the glorious dead – tim atkinson

I was lucky enough to have chance to interview an author who’s work I am extremely interested in. Tim’s book details the story of several characters from the First World War who stayed behind in France once the war was over to find and bury the bodies that were left by the fighting. Below is the interview we conducted – via email mind!

– where did you get the idea from – what inspired you?

Two things got the ball rolling. I was doing some research into a relative who served in Flanders during WW1 and discovered that his battalion had been destroyed in early 1918. The soldier was transferred to a unit I’d never heard of called an ‘entrenching battalion’ and I was inspired to find out more. Some time later a chance conversation with a friend intrigued me. He said a relative of his had suffered from the effects if gas – in spite of not serving abroad until 1919. It was news to me that soldiers were still being sent abroad in 1919. And I was intrigued to know what he was doing – and how he’d been gassed.

Can you tell me a little more about the book?

It’s a war book (obviously) but a war book with a difference. First, the action only starts once the guns stop firing. And rather than battles, attacks, it’s about the aftermath – the enormous clearing up operation that involved finding and burying the thousands of bodies abandoned on the road to victory. But it’s also about the individual aftermath for the men involved – all of whom, to some extent, can only cope with the end of the war by remaining abroad doing the Empire’s dirty work.

What was your research process before you began writing – or did you research as you went along?

Both, really. I spent a lot of time reading just about all the books on the subject that I could find. I also spent some time trawling the archives of the Imperial War Museum as well as going to Flanders, staying in Ypres and walking the streets and the battlefields described in the book.

Are there any particular stories you came across during researching that stuck with you more than any other?

The exhumation of the battlefield cemetery at Wild Wood was especially poignant (you can read an extract describing it on the Unbound website).

Is there a character of yours whose journey moves you more than any other, or even a character who you favour a little more over the others?

The main protagonist, I suppose, has to take centre stage and it’s his journey from battle-scarred veteran suffering what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder to a man if not at peace with himself, then certainly at peace with his past that is the book’s central theme. But that personal journey mirrors the wider social journey as a country devastated by war slowly comes to terms with what has happens and starts to think about the future.

The cemeteries and monuments kept by the CWGC are always beautifully maintained; is there one that you feel you have a connection to?

There are some tiny battlefield cemeteries on the Somme that are especially memorable – places like New Munich trench cemetery near Beaumont-Hamel where around 100 men are buried, usually from the same regiment and often close to where they fell. But my favourite is probably Ypres ramparts cemetery because of it’s location on the eastern ramparts of that devastated city as well as its stunning beauty, especially in autumn.

There are many heart-felt epitaphs on some of the gravestones out in France, are there any that you found particularly moving, or that you chose to feature in the book?

The original title of the book was ‘Known unto God’ which appears, of course, on thousands of headstones. In terms of the book, it’s appropriate both to the work of the exhumation company about whom the book is written and to the central secret that keeps the main character, Jack Patterson, in Flanders finding bodies, digging graves and avoiding something – or someone – back in England.

You’ve chosen to use Unbound to publish your work – why have you decided to go down this route?

They were the first people to see the MS and they liked what they read and were immediately encouraging. And I like what they’re doing. I’ve been published ‘traditionally’ a number of times by a number of different publishers and haven’t ever felt in control of what was happening. I like the fact that artistically I’m wholly responsible – which mean I’ve got to persuade the public that what I’m doing is worth reading! That’s hard work but I think there’s a decent chance of getting better books this way. I was am Unbound customer long before I become one of their potential authors and I’m delighted to have supported so many books that I really wanted to read, but which might not otherwise have been written.

If you are interested in donating to fund the publication of Tim’s book or want to find out more, check out his Unbound page here!

a post about nothing in particular

catsFirst of all, today is the 100th Anniversay of the Battle of Jutland -a battle I knew very little about until recently. It is something which I hope to do a post on at a later date, so please excuse my posting ‘schedule’ in not being quite as timely as one might wish at the present moment.

