Saturday, 19 August 2017

Books On Arras: Poppies, Nature and La Bataille

I've been wondering whether I can still call myself a writer of any description whilst it's taking me so long to get anything written. Just to prove the book is still progressing, I thought I'd share with you some of the reading that I've been using to make sure I've got my facts straight and able to create some verisimilitude.

The section I'm working on at the moment has some description if the wildlife in France amongst the horror of battle, linked with the wildlife that RGH would have had contact with as the son of a farmer in Somerset. There's a good reason why so many WWI soldiers wrote about the lark, as it seemed to be ever-present, and the birds seemed to raise their chorus to be heard above the rattle of the guns. I was on holiday in Cornwall a week or so ago, and came across 'Where Poppies Blow' by John Lewis-Stempel, which gives an overview of the relationship soldiers had with wildlife in the trenches, and the importance of horses and birds, for example, to how the war was waged and how the men lived. I also came across the pictured 'Nature in the West Country' to do my research on Somerset for the princely sum of one pound in the National Trust second hand bookshop at Killerton House. RGH, like many young men of the era, was closer to nature than most of us would be today. 'Where Poppies Blow' serves as a reminder that the men were part of the very earth itself.

Amongst the many books I've read on the subject are these two. 'Cheerful Sacrifice' by Jonathan Nicholls collect many first hand accounts of the men's experience at Arras in 1917. 'To Arras, 1917' finds universality in the particular as Walter Reid tells the story of his ancestor Ernest's experience as an officer at Arras. My RGH is as far from being an officer as it's possible to get, so his story is in the mud, across the wire, knee-deep in water and close to the voles and birds. Both books have been very useful for research, as well as being good reads in themselves.

When we went to Arras in April, I bought this book, which is a beautiful hardback with some wonderful pictures of what Arras looked like at the time, and of the experience of the men underground. Although the tunnellers that provided practically a subterranean city under Arras to hide 24,000 troops were vital, this is not RGH's story. I am planning on using some ideas from that fascinating environment for another project, however. I'll let you know how that pans out.


The most pleasant surprise was finding, in several Arras bookshops, the graphic novel 'The Battle: Arras 1917' by Frederic Logez. The artwork is in places basic but it's engagingly laid out and uses a number of voices to portray a number of different experiences of the battle. There's a French version and a translated English version: I bought the latter, which is hesitantly translated but still very readable.

There's always a danger of doing too much research and ending up feeling swamped and not knowing what to use - or even remember. Likewise, the other danger is of inadvertently using too much of it. The story I'm telling has a factual basis, but events are fictionalised. The first 30,000 words concern themselves with events leading up to Arras, then we're into a central section which focuses on the day itself. That's where I am now.

This is some of the stuff I've already read on the subject. 'Forgotten Voices' by Max Arthur is particularly good, and isn't just on Arras but a whole array of personal accounts from the men themselves who fought on the front lines. 'Before Endeavours Fade' is a comprehensive guide to finding and exploring the war graves in France.

And here's the pile that I haven't read yet...
I'm not allowed near bookshops for a while...