Posts from ‘WWI Fiction’
Sap – the extension of a trench to a point between an enemy’s fortifications
Sapper – a military specialist in field fortification work
“One of the most notable episodes [of sapping] was at the Battle of Messines in 1917 where 455 tons of explosive placed in 21 tunnels that had taken more than a year to prepare created a huge explosion that killed an estimated 10,000 Germans.” Source BBC News
Miners were very valuable to WWI effort. If you’ve read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks you will know the intimate details of how sappers lived and worked. Brutal.
Of course, one ever present concern was being blown up by enemy sappers doing exactly the same work. They heard one another tap, tap tapping away and even heard the sound of voices.
Agar Adamson includes in letters to his wife, Mabel, a document titled ACTION TO BE TAKEN IF MINING NOISES ARE HEARD attributed to 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade and dated 2nd January 1916. Armies are notorious for having detailed instructions and regulations concerning every aspect of military life. One section of that document caught my eye – Noises alleged to be German Mining on this Corps Front have been actually tracked to:
- sentries stamping their feet
- rats working on a parapet
- a loose beam or branch tapping when blowing by the wind
- running water
- beat of a man’s own heart
- a half dead fly buzzing at the bottom of a hole. N.B. this was mistaken for a machine drill
- actual mining, sometimes our own
Clearly, sapping was a nerve-wracking business.
No, this is not a post about Christmas 1914 when German and British soldiers made nice across the barbed wire. Instead, I have pulled together a few bits from Agar Adamson’s letters to his wife describing Christmas 1915 preparations and events.
December 21, 1915
Agar writes to Mabel from La Clytte eight kilometres west of Ypres that he received a plum cake from a Manchester cake shop sent with the compliments of the Toronto Board of Trade and that Princess Patricia (Agar serves with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) has sent a telegram of good cheer while someone else has sent sweets and crackers. Nonetheless, they are badly off for food and Agar plans to get a few small barrels of beer from the brewery in Dickebusch.
December 23, 1915
“As I have a room, I have asked Gray, Cornish, Stewart, Mackenzie, Stanley Martin and my two subalterns to dinner on Xmas day and to bring with them their own knives, forks, spoons, plates and cups and food. We dine at 6 as the three old people turn in at 8.”
Xmas Day 1915
“Canadian Comforts [note: a relief organization for soldiers in the field] sent each man, from the ladies in Canada, a job lot of parcels. They were not all the same, so we divided them up among the platoons. (1) a magazine and 10 cigarettes, (2) a pair of socks, 1 of chewing gum. 1 package cards, 1 package soup, (3) a package of chewing gum and a handkerchief, (4) a pack of cards, cigarettes, soup, (5) 4 ozs tobacco, 50 cigarettes, (6) a pipe, soup, 1 handkerchief, (7) a cardboard wallet with envelopes, and paper for each man, (8) handkerchiefs and pack of cards, (9) 80 half-pound boxes of chocolates.”
Midnight Xmas Day
“I gave up my rooms at Noon to the Servants for lunch, 4 bottles of red wine, 3 chickens and any grub they could find in our box. In the evening I gave the room to my Sergeants … gave them 4 chickens and 6 bottles of sweet champagne and some cigarettes. Stewart managed to borrow a car on the 24th and went to General Headquarters and brought back 4 chickens and two ducks with sardines, soup, your plum pudding, some cheese, we fed 17 officers… the artillery was quiet on both sides all day.”
At least they didn’t spend Christmas in the trenches that year.
WWI was brutal, disgusting, soul numbing and terrifying. In between battles, the war was a mixture of grinding work and boredom in conditions so horrible we can hardly bear to imagine them now. Men who succumbed to mental distress – labelled ‘shell shock’ in 1915 because it was thought to be caused by the shock of exploding shells – were variously considered slackers, frauds and wimps while the medical profession had little understanding of conditions now referred to as post traumatic stress and even less empathy. Officers condemned some men to the firing squad and sent others home in disgrace.
Researching for stories set in WWI, I discovered a few articles on the topic such as Shell Shock during World War One and another written in 1917 by Grafton Elliot Smith who was at that time Dean of the Manchester Faculty of Medicine. The 1917 paper is interesting because it deals seriously and scientifically with the nature and treatment of shell shock and urges changes to the medical profession in order to train doctors to deal with something that is just as much a disease as smallpox.
According to Smithsonian.com, at the end of the war the British Ministry of Pensions “had been left with the care of 63,296 neurological cases; ominously, this number would rise, not fall, as the years passed, and by 1929—more than a decade after the conclusion of the war—there were 74,867 such cases, and the ministry was still paying for such rehabilitative pursuits as basket making and boot repairing. An estimated 10 percent of the 1,663,435 military wounded of the war would be attributed to shell shock”.
Siegfried Sassoon, poet and author, suffered shell shock and spent months recovering. He wrote a poem called Survivors that is more compelling than anything else I’ve found.
No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Some time ago, I found an interesting book, called Women’s War Work, written by Jennie Churchill, also known as Lady Randolph Churchill and the mother of Winston Churchill. In the introduction, C. Kay Larson says that Jennie Churchill was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and believed that “the war would advance the position of women in society, not only by aiding the suffrage movement, but also by making many women unwilling to return to ‘a sense of uselessness’, and ‘pleasure-loving’ lives”.
Betty Friedan would be more than impressed.