May has been a very, very quiet month for blogging for me, and I’m not entirely sure why – other things (namely real life) rather got in the way of regular posting and then I seemed to be without very much to say. I do have a couple of posts coming up; one a review of a conference I attended at the Wellcome Trust in London and another.. well, that’s a surprise!

I’m also pleased to say that ~my exhibition (still feels a little odd saying that) is currently on display at a local primary school! There is a longer blog post about it here, if that takes your fancy, though I did blather on about it rather a lot.

Further to this, for my final year at University, I’ll be taking a module entitled Europe in an Age of Total Warfare, led by Dr. Holger Afflerbach – so  that’s something else I’ll doubtless be posting about when I have the time. It covers the First World War from outbreak to post-war feeling and then from there onto the outbreak of the Second World War until its close and the resulting representation in post-war culture. I’m also planning on completing my dissertation on something related to WW1 – an idea I’ve been vaguely floating around is one on the Unknown Soldier and the general post-war attitudes to death, grieving and remembrance and how they differ to ours today; or if they differ at all. It might not be feasible to do an entire 12,000 word dissertation on that, but there are plenty of other aspects of WW1 to go at.

I am also currently reading a book by Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Britain in the Shadow of the Great War. This book looks at post-war Britain and it’s collective progress through the stages of grief along with several other chapters up until the silence of 11th November 1920. It is incredibly interesting to read about the silence that permeated the country in the days and weeks after the armistice. There is also an incredibly detailed chapter on facial reconstruction.

Within one of the first chapters, there is the testimony of Maude Onions (someone who I first came across whilst studying a-level literature..). As a young woman during the war, she was a signaller with the WAAC. Maude was the lady who typed out the fateful message of ‘Hostilities will cease at 11am. November 11th. Troops will stand fast at the line reached at that hour which will be reported to Army HQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.’ This message was sent at 8am and Maude recalls that ‘3 hours later, [I] took an involuntary glance at the clock’ and she saw that the moment the world had been waiting for had finally happened, yet all there was around her was silence, a world too exhausted to rejoice. Maude looked upon it as though ‘France had just heaved a vast sigh of relief.’

The Great Silence really is a fascinating book and I am only halfway through it myself (though my opinion may change!) It can be purchased here.

But where the lamb

image-estate-of-wilfred-owen

Wilfred Owen was born on this day in 1893.

Wilfred Owen is one of those poets, it seems, that people wonder what he might have done – even his contemporaries. I own one biography of him and three collections of his poetry and the question does sometimes linger in my own mind. What path might he have taken and how might his talent have developed? We don’t know, and never will know, as 1918 saw the close of Owens life, and the war within a week of one another. This post however is in honour of Wilfred’s birthday. It is a small one on a poem I love and cherish dearly, one which I come back to on occasions and find myself just as moved as I was that first time I found the words.

I first came across Owen (and his works) as I did with Sassoon, reading Regeneration – a novel it seems I will never escape. Of course, Anthem for Doomed Youth was the first (I remained fascinated for weeks at the Latin end for the piece), but there is another of his works which stood out to me more than any other and which earned a place firmly in my heart.

It was The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It’s one which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before, I believe, but I’ve never written much about it. It’s different, in my view to Anthem, so very different and all the richer for it. Perhaps that is why I love it. I find it even more wrenching than that description which lingers long in the mind , ‘and at every jolt..’

Instead, Parable gives me a sense of foreboding with its jerky rhythm that never quite settles and it brings tears to my eyes each time I read it. I find there is a slowness to the piece, as though one is watching Abram and Issaac play out their roles with no alternative, heading toward an inevitable terror. War’s apologist and war’s victim are Owen’s subjects in this piece and there is no other way to the end but the warmongering apparent in the final lines which come as a shock to the reader.

I end this short post with Owen’s own poem and the one which I have written about in this post. It says more for itself than I ever could hope to.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen