrifying and devastating war. Tragically, the terms of the armistice led to economic distress and resentment in Germany, which when combined with a toxic man like Hitler, who promised to tear up the Treaty of Versailles, led to WWII.
Each of my three published novels features the end of the war. Here’s an excerpt from my first novel Unravelled when Edward Jamieson is remembering his experience.
After Valenciennes, Germany was ready to surrender. On November eleventh, unaware of any official communiqué, Edward and his comrades instead became conscious of the absence of gunfire, a quiet filled with birdsong, the rustle of leaves and the creak of an unhinged shutter. Bells began to chime. Wild shouts filled the air as voice after voice swept the news along.
Clustered in front of their homes, in the fields and along the roadside, the French people seemed stunned at first. But soon Edward’s unit heard the sound of drums and the unmistakable rhythm of the Marseillaise. Responding to the call of their homeland, families began singing. Then a procession formed as a man with only one arm held the French flag high in the air, leading whoever would follow into town. Cafes and restaurants filled to capacity, windows and doors opened wide, the smell of food wafted into the streets as though the town itself brimmed with joy.
Gathering in the town square to hear Lieutenant Colonel Gill’s briefing, every soldier dreamed of home. The sun shone brilliantly. Gill’s voice rang out.
“Men, today marks the beginning of the future. You have fought tirelessly to secure freedom for family and friends, for our country and the Commonwealth. It is a momentous victory, which we have achieved together. You have given of yourselves unstintingly and courageously. You have seen your comrades suffer, seen death close at hand and yet, you have endured. It is a testament to your valour and commitment that Canada has contributed so magnificently to the outcome of this war. The war is over. Peace has been won. We have made the world safe for democracy and soon we’ll all go home to our families.”
Edward heard a rustle in the back of the ranks and then the applause and cheers began. On and on it went. Elated warriors filled the square with their shouts and four years of pent-up emotions released like floodgates opening on a narrow gorge.
Gill raised his hand and held it there for some time until the square was quiet again.
“Signals officers will be reviewing the needs of the army during occupation. We will assess each and every soldier and proceed in stages to return you all to Canada as soon as possible.” He stopped to look around the square as though he wanted to make eye contact with every soldier, one by one. “I am proud, so very proud, to have been your commanding officer for the past three years.”
Emotion thickened Gill’s gruff voice. He saluted his troops, holding his arm rigid for much longer than usual, then stepped down from the stage. Only a very few who were close enough saw the tears glimmering in his eyes.
The dead had lived on in Edward’s nightmares. He remembered feeling like an old man, withered and worn, wise in ways he wished he were not, aware of all that sucks humanity from the marrow of men.
The title UNRAVELLED says it all. Reading this again now, I’m filled with feelings of loss and the incredible damage to humanity that war brings about.
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Jeffrey K. Walker is an award-winning author who came to writing historical fiction from a unique background as a bomber navigator, criminal prosecutor, legal historian, and international attorney. He’s written two novels of his Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, depicting the epic events and impact of the First World War. As many of you know, I have a soft spot for those who write about WWI. Over to you, Jeff.
Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker
My second novel just went on sale, so now with Two Books In A Row I might have something mildly interesting to say. With a big dollop of trepidation considering I’m writing this post for the crazy-talented M.K. Tod’s blog [OK, I’m blushing here – MKT], I’d like to share my struggles to find authentic historical voices.
Like M.K., I write in the period of the First World War. This has distinct advantages compared to writing in Saxon England or Ancient Mesopotamia—there’s a lot of material available. On the other hand, the epoch of the Great War is much more familiar to modern readers than remoter stretches of history. Some might even come preloaded with first-hand accounts from grandparents. This adds a free radical to how readers approach a WWI-era book. Suffice it to say, authors who write Tudor or Regency don’t have quite the same problem.
As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude. We’re seeking to lull our readers into a fictive dreamscape set within our chosen period, not pass a blind peer review by a panel of PhDs. Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities.
Admittedly, I’m a little neurotic about dialogue. As a result, I spent time researching well beyond what kit soldier’s carried on the Somme or what daytime shoes a woman would’ve worn in 1922 Harlem. In the end, my obsession with authentic voices led me down some interesting rabbit holes.
My biggest and earliest Aha Moment came with Paul Fussell’s 1975 work, The Great War and Modern Memory. Technically a work of literary criticism, this incredible book opened my eyes to the great tectonic shifts the First World War produced in Western culture from top to bottom. The insidious turning of the forces of science and industrial progress to the mass production of death and destruction resulted in a wholesale rejection of a hundred years’ worth of cozy Victorian consensus about the benign progress of modernity. With this personal epiphany, I went off in search of primary sources to find the voices of those who somehow endured 51 months of carnage and privation.
I started by diving headlong into the War Poets. The highly distilled emotion of these poems—some by men like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen who wouldn’t survive the conflict—established a poignant benchmark for other first-person sources, as well as providing titles for my trilogy and the first book. This propelled me on a free-range survey of other original material.
I was desperate to get the sound, cadence, vocabulary, and idiom of these remarkable men and women into my head. I read all four volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, some Robert Graves, and reread for the umpteenth time Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I bought used copies of war letters, trench diaries, and memoirs. (I caution against relying on memoirs written more than10 years or so after the War. Rose-colored glasses and all that.) One of the more remarkable of these was a recent translation of the notebooks kept by a socialist barrel maker from the Midi, a poilu named Louis Barthas who served from the first day of the War through the Armistice.
I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period. I found one important exception—profanity. Writers self-consciously cleaned things up, even when writing to their diaries. I found one of the more authentic sources for period profanity to be original lyrics of soldiers’ songs. I refer you to the invaluable Punch publication, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, collected by Martin Pegler.
Then there was the problem of dialect. In my first book, I drew main characters from Newfoundland and Ireland, as well as supporting characters from New York, Boston, Scotland and England. Without a lot of forethought, I managed to stumble into some of the densest dialects of English outside the Caribbean islands.
The dialect issue was a two-axis challenge. Not only did I have to reckon with the regionality, but I also had to place the dialect within a specific time period. This meant expending a lot of effort researching the etymologies of idiomatic phrases. As an example, I wanted to say of my main character Deirdre Brannigan, a delightfully opinionated nurse from Dublin, “Sure, she’d snogged a few boys before…” There were two problems with that little phrase. I knew snogged was British idiom, but is it Irish? In particular, is it something a Dubliner would say as opposed to a Corkonian? Yes? Good. Now, when did it enter common usage on either side of the Irish Sea? Shoot, not until the 1950s. So that phrase never made it into the book, although to my 21st-century Yankee ear it sounded rather old-timey.
And there’s a deeper problem with dialect. My Newfoundlanders presented a stark example of the tradeoff between authenticity of voice and accessibility of dialogue. Anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes on Newfoundland or watched the later seasons of Republic of Doyle can attest to the impenetrability of Newfounese. Complicating matters, the historical isolation of the various parts of the island has led to some two dozen sub-dialects within a population of 528,000. Yikes.
It took me a few drafts to figure out how best to skin this dialect cat. Particularly with the Irish and Newfoundlanders—two cultures with strong oral and storytelling traditions—I thought it essential to impart some sense of the sound of their dialects. My early attempts at phonetic punctiliousness yielded something impenetrable to all but linguistic nerds. As is often the case, I ended up with a compromise, trying to impart just a flavor of the rhythms and textures while keeping the dialogue comprehensible to the elusive Average Reader. So my Newfounese is something of a pastiche of old idiom and some unavoidably characteristic phrases. Whadda ya at, b’y.
I went through a lot of effort and angst to capture to the authentic voices I was chasing, but in the end isn’t this sort of challenge why we write historical fiction? I’ll leave it to you to judge if I’ve succeeded.
Many thanks for adding your voice to the discussion of historical fiction, Jeffrey (pun intended). You’ve reminded me of the research I’ve done – although not with the same dialogue challenges. Wishing you great success with your trilogy.
Truly Are the Free by Jeffrey K. Walker – Ned Tobin leaves his Newfoundland comrades to join the American forces in 1917. Chester Dawkins, son of an affluent African-American family, joins a newly formed regiment destined for France. They both confront their long-held assumptions and prejudices when Ned is assigned as a white officer to Chester’s “colored” regiment, the 369th. Meanwhile, sister Lena Dawkins secretly chooses an unsavory path to keep her family’s Harlem home. And Ned’s beloved, the alluring Adèle Chéreaux, carries a secret of her own as she flees the Germans to an uncertain future in Paris. In Truly Are the Free, the second book of the Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy, these intriguing characters from None of Us the Same and some surprising new ones come vividly to life. How do the soldiers of the 369th endure the unspeakable horror? What new relationships lie ahead in Jazz-Age Harlem and avant-garde Paris? Can Ned and Adèle find happiness together?
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April 9, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the battle for Vimy Ridge, a battle where thousands of Canadian soldiers distinguishing themselves by taking this important ridge from the Germans. Each of my three published novels – Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret – features this battle. To commemorate the anniversary, today’s post features an excerpt from Unravelled illustrating the later stages of that remarkable day.
Pushing through a knot of soldiers, Edward was breathing hard as he approached Lieutenant Burke.
“Jamieson. Why aren’t you at your post?” Burke lifted his head from the communications grid-map and shouted to be heard over the machine gun firing to his left.
“Vital communication from HQ, sir.” Unable to find a runner to take the message to Burke, Edward had abandoned his post to take it himself. He would experience serious consequences if Burke disagreed with that decision. “There was no one else to bring this to you.”
Burke scanned the message. “Bloody hell. How’ll we alert them in time?”
“I’ve tried wireless and airlines. Can’t reach them.”
“Someone will have to go on foot.” The Lieutenant gripped his forehead as if that would help him focus. “I’ll find Andrews. He’s back.”
