A Wound in our Nation’s Psyche: The Somme

19240 Shrouds of the Somme

19240 Shrouds of the Somme, Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, Devon, 1 July 2016

One hundred years’ ago today, the Battle of the Somme – one of the Great War’s bloodiest battles – ended, having begun on 1 July 1916. On the first day alone almost 20,000 British soldiers died.

To mark its centenary, an art installation memorial, 19240 Shrouds of the Somme, re-imagined the physical reality of the losses on the day the battle began. Laid out in rows on the grass of Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, were 19,240 twelve inch figures in shrouds.  Each figure represented a British soldier killed on the first day of battle. It brought home an idea of the scale of the carnage to our 21st century eyes. It was almost beyond belief.

The men the figures represented gave their lives for King and Country, but the impact went far beyond the battlefield.  Each soldier’s loss was felt by a particular loved one and then by a family unit back home. Then, as the full horror gradually emerged, this sense of loss spread and spread until it sliced a deep wound in our nation’s collective psyche that perhaps will never fully heal.

19240 Shrouds of the Sosmme

Individual figures from the 19240 Shrouds of the Somme.

 

Even a century later, the name The Somme, still stirs a visceral horror in our hearts. It continues to echo down the decades and retains the power to move us.

Photographs by Susan Hughes

 

WWI Centenary. Lest we forget.

 

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Skeletons in Cupboards

photo of Wendy Percival authorToday I have the honour of welcoming Wendy Percival, author of the Esme Quentin mystery series (Blood Tied, The Indelible Stain) onto my blog. Wendy is also actively engaged in researching her own family background, which constantly throws up ever more questions.

Wendy, my inspiration for my first novel came from some WWI postcards I found among my grandmother’s possessions. What was it you found out about your family that inspired you to write fiction?

First page of FT articlePleased to be here! It was the discovery of a 19th century death certificate, issued in Australia, in the ubiquitous ‘old box in the attic’ that set me off.

How did you follow up this intriguing discovery?

Questions began to flow about the identity of this Charles Gabriel Barker – a musician. Why was he on the other side of the world? When had he gone? How had he got there? Where were the other family members mentioned on the document? It took me a few years to consult birth records, marriage certificates, censuses, schools’ records, orphanage admission books, ships’ passenger lists and newspaper archives to get some answers. It was a steep learning curve and I wrote an article about my discoveries in Family Tree magazine. Later I researched convict ancestry information specifically to write The Indelible Stain.

These days we are blessed with access to a vast amount of information about the past. Which is your favourite go-to historical source?

One of the family historian’s key tools is the census. Taken every ten years from 1841 (due to the 100 year closure rule, records are currently only available up to 1911) it holds a wealth of valuable information:

• the name and address of the person in question

• the rest of the members of the household, their relationships, ages, occupations and where they were born.

It allows us to learn more about these people from the past, even with only a few names and dates on the ancestral family tree to go on.

Tell us about one particular discovery you made during your family tree research? Death certificate of Henrietta Benbow 1854I discovered that my 2x great-aunt, Henrietta Benbow, died young in 1854, aged just 23.  Her occupation was listed as ‘china burnisher’.  From research I found out that she worked in a porcelain factory in Coalport, Shropshire, and that her job was to polish pots after firing to improve the finish. Henrietta’s death certificate stated the cause of her death as consumption, a common respiratory disease in nineteenth century England.

However, reading further about an ancestor’s occupation can be revealing. A study of 1864 showed that the average rate of death of potters was much higher than that of  the general population. When I discovered that 60% of their deaths were attributed to lung and respiratory diseases I realised that her occupation likely contributed to her untimely death.

In my family, a hush always fell on the room when a certain relative was mentioned. Any black sheep in your family?

More than one!  When trawling the census looking for my great-grandfather, I found a series of clues which indicated that he’d been living a double life with two ‘wives’ and two families of young children. They lived only streets apart in London in 1880s. He’d got away with it, it seems, for a least six years before my great-grandmother learned of his deception and kicked him out!

Great-grandfather's mistress calling herself Mrs Colley on 1881 census

Great-grandfather’s mistress, calling herself ‘Mrs Colley’ on 1881 census

You gave your fictional protagonist, Esme Quentin, the job of genealogist, thereby mirroring your own research efforts. How does that work?

As a mystery writer it’s all to do with following clues and solving puzzles – exactly what I do when researching my family history. It seemed quite natural to dovetail the two together – especially when there’s a suggestion of a dark family secret afoot. Like me, Esme can worry away at the information, following a trail of clues, but sometimes going down a blind alley and being sidetracked by occasional red herrings, until finally the whole picture emerges and all is revealed.

