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I hope that this blog will become a place to look after my writing ideas and that, over time, I can use it to archive all my favourite creative sites on the web. Maybe others will enjoy it too.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

On war

A girl plays with a doll in Rhiems, 1917

All the photos in this post are contemporary. None have been colourised. They were taken in colour between 1915 and 1917.

So it turns out that my NaNo effort is mainly focussed on the war that I created for William to grow up in. When I originally concieved of it I had intended that war to play a relatively minor role in the plot. It was there, as in Hitler: the Rise of Evil to provide a backdrop to some minor characterisation and to provide a defeat for the country that William hails from. More to the point, I'm not a fan of novels about war.

No, wait, scratch that.

German soldiers in the ruins of a village in the Somme, 1916
Novels about war inevitably do one of two things, in general, they either romanticise the war involved (The Last Ace by Henry Ziebel, I'm looking at you; anything by Harold Coyle or Tom Clancy, you are as much at fault) or they harp on too much about the human nature of the soldiers involved to actually get to grips with their stories (the latter books of the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, for example; or anything by Larry Bond). All of them look at men at war. All of them are men.

That said, I have read some other books that do a better job. One Spring in Picardy was such a book, as was The Middle Parts of Fortune. Both of these are First World War novels, the latter was written by someone who served in the First World War and the former by a man whose father served and whose uncles all served too. Basically, they knew their stuff. I get the impression that the other authors don't.

What makes me rant so? Simply put - I am a student of the First World War. It occurs to me that what I know of Hitler's experience in the First World War does not gel well with representations that I have seen on screen. Equally, the experiences in All Quiet on the Western Front and the various adaptations do not always fit with what I know from other sources. I remember reading Tony Ashworth's book on trench culture and the letters in books like War of Words and Somme and being completely bowled over by what people said at the time. Lyn MacDonald's excellent series of interviews, though heavily tainted by her own views and the established ideas of AJP Taylor, were magnificent for me as they contextualised a war primarily from the view of those that fought in it.
German soldiers in a well-revetted trench, 1915
As a consequence I have rejected both the poets' views and those of the historians who seek to generalise it or to find in it some exposition of human frailty and the futility of the war. I view the First World War as an aberration, but it was not futile. It cannot be futile. To say so would be to dismiss all those who took part and ignore the effects of what they did. Indeed, when I read All Quiet on the Home Front I discovered yet another angle on the stories from the time.

Rations in a French communication trench, 1917

All of this has clearly been brewing for much longer than I thought. Which was why, when the time came, I ended up writing over 40k words on the First World War analogue in my story. Because the record needed to be set straight. Because such a conflict deserved more than to be a vehicle for the rise of one character. Because wars are what they are and they need their own space to be fully appreciated for what they are. I did not want my novel to become a war novel. I have no direct experience of any such thing, nor can I piggy-back on anyone I know who does have experience. But, oddly, I could draw on my own experiences to write it.

This is strange, and I suppose connected to 'writing what you know', because I know nothing of war, but I am an outsider. I know little of relationships (my own experiences are quite limited) but much of awkwardness. I know nothing of fearing for one's life but much of adapting fear to fit the circumstances one finds oneself in.  I hope, therefore, that I am less of a Clancy and more of a MacDonald or even a Faulks (though his Birdsong was more a piece of erotica disguised as a novel about tunnelling in the First World War).

Which is why, when the time comes, my novel must be published under a female name. I want the novel to bring the war to life in the same way as these colour images do and to do so in a way that surprises people. So, no, I shan't be publishing under a male name to get readers. My concept is served best by publishing as a female.


  1. My father served in WWI, Arizona Wagoner 133 Inf 34 Div, basically a teamster somewhere in France. Since he died when I was young I never had a chance to ask him about he experience. The only thing my Mother could say about it was he did get hit by mustard gas at one point. He was 20 and had gone to Arizona from Colorado, where the family ranch was located, to work one summer and got drafted. I have always wondered what that time was like for him. He came back and started ranching on the family homestead and passed away in 1948.
    I am going to read the two novels you mentioned and maybe I can get a better idea. Thanks

    1. Respect.

      I only know of the one US offensive, at St Mihiel(sp) in 1918. The US troops were kept under a separate command (General Pershing?) and they refused to come under the, by that time quite sophisticated, Allied High Command. Mainly because they thought the Europeans had made enough of a mess already.

      I only know the strategic things about them. That they had a square battalion structure, ditched by the Allies through 1916 and 1917, and that they used tactics similar to what the British used in the Somme in 1916 but learned quickly that they'd have to switch tactics.

      If the war had continued into 1919 we would have seen a very different US force take a much greater role on the Western Front.

      I can recommend anything by Lyn MacDonald to get a handle on soldiers' experiences, I think there's some US testimony in her book on 1918, but it's the one I haven't read yet. Also, I think "The Unknown Soldier" has some US experience in it, as does "War of Words" and "Last Post" (Latter by Max Hastings).

      I think, like you say, the US experience was very different to the European one. Especially as a teamster.

      Good luck!