On November 9th, I wrote about women acting in various combat and espionage capacities. Clearly many women were heroes, demonstrating the same willingness as men to take a role in war. But I think the women of France or Britain who lived with the challenges of war, particularly near the front, are heroes too. And many of them worked to support the war effort while at the same time raising children and looking after household matters. They constructed airplanes, were subway workers, taxi drivers, train conductors, munitions workers, farmers, provided relief services, managed shops and on and on.
Have a look at these photos showing women in various pursuits in Britain. Or take a read of How War Seems to a Woman written by Mrs. Arthur Gleason (clearly not emancipated enough to use her own Christian name) who was a volunteer ambulance driver. Or read between the lines of Agar Adamson’s WWI letters for information about the relief work his wife took on in Belgium while he commanded troops in Northern France.
And, all of these roles were taken on amidst the uncertainty of whether those they loved, or indeed they themselves, would survive. Lots to inspire my historical fiction efforts.
A friend loaned me a WWI diary she acquired once from a sale of memorabilia. On an earlier post I provided brief snippets from his day to day entries. Yesterday, when tidying my desk after a flurry of manuscript revisions, the diary beckoned and leafing through several pages I was struck by the entries of Mackenzie’s first day in the trenches.
Stayed here all Sat and are now all ready for the road again. Frid. afternoon General Alderson came and addressed us. He is our division commander and he told us that we would be sent right into the trenches Sat. night but there has been a change in plans and we now expect to get there tonight. We have heard the cannon firing heavily for the last 4 days and on Frid. afternoon we could see exploding shrapnel shells which were evidently being fired at an aeroplane but we could not tell which was German – the aeroplane or the shells. They say, though, that the smoke from German shells is white and from the British black, so if that is the case it must have been the Germans shooting.
Monday Morning, Sept 20th
We are now in Belgium about 3 miles from the firing line and are pretty sure to go into the trenches tonight. We are about 6 miles to the east of Ypres and the reports from the 28th Div, whose place we are taking, say that the conditions are fine and that we are likely to have a very easy time. Heard my first big shell go overhead yesterday evening. John and I broke bounds and went out after dark to a big hill about 2 miles away from where the German trenches can be seen. On our way we heard a sort of long drawn whine above us and then two explosions a few hundred yes north of our camp. We learned that it was two German shells fired at the night position of a big observation balloon which we had seen close to our camp. Haven’t heard yet if it was hit.
The weather has been beautiful and even now within the sound of the guns it is hard to realize that there is a war going on. This morning the sky is perfectly blue and cloudless and every little while a French or British aeroplane goes over the German lines and we see the puffs of white smoke from the shrapnel shells bursting sometimes quite near them. But they say that very seldom does anyone get hit. They also say that the French and B. are so superior to the Germans that instead of shooting when a German appears they go up and chase him off so the G. aeroplanes hardly ever get over our trenches.
The country around here is quite like rural Ontario except for the houses and people. The roads are not as good as those in England. Where they are not just earth they are paved with cobblestones which are rough and hard to walk on. The same is true of what we saw of French roads.
Tues Sept 21
Well, we are at last in the trenches. Came in last night about 8:30 and had a little excitement on the way. Our sec. was halted on the road behind the trenches to let the rest of the Batt’n get on ahead. The Germs. sent up a couple of flares and at the same time two or three bullets sang past us. They were only strays but we didn’t know that and when Kilmer said down it was astonishing how we disappeared over the side of the road. No more came our way just then but a little farther on when we were crossing some open fields on the double a few more strays went over with a whine. No one was hit but a horse on the water cart was killed so there really was some chance of someone stopping a bullet.
The night was quiet, each side merely sending a shot over now and then to let the enemy know they were not all asleep. While I was on watch what they call a ‘dirt’ fight took place – that is – one side gets up & fires like the devil for a few minutes and then ducks down and the other side then replies in like manner. About the only result is that a lot of dirt is knocked off the parapet on to the soldiers and that is what gives the fight its name. The gun I am on – no 2 – is at a pt. about 150 yes from the enemy but no. 3 is where the trenches come to within 40 yes of each other. They say things are likely to be warm there at times with bombs and hand grenades popping over pretty fast, but nothing happened there last night.
One man in A comp. got a scratch on the head when he stuck it up this morn. to have a look around. Can’t say that I am curious enough to risk putting my head up in daylight but I had a few looks last night by moonlight, which, by the way, was beautifully brilliant. Could only see a long mound of earth, and though the Germans were shooting quite a lot, I did not see any flashes from their rifles.
While on holiday I read Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley – you might remember the rant I wrote about selecting books from Amazon and finding only one I enjoyed. It’s a lovely tale mixing present day and past (1664) with a twist: the protagonist feels she’s been in that past world and writes accurate details even before she’s found the research to back them up.
I’ve read a lot of books where the author incorporates a writer as a main character into the story – almost a compulsion to write about what they do for a living. But perhaps that’s for another blog post. A particular passage caught my eye:
“Writing got like that for me, sometimes. It could be all-consuming. When I got deep in a story I forgot the need for food, for sleep, for everything. The world that I’d created seemed more real, then, than the world outside my window, and I wanted nothing more than to escape to my computer, to be lost within that other place and time.”
And that’s what happens when I write about WWI and WWII. I become obsessed with not only the writing but knowing as much as I can about the time. I read books, watch movies, listen to music, look for pictures, whatever I can find to help me be in the space.