A Passion for WWI
At the age of seventy-five, my grandmother died on the way to her second wedding.
I often thought this would make an amazing ending for a story and in 2005, living in Hong Kong as an expat with lots of time on my hands, I decided to try to fictionalize her story. She was a wonderful woman, dearly loved by many, and her life had the usual ups and downs of marriage and children. But a novel requires drama, a plot with twists and turns, characters going through change, and conflict. Clearly I would have to embellish.
My first step was research. To create a story about a woman like my grandmother, I would have to understand WWI, the Depression and WWII. Not being a student of history, I felt the need to begin at the beginning. What caused WWI? Who were the players? What did soldiers experience? What happened on the home front?
Happily, the Internet offered lots of information on military and political events as well as maps and photos and stories of individual experiences of war. I found soldiers’ diaries lovingly transcribed by relatives or perfect strangers intent on preserving and honoring long ago sacrifice. I found regiments maintaining information about those who had fought in WWI, the weapons used and uniforms worn, the rations eaten and songs sung. A world of chaos and bungling and death emerged and I was utterly captivated.
“But what about the story?” you ask.
My mother provided raw ingredients by telling me that my grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge in April of 1917 and went on to be part of the Army of Occupation in Germany after WWI ended. She spoke of my great-grandparents and what she knew of my grandparents’ wedding, a few memories of the Depression and more substantial memories of living through WWII. On a visit home one summer, she gave me a box of old photos and newspaper clippings and told me that my older brother had my grandfather’s scrapbooks. Gradually the plot emerged.
Edward Jamieson brought nightmares back from WWI and left a French lover behind. With a wife named Ann, two young children, and a successful career, the novel opens when Edward receives an invitation to attend the Vimy war memorial dedication in France on July 26, 1936. Like a nest of snakes, his memories stir, prompting consequences neither Edward nor Ann could have imagined. The novel spans the years from 1936 to 1944; its tagline is Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage.
After completing Unravelled, and while waiting for replies from literary agents, I wrote Lies Told in Silence, the story of Edward’s WWI lover told from her point of view. The novels intersect but are not sequels.
Many of us know (or have known) someone who fought in one of the world wars – a grandfather, father, uncle, cousin, possibly even a husband – and we may also know someone who stayed behind, enduring fear, uncertainty and the pain of loss. Reams of material are available about these two devastating wars – weaponry used, trench construction techniques, how long it takes to die in a gas attack, the use of pigeons to carry messages, tools of espionage, battle strategies, casualty statistics, the sounds of bombing, speeches by leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill, radio broadcasts, rationing and regulations on the home front.
As I read I reeled at the thought that my grandfather, who was nineteen when he enlisted for WWI, would have experienced these conditions. Every story became personal as I imagined what might have happened to him. He walked the duckboards where a misplaced step could lead to drowning, climbed the parapets risking sniper fire, slept in filth while rats scoured for food around him, shot at other men to avoid his own death . . . he survived Vimy Ridge. My tall, reserved, good-looking grandfather – who never, ever spoke of the war – did these things. They all did.
Many thanks to Margaret at Just One More Chapter for the opportunity to tell you about my unexpected passion for WWI.
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