Category Archives: Historical research

Back to the war

I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to immerse myself back in the First World War, getting ready to present my novel at the ‘pitch it to a literary agent’ event I’m attending next weekend. I’ve been reading (Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918 and Undertones of War, the poet Edmund Blunden’s war memoir), watching tv (like the excellent Wipers Times) and chatting to re-enactors. As we’re in the thick of remembrance season, it’s been a good time to be doing this, with plenty of documentaries on tv.

Preserved First World War trenches at Gallipoli, Turkey, Sept 2012

Preserved First World War trenches at Gallipoli, Turkey, Sept 2012

I’ve also been re-reading my WW1 novel and trying to get to the core of what it’s about. I’ve been mulling over my 60-second pitch (relatively straightforward) and trying to rewrite the first page of the first chapter – the bit the agents will read (very much not-straightforward).

I’ve worked on about four different versions – different people, different places and I’m still not happy with anything I’ve got. I’ve got an idea for something new to try tomorrow, but I’m fast running out of time.

Australian National War Memorial, Canberra, March 2011

Australian National War Memorial, Canberra, March 2011

Fieldtrips and re-enactors

Three years ago I bumped into a moderately well-known WW1 historian one afternoon in the car park at work. I mentioned that I was planning a trip to the Somme that summer and he recommended we come along to Beaumont Hammel just before 6am on 1st July where he and some historical re-enactors would be commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme.

It sounded like a good idea. A few months later, I duly dragged my friends out of their tent in the orchard of a Chateau before dawn and we drove across the quiet French countryside to the small village of Beaumont Hammel. There my map reading skills failed utterly and I was unable to find the road we needed that led to Sunken Lane where everyone was gathering. Some time after 6am, when the battle would have been well underway, we stumbled upon an almost deserted First World War English army camp.

The only person left in camp was the cook. We had an interesting chat. I asked to feel the weight of his Lee Enfield rifle. He said he ought to check it wasn’t loaded first. Okaayyy…. The rifle was mostly made of a lump of wood and was heavy.

Having got directions, we finally made our way down the road to Sunken Lane. The wheat was tall and green, dotted with poppies. It was hot and getting hotter. A platoon of British soldiers marched past, followed shortly thereafter by a solitary German soldier on a creaking bicycle.

P1100767

The experience made me think I ought to spend some time talking to historical re-enactors to get those little details right. I recently started doing some research and, as luck would have it, I found out that the Great War Society were appearing at the Tower of London this past weekend. This would give me a double whammy of First World War and medieval architecture.

I hustled over early on Saturday morning and first met up with this very helpful woman dressed as a VAD ambulance driver, the same profession as the main female character in my novel.

Re-enactor dressed as member of the  Voluntary Aid Detachement, WW1

Re-enactor dressed as member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, WW1

The men were also out, doing manly things.

Kit inspection

Kit inspection

Kit and bell tents

Kit and bell tents

I also spent some time wandering around the Tower itself. It hasn’t changed much since the last time I was here about 10 years ago. I guess that’s what happens when you’re getting on for 1,000 years old. Change happens s l o  w   l   y. . .    .     .        .

Beautiful medieval architecture at the Tower of London, the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex is in the centre

Beautiful medieval architecture at the Tower of London, the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex is in the centre

Medieval writing desk

Medieval writing desk

Armour

Armour

Beside the seaside – part 3

This is the final post in this short series (part one, part two.)

These postcards date from 1967 – 1987. We’re firmly in the era of bright, saturated colours. Holiday destinations of choice are firnly located in the West Country.

Brixham, Devon, posted 1967

Brixham, Devon, posted 1967

Mousehole, posted 1970

Mousehole, posted 1970

This postcard from Mousehole is an interesting contrast to the more brooding, grainy image in part 2 – here. This card above was actually posted earlier in date, but it has a later feel to me.

North Devon, posted c.1976

North Devon, posted c.1976

This and the next postcard are the places I spent my holidays when I was growing up. It looked exactly like that.

Start Bay, posted 1987

Start Bay, posted 1987

My parents now live not far from Start Bay and below is a photo I took the last time I visited in  May.  It was taken from almost exactly the same position as the bottom left-hand image on the postcard above.

Start Point, May 2013

Start Point, May 2013

As it was a bit of an uninspiring, grey day, here’s the same image after a bit of 1980’s-style Photoshop jiggery pokery 🙂

Start Point, edited image

Beside the seaside – part 2

The first part of this series can be found here.

