Goodbye to Old Hat

I’m finally up to writing about the war, which lies at the heart of my novel. But how does one go about writing something believable set during the war without lapsing into cliche? As for every stage of the writing process so far, I’ve researched my subject as thoroughly as possible.

It helps that I’m not trying to write an ‘everyman’, but capture a particular experience based on the service career of a historical person, and I’m fortunate to be able to draw on his letters home as a record of the trenches at this stage in the war. My main character, the narrator of one strand of the novel, is a reservist before 1914 and so arrives in Flanders on the eve of the Battle of 1st Ypres. A Lieutenant in a fictional regiment, the Royal Scottish Borderers, he is caught up in the Battle of Messines Ridge (29th Oct-0 2 Nov) and survives a nightmarish fortnight in trenches before being invalided home with trench foot.

I have to admit that I knew nothing about this battle, or the early stages of the war, until I began my research. I knew about the Somme of course, and 3rd Ypres, but not this first battle, which was absolutely fundamental in halting the Prussian advance towards Paris and established the trench network that would comprise Western Front as it remained until Summer 1918. I’ve found a number of books helpful, including Alan Palmer’s The Salient: Ypres 1914-18, A Storm in Flanders by Winston Groom and Ian F.W. Beckett’s Ypres: The First Battle 1914, which contains an incredibly detailed account of the campaign which begins with the evocative quote ‘We were only clinging to the ground by our eyelids’.

1914 trench

Sergeant Christopher Pilkington, 2nd Scots Guards BEF. Excavation of a trench in France, November 1914.

These are not yet the trenches familiar from novels and television. There are no fortifications, no duckboards or  infrastructure. They are basic defensive ditches, often flooded with a foot of water, prone to collapse if a shell hits nearby. No Man’s Land does not yet exist. The fields are still green and the woods wooded. Livestock wander loose, sometimes falling into trenches. There are few communication and support trenches so hot food and even tea or coffee are hard to prepare. There are no latrines. Men who are ‘caught short’ urinate or defecate into old food tins and lob them over the parapet. There are no dug-outs; even officers sleep, if at all, on waterproof sheets in the open air.

In writing fiction set during the first world war, I find it easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material written both by contemporary writers and subsequent historical fictions. I’ve been trawling my way through both. I’ve just read Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End tetrology (though I must confess that like, Tom Stoppard recent BBC production, I ignored the last book). I found No More Parades and A Man could stand up… most useful for immersion in the idiom of the day (turns of phrase such as  ‘getting in on’  someone, and my favorite line from McKecknie “why isn’t one a beastly girl and privileged to shriek”) as well as little details about trench life, such as the use of bully beef cases as furniture. Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand was also illuminating for its entertaining sketches about everyday life in a Company, though the book deals with ‘Kitchener’ volunteers and not professional soldiers as fought in the BEF in 1914. I also need to read Journey’s End and reread Memoirs of an Infantry Officer  and Goodbye to All That. Oh, and poetry. The endless poetry.

One of the challenges I need to reflect on is that my narrator is ostensibly reflecting on his war experiences from the vantage point of the late 1920s. This means that he is aware of other  memoirs about the war which were starting to appear at that time. I’ve found Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory useful for thinking about the conventions of Great War memoirs.

I still have a long, long way to go.



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