Edward checked his watch. “There isn’t time, sir. You take over my post while I run the message forward.” Burke nodded; after all, a lance corporal was the more dispensable man.
The message announced a delay to Z-hour. The Eighty-Seventh Battalion, along with two other battalions, were to take the highest point of the ridge called Hill 145, which was critical to destroying Germany’s stranglehold in the northeast. By now, the Eighty-Fifth would also be in position and all would be waiting for Z-hour before commencing action. If the battalions advanced at the old Z-hour without artillery cover they would be destroyed by enemy fire. Edward had less than thirty minutes to reach them.
Wasting no time saluting, he put on a red armband, tucked the message in his tunic pocket and immediately headed east, his destination five hundred yards away but more than three times that distance using the trenches. Going above ground would be suicide.
Unlike their own trenches, which he could navigate in his sleep, Edward knew only the general layout of newly won German trenches; information gleaned from training diagrams and captured soldiers. He would have to work his way through fighting trenches, communication trenches and finally the resistance trenches. Once he got there, he could follow the resistance trench to find the Eighty-Seventh.
To avoid snipers, Edward moved in a crouched position as he scrambled over a ledge of fallen sandbags where a recent barrage had weakened the retaining wall and destroyed the fire step. He passed by a Maxim gun still on its sledge mount, an unused roll of ammunition hanging out one end. On his right, several stocks of stick grenades remained intact on a dirt shelf. A dead German soldier lay only a few feet away, his helmet off, the left side of his face missing.
Despite the cold, Edward sweated in his greatcoat. Mud oozed with each step, slowing his pace. His foot slipped. He grabbed at a section of chicken wire attached to the retaining wall to steady himself. A few yards ahead, a pool of water lay in front of a tunnel entrance. While slogging through the water, an explosion ripped the sky, spraying earth and shrapnel. Large clods of dirt struck his helmet.
Just inside the tunnel the ground wobbled beneath his feet. Struggling to keep his balance, he realized he was standing on two dead soldiers. He shuddered but kept going, barely able to see in the tunnel’s gloom. Panting, he slowed his pace to avoid falling; not one second could be wasted. Outside, the bursting curtain of steel continued its deadly assault.
He emerged from the tunnel and hurried along an empty trench as snow swirled in a sudden flurry, biting his face and limiting his sight. A low-flying aircraft swooped overhead looking for flag wavers reporting on objectives achieved. Edward heard the blaring of its klaxon. His legs pounded up and down, pleading for rest.
He lifted his eyes from the footpath, searching for a communication trench to take him forward. There it was. He could see the junction ahead. He turned left to follow its zigzag pattern. After a few minutes he found another fighting trench, then fifty feet later a second communication trench. Glancing up, he cursed, ducking quickly to avoid a roll of barbed wire. The second communication trench would be longer than the first as it bridged the gap between fighting trenches and resistance trenches. In the distance he heard the sound of howitzers launching another offensive.
Scrambling over piles of rubble and fallen support beams, Edward thought he could see another T-junction ahead. If that were the case, he would be at the first resistance trench. When he reached the junction, he cursed again and stopped, his path completely blocked. He retraced his steps to a scaling ladder and climbed out of the trench to proceed above ground beyond the blockage. The sudden buzz of a whizbang warned him of danger and he threw himself to the ground as a shell exploded no more than twenty feet away. He got to his feet and ran forward a short distance before jumping back into the communication trench beyond the blocked area. The sharp tang of cordite hung in the air.
Stark flashes of red lit the clouds as he rounded another corner and saw stretcher-bearers coming towards him followed by a stumbling line of German prisoners, one of them dressed in pyjamas. On the stretcher lay a grey-faced soldier bleeding from wounds in the arm and leg. Edward squeezed past the smells of blood and fear.
A few steps later he entered the first of three resistance trenches. He had to reach the third, most forward trench. Edward looked at his watch; unless he went above ground, he wouldn’t make it. Around the next bend he found another ladder, slung his rifle off his shoulder and scrambled out.
As he emerged from the trench, sunshine broke the gloom, flaming against a distant spire. Wreckage surrounded him: barbed wire, torn sandbags, abandoned artillery, stinking shell holes. Wounded men littered the field, begging for help. Dusk would soon close in; he stopped for no one.
Machine-gun fire crackled on his far right as German gunners emerged from a dugout desperate to inflict pain and damage on those who would soon force them out. Edward dodged to the left. He was almost there. Keeping low to the ground, he hurried on with only one purpose—reaching the Eighty-Seventh.
When the sniper’s bullet hit him, all thought of the message tucked in his pocket disappeared. He crumpled to the ground like a rag doll.
I read this scene and others posted this past week and feel once more the sorrow and anger that hit me when first researching WWI. How did they do it? How did my grandfather live through four years of hell? We’re too far removed to fully appreciate the sacrifice made by those who fought in both world wars, but I hope these scenes and my novels offer at least a little understanding.