If you told me in 2016 when I was starting my first split narrative, that I’d be up to my eyeballs in WWI for part of 2017, all of 2018 and long into 2019 I’d have rolled my eyes.
Growing up, it wasn’t much on my radar screen. Instead overshadowed by the gilded lore of the second. And who can argue with the morality tale of WWII? (Wait. Don’t answer that. Obviously someone would. This is the internet after all…)
Looking back, my closest tie to the First World War was that my grandmother as a toddler contracted the spanish flu and survived, at the cost of her vision. It was something I always knew, but never really thought much about.
I assiduously avoided the war in grad school because unlike a lot of people drawn to war narratives I didn’t care about battles. I studied history for the people–for how war changed the social fabric. I focused on reconstruction. Staunchly positioned in the late 19th century, I refused to look forward. Even still today, battles make me glaze over and the only way to make them stick in my head is through memoirs and letters. In essence, capturing the emotional resonance of the individual rather than the grand scheme of things.
So how, then, did I end up spending over 2 years writing and reading about First World War? Well, it’s a long story. (Aren’t they all?) I had the chance to go to Ireland and the UK in summer 2017. And I jumped at it despite my anxieties–and I have LOTS of anxieties. I embarked on an international journey with my husband, and our then 15 month old and a 3 year old boys. Because why not fly international with two small children?
Once we got our bearings and shook off the jet lag, we set out. And every place we stopped there was a reminder of the Great War. Granted, we were visiting smack in the middle of the Centenary. But from the moment we set foot in Dublin, the past was calling out to me. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. After all, I’ve always been a huge history geek so I’m used hearing it. But I was too busy experiencing things for the first time to really listen much.
We touristed. Touristed hard. Armed with google maps and our trusty Royal Oak membership that provided access into a ton of National Trust Properties. And no matter where we went, the war was there constantly tugging at the back of my mind.
We spent hours wandering Cliveden. And there amongst the beautiful grounds, there were reminders of the past. Like this small marker memorializing the war dead.
It seemed that every town we stopped in, every little church, there was something there to remember those who had come before.
It was the thought of the memorials that wouldn’t leave me alone. I was looking at the markers of sons and husbands sent off to war, with my own toddler strapped on to my back, and it was a stark reminder that not so long ago those boys were someone else’s sons. Loved and held and then gone all too soon.
I started wondering about the experiences of the families. Of the men and women who lived at this critical time–of the lives lost, and those left behind. Along with the uncanny parallels to our own time. One of upheaval, where one world ceased to exist and a new one came forth. Sometimes I feel we are now straddling a similar period of change, but only time will tell.
Inside Salisbury Cathedral were all the usual things you’d expect to find. The ancient graves and markers. The stained glass windows. Markers to dead over centuries. And then ones like this with a red poppy tucked into it. It was this sort of image that grabbed me and stuck with me all the way back home.
Added to that emotional pull were the vast technological changes. WWI sat at the crux of modernity and traditional warfare. Hashed out on battlefields where you saw the last of the cavalry officers and the first airplanes. It’s mind-boggling.
So when I got home and sat down to work on what I had intended to write as a rompy-contemporary romance, another story kept nibbling at my mind. So I wrote it. The first entirely historical fiction story I’d ever written. I threw myself into primary and secondary literature. That novel took place just after the armistice, about two people trying to put their lives back together against the backdrop of peace.
But from that novel came another idea. And now a third. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick around in this time period, but I’m determined to find out.
A few books that shaped the way I tell my stories:
First up is Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That . He and Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer both were incredibly influential in shaping my ideas about the war and the personal toll it took.
Another of my absolute favorites was Arthur Gould Lee’s No Parachute. This book was so beautiful and haunting. Lee’s letters to his wife and diary entries gave a connection and insight into his mind that really stuck with me. Probably the most accessible of the three, followed by Graves. He also reflected back on the War from years later which added an extra level of insight. If you haven’t read it and are at all interested in WWI, it’s worth picking up.
Sister: Diary of a War Nurse was also a really fascinating read that I’d picked up early on.
Now for the scholarly stuff:
Emily Mayhew’s Wounded is hands down one of the best histories I’ve read in a long time. By taking the stories from the bottom up, and pulling no emotional punches, she retells the experience of the war wounded and dead from those working directly with them. It is by far the most powerful book I’ve read in a very long time and well worth a read. The way she uses first person accounts makes it broadly accessible.
Also Benjamin Wise’s biography of William Alexander Percy was a big influence. It was fabulous in its exploration of Percy as a man of that time (and his section on Percy’s involvement in WWI was fascinating).