So you have had to be every bit as tenacious as Esme in finding out the truth?

Yes, but Esme is way, way, more intrepid than me, and so much more adventurous! Which is much safer for me and more interesting for Esme, as she can get up to things I’d never dream of doing…

Sounds like the perfect solution. What’s the next mystery for your fictional genealogist to solve?

I don’t want to give too much away here, but the clandestine past of the Second World War provides the secret world into which Esme must delve to uncover the truth for my third novel.

So much intrigue in that period to fire an author’s imagination. When can we expect to get our hands on a copy?

I haven’t quite finished it yet, and need to decide on a title, but it will be published soon.

I’ll look forward to that, Wendy. It’s been a joy to have you on my blog today. Thank you.

 

BLOOD-TIED cover image9781781322819-PerfectCOVER.inddYou can find out more about Wendy’s fiction on her website.  She shares her most intriguing discoveries from her own family history research on her Family History Secrets  blog. Wendy has also written articles for Family Tree Magazine, Writers’ Forum and Shropshire Family History’s Quarterly Journal.

Blood Tied A desperate crime, hidden for 60 years…but time has a way of exposing the truth.
The Indelible Stain Secrets from a tainted past.

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Linking the Past to the Present

WW1 memorial

Upper North Street School Memorial.

On this day, 23 June 1919, a memorial to eighteen London school children killed during a German Gotha raid during WWI was unveiled in Poplar Recreation Ground, London E14.

Such memorials are each unique pieces of public art which link the present and the past and form part of our common history and belong to our collective memory.

I came across this striking memorial as I was walking along the East India Dock Road in London’s East End.  The angel statue stands on top of a four-sided pillar upon a white stone stepped base. The inscription reads:

  IN MEMORY OF 18 CHILDREN WHO WERE KILLED BY A BOMB DROPPED FROM A GERMAN AEROPLANE UPON THE LCC SCHOOL-UPPER NORTH STREET POPLAR ON THE 13TH JUNE 1917

The date of the tragedy also marks the first day of German aircraft daylight bombing raids on London during WWI. Prior to this, most air raids had taken place under cover of darkness. Poplar was near the commercial docks – a frequent target during enemy air raids in both world wars – and Upper North Street school may not have been the intended target when Gotha airplanes dropped their bombs on that day, but the school suffered a devastating direct hit.

Most of the dead were infants, aged between four and six. It caused a huge international outpouring of public grief and sorrow as well as outrage and outcry, inciting widespread rioting against German owned shops and premises in Britain. It prompted questions in the House of Commons about the pressing need for a more effective air raid early warning system.

Some of the schoolchildren's names

Some of the schoolchildren’s names

Before the 1914-1918 war,  most war memorials were of famous generals who won celebrated victories in battle. After the slaughter in the trenches and deaths from air raids on the Home Front, there was a change in public mood and this change is reflected in the many and varied public memorials commissioned in its aftermath. These are visible in our cities, in town squares, on village greens, in local churchyards, in parks, at railway stations and in the designs on church windows. They speak to us of commemoration and sacrifice – of civilians as well as service personnel – not celebration.

Above all, they allow us and future generations to remember. And hope for peace. Always.

What about you? Are there war memorials in your home town? How do you feel about them?

http://uk.pinterest.com/hughes7584/ww1-memorials

WWI Centenary. Lest We Forget

Quote from de Toqueville "When the past..."

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs © Susan Hughes

 

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Poster Girls of WW1

Picture of women munitions workers

Shell-making Edinburgh

I was pleased to be invited by Helen Hollick to write a piece for her Tuesday Talk slot on her blog, Let us Talk of Many Things; of Books and Queens and Pirates, of History and Kings…

On it I talk about the WW1 female munitions workers (known as munitionettes) who inspired my novel, A Kiss from France.  You can read it here:-

https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/tuesday-talk-munitionettes-poster-girls.html

Helen Hollick is the author of piratical and royal tales and Managing Editor of the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews.

image:  painting  by Sir John Lavery (Public Domain) via Wikimediacommons

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A Backdrop to Drama

20th century living room

Early 20th century living room at The Geffrye Museum

I wanted to re-imagine a particular domestic interior which would be witness to confessions, secrets, and dangerous passions for my first novel. It had to be a middle class London town house, the sort a well-to-do manager in charge of a large, WWI munitions factory might live in.  This was to be the room where the central drama of my heroine’s life would play out.

From research, I learned that by the first part of the 20th century, the drawing-room had given way to the sitting room or living room. It was now furnished for everyday use and for comfort. It was much less formal than in previous eras. Electric lights were installed and the fireplace was still a focal point in the room. Furnishings and upholstery complemented each other but didn’t necessarily match. Reproductions of 18th century furniture were all the rage and less fussy wallpapers in light colours became fashionable.

You can find some of the settings and furnishings which inspired me on my Pinterest board, here http://uk.pinterest.com/hughes7584/inspiration-early-twentieth-century-house/

From these emerged my vision of an elegant room, with tall windows leading onto the rear garden (a ‘war patch’ of vegetables mainly replaced flower beds during the first world war). In the mornings, letters and cards would be written sitting at an 18th century reproduction escritoire or table; in the afternoons, visitors might take tea from Wedgwood tea cups; of an evening the room’s ambient lighting would come from one or two art-nouveau inspired lamps and a shellac record of popular songs of the day would be playing on a HMV gramophone.

I was helped in creating  the imaginary room by a visit to The Geffrye Museum of the Home  www.geffrye-museum.org.uk in East London, where a number of period rooms have been recreated. Attendant mood boards showing soft furnishing and flooring materials provide extra details. There is a small library holding relevant reference books for further study.

Book research is a useful starting point when I am trying to ‘get inside’ a period. Seeing a fully furnished room adds an extra dimension.

Any photographs are the author’s own.

 

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12 Benefits of Joining a Writing Group

Photo of a deckchair on a beach

No man is an island…

My previous experience with my first novel showed me the importance and benefits of getting early critiques of my second novel. So last year I joined a writing group.

Last time, the first eyeballs on my manuscript (other than my own) were those of a structural editor. Needless to say, the amount of red pen required made it look like she’d bled all over it. Poor thing. This time round, with my current work-in-progress, I have found that joining a writing group has been a more helpful, supportive and just plain fun way to get early input.

The group meets once a month, face-to-face. It is designed primarily for writers working on a novel. We begin with a round-up of everyone’s progress on their current project, discuss any challenges and offer suggestions, followed by two selected writers reading their work aloud for a group critique. I have read out different sections of my work-in-progress on several occasions. Not every comment I received was a glowing appraisal but each one offered some useful take-away to help me refine my writing.

Writing Benefits of the Group
  1. Provides a discipline and a deadline to produce regular work
  2. Prompts me to hone the work I am reading aloud so it’s the best it can be
  3. Allows others to critically engage with my story and characters early on
  4. Provides honest and insightful feedback
  5. Hones my own ability to give and receive constructive criticism
  6. Gives encouragement and support to improve my work
  7. Points out glaring errors (e.g. chronology; consistency; continuity)
  8. Inspires me to keep writing
Social Benefits of the Group
  1. Gets me out of my lonely writer’s garret
  2. Encourages me to engage with other writers in person: to laugh; to celebrate; to commiserate; to be inspired by real people (not ones I’ve made up!)
  3. Lets me join with a group of people who understand what it is to be a writer
  4. Reminds me I am human.

I am very lucky to be part of such a writing group. Thank you, fellow scribes. You know who you are.

‘No man is an island…’ from the poem by John Donne
photograph © Susan Hughes

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The Powerful Symbolism of the Poppy

 

Tower of London poppy 2014
Tower of London poppy 2014

Today is Remembrance Sunday. In Britain, it began in 1919 as a commemoration of the fallen of WW1, men whose bodies would never be brought home. Poppies, which grew in abundance in the field of Flanders and France during that war, became the symbol of remembrance.

Each year I buy a paper poppy to wear on my lapel. Last year, I also bought a ceramic poppy which had formed part of the moving and evocative ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation at the Tower of London.

My Tower poppy is a simple, handmade ceramic artefact. Its metal stem even retains a vestige of earth from the ground it stood in. On its own, it lacks the dramatic impact of the complete art installation. Between August and November 2014, 888,246 scarlet poppies filled the Tower moat. It was no longer its usual green grass, but a visceral sea of red. A poppy cascade flowed into the moat from one of the Tower’s high windows. A crimson wave arched, tsunami-like, over the Tower’s entrance.  Each poppy represented one British and Commonwealth fatality in WW1. Here was poignancy and tragedy but also beauty and remembrance.

Tower of London November 2014

The Tower of London November 2014

 

As each poppy got picked, sold in part to raise money for service charities, the moat emptied.  The sea of red receded and disappeared.

The real and lasting value of my Tower poppy lies in its symbolism. It has the power to move my spirit and to evoke something beyond itself.  In this time and this place, it helps me remember and honour not only the sacrifice made in 1914-1918, but all those who have suffered and died in war.

Lest we forget.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

(In Flanders Fields, 1915. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae)

 

 

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