Not actually so many seaside images in this batch. I’ve ordered these by how old I think the postcard images are, rather than when the card was posted.

Llanberis Pass, posted 1965

Llanberis Pass, posted 1965

“We have just arrived weather was very good all the way, had a nice chicken dinner and waiting for another meal now.”

Food and weather – ticks all the postcard boxes. This is an ‘artistically’ hand-coloured b/w image”

The Sussex Downs, posted 1971-3

The Sussex Downs, posted 1971-3

I particularly like this pastoral image of shire horses ploughing the Sussex Downs. There’s something very pleasing about the composition and subtle colours, even if the sender wasn’t quite so happy…

“Temperature soaring up to 30F, lying on the beach in 4 sweaters, 2 overcoats and wellington boots. Car broke down, food lousy. Having a wonderful time, see you soon.”

North Wales, posted 1964

North Wales, posted 1964

Another nice image from North Wales, showing Snowdon. A picturesque view and I like the subdued colours.

Southsea rock gardens

Southsea rock gardens

I remember playing at Southsea rock gardens as a child. There’s something about this image that makes me cringe – perhaps the era, the twee manufactured-ness of the gardens, the women sitting around – doing what?. I’ve never liked overly developed coastal towns. My idea of hell is somewhere like Brighton, with tall, brooding Victorian hotels butting up against a bland, stoney shore.

Mousehole, posted 1977

Mousehole, posted 1977

This image is much more my sort of thing – a quaint Cornish fishing village. I make my first appearance on this postcard, sent by my mother to her parents. I was a 2 and a half years old at the time.

“We are having a lovely holiday doing nothing much except bowing to Jenny’s every whim. As the weather has been fairly good we have been going down to the beach a lot, which Jenny loves.”

There are also some scribbly pencil lines on the back of the card – presumably my addition.

The Flip Flap

The Flip Flap sounds like something I might do when procrastinating over my nanowrimo novel (er…kind of like now then….)

Last week I was doing some research into the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition which has a prominent role in my nanowrimo novel. This large exhibition on a purpose-built 140 acre site in Shepherds Bush, ran for six months and saw 8 million visitors. It also hosted the 1908 Olympic Games, a relatively minor sporting event back in those days and far less famous than the ‘Franco’.

The star attraction at the exhibition was the Flip Flap, a steel structure with two viewing platforms that rose 200 feet into the air. The Flip Flap seemed somehow familiar to me, then I remembered I’d seen it on a postcard I own.

The Flip Flap at the Franco-British Exhibition (and Olympics Games), 1908

The postcard was written by my great grandmother’s stepbrother, Alexander in August 1909. The postcard shows the view from one of the Flip Flap’s platforms. In the background you can see the Olympic stadium with an event or parade taking place.  Alec would have been 15 when he wrote this postcard, presumably picked up on a visit to the exhibition. Did Alec ride on the Flip Flap? It looks rather terrifying to me, but then I’m used to rather higher standards of health and safety!

The card was actually posted from Dieppe in France, whilst Alec was visiting his aunt. Both Alec and my great grandmother’s parents were born in Europe – the family was an inter-cultural pot-pourri of French, Belgian and Polish-German. Alex wrote the postcard in French and all the family were bilingual.

Alec’s father and my great grandmother’s mother had married each other because they had both been widowed and, as my great grandmother put it, one needed a wife and the other a husband. It seems to have been a successful marriage and they had two more children together, bringing the combined family to ten.

Five years later, when Britain went to war with Germany, the nineteen-year-old Alec and his two brothers signed up to fight. Alec served briefly with the French Foreign Legion, before joining the Middlesex Regiment. He served in Ireland and the Mediterranean but it was in France on 26 August, less than three months before end of war, that he was killed.

Alec – on the left. I believe the three chevrons on his right sleeve are overseas service chevrons. You earned one for each year served overseas. They only came into use in June/July 1918, so this photo must have been taken within 2 months of Alec’s death.

Eleven other men from the battalion died on the same day as Alec. The battalion was being relieved and heading back for several days rest behind the lines. The regimental history records that they were under heavy barrage and it may have been these shells that killed Alec. He was 24 years old.

My great grandmother kept her stepbrother’s postcards along with many others she received and it was only after her death, 15 years ago at the age of 99, that I started to look through them and piece together these forgotten stories.