29 October 2018

Remembrance is a book I wanted to write before I knew that I wanted to write it. I was first introduced to the poetry and literature of the first World War around the same age as the thousands of young men who died, and this had a profound effect upon me. 

The prompt to begin the book was, when during the televised Remembrance Day Service in the closing years of the 20th Century, I watched interviews of those who had taken part. Set against the enormity of the conflict their very personal testimonies had a poignancy and power that moved me to start my research. What struck me forcibly was how much this war was different from any other previous war - for some there was glory, for others, terrible doubt.

Most combatants had no military background - ordinary people, many of them very young, were asked to undertake the extraordinary. It was a war fought at a time of huge development in heavy armaments - shells could be fired from miles away with devastating effects on the human body. And it was a war which involved women in crucial and demanding roles. 

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Therefore, I resolved to write from more than one viewpoint. And I wanted the book to be about youth, centring the story in their experiences, both physical and emotional. With that in mind I created a village and focused on two families containing five main characters ranging from young teenager to young adults: two women, two men, and a boy. Then I set out, mentally and actually, to walk in their footsteps from 1915 to 1918 through Britain, France and Belgium.

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For some there was glory, for others, terrible doubt.

I was privileged to be allowed access to some correspondence from a young soldier stationed on the Somme where he describes daily life on the Western Front, mentioning the lice, rats, and primitive toilet conditions. Much of it was unordered single sheets or scraps paper. To my great excitement, I discovered a letter where he said he’d underline or double underline the words: ‘On Active Service’, on the outside of the envelope, and went on to explain what this would mean. I realised he’d been ‘coding’ his mail to avoid the censor. Frantically I searched the bundle I’d been given and found two envelopes where he’d actually done this! From that moment on I felt close to him and an increasing responsibility to bear true witness to his life, for he was one of the young men who did not come home. His writing displays his pervading sense of duty and shows his loving feelings for his family. He ends what was to be his last letter to his mother with the words:

‘goodnight my Dear Mother…
Ever Yours Devoted’

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In addition to revealing the backdrop of history, research often unearths facts which set off a series of events within a story. The many advertisements for domestic servants indicated the number of girls who left these positions to join factory and munitions work. This contributed to significant change in society and fashion – and, combined with her reading an article that the army was short of ammunition, gives one of my female characters the opportunity to escape the confines of domesticity. It leads to a humorous scene where she relates the ‘Battle of the Lavatory’ when it was proposed (again a fact gleaned from research) that female munitions workers should be timed when using the lavatory! This is an example of how research provokes book content, contributing to the storyline and character development.

It was enlightening to compare contemporary reports of engagements to those of eye-witness accounts. In summer 1916, after the infamous Battle of the Somme, a jingoistic magazine declared ‘we are advancing… losses seem to count for nothing.’ However, I own an officer’s diary for that year and his entry for July 1st, after the first day of the Battle, still makes me weep:

‘We set a brigade in motion at 7.10.a.m. … Our brigade, on emerging from the wood, ran into heavy MG fire, and were mowed down in ranks, losing about 1,000 officers and men in a very short time…
This battle has not gone well with us.’

In Remembrance the characters reflect the many complex aspects of the Great War: John Malcolm, firmly believing he is doing his duty is prepared to sacrifice his life; his brother, Alex, although underage, also manages to enlist; Francis, a pacifist, feels his spirit is being corrupted by contact with militarism; and the young women, Charlotte and Maggie, volunteer as nurses and find a self-fulfilment they never would have achieved if the War had not occurred. 

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It was an incredibly rewarding moment for me when I received a hand-written letter from George Sassoon, son of the poet, Siegfried, granting me permission to quote some of his father’s verse in the book.

I am glad to have written Remembrance and, in the year of the Centenary of the Armistice of World War One, thrilled to see the publication of this special co-edition with the Imperial War Museums. 

 

All photos copyright Theresa Breslin. 

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