Writing about World War One…

Today, April 25, is Anzac Day, and the hundredth anniversary of the battle at Villers Brettoneux in northern France on 25 April 1918, where Australian regiments were instrumental in helping to secure the liberation of that area of France. As someone brought up between Australia and France, it’s made me reflect not only on the joint experiences of French and Australian troops and civilians in that terrible war, but also on how difficult it is to try and convey, as a writer, something about those experiences, especially when you are writing for children.

Until a few years ago, I never expected to write about World War One. In both France and Australia, as a child I’d seen, in churches and memorials, the staggeringly long rollcalls of the dead in World War One; a war that seemed not only horrible and tragic but absolutely incomprehensible. World War Two seemed more understandable by comparison, in part because my parents were children during the German occupation of France. I could imagine myself writing about World War Two (though I didn’t, in fact until very recently) ) but not World War One. Partly, perhaps it was because in Australia, Gallipoli loomed large, of course, and I did not feel able to write about it, but also could hardly begin to understand, let alone depict, the ghastly long years of trench warfare on the Western Front.

What changed that was, first, a brief visit many years ago to the heartbreakingly big and neat Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Villers-Brettoneux. In the back of my mind, a seed was being planted–and years later, in 2010, it sprouted, inspired by a longer visit–a stay of a few days, in fact, in the pretty, and war-haunted, cathedral city of Amiens and the countryside beyond. Being on the spot, in the quiet streets of the city and the green and pleasant Somme countryside which yet saw so many deaths, looking at memorials and the French Australian museum’s collections of touching photographs of both Australian and French soldiers and the local civilian population, made me change my mind. And also I read about the last year of the war–the way in which in 1918, trench warfare, at least in northern France, gave way not to the pitched open battles of the very beginning of the war, but to a more ‘guerrilla’ style campaign, on both sides, with ambushes and surprise attacks and street-by-street battles in devastated villages. I began to see how I could perhaps tell a story, through the eyes of a young French-Australian character .

So that’s how my first World War One novel, My Father’s War(Scholastic Australia 2011), began. Set in 1918, it is told in the voice of eleven year old Annie, whose Australian soldier father, fighting on the Somme, goes missing, and who goes with her French mother to Amiens to try and find him. Through Annie’s diary unfolds the story of that last year in the war and the experiences of both soldiers and civilians in northern France. It was a story that both flowed naturally from having been in the areas I was writing about and being immersed in pictures and documents of the time, but was also very hard to write. This was a work of fiction so it had to work as an engaging story, especially given the age of my readers, but I also felt a great responsibility to tell it in a way that would not trivialise or falsify. It was a very delicate balance to strike and at times felt almost impossible(and saddening; I found myself weeping several times over scenes) but in the end it worked. Or at least, readers seem to think so–seven years after its release, it is still finding its way into libraries, schools, and homes.

Writing My Father’s War had made me see I could tell a story set in that time. Three years later, my second World War One novel was published. This was 1914 (Scholastic Australia 2014), which from the point of view of Louis Jullian, teenage son of a French diplomat and his Australian wife, told the story of the beginning of that ‘war to end all wars’. It was a very different book, because it was set in a very different time to that of My Father’s War. In 1918, four years of dreadful stalemate and horrendous slaughter had changed the face of Europe, destroying the old order forever.  In 1914, the old order was still there, sleepwalking towards disaster, and even by the end of that year, people imagined that the war might soon be over and things go back to what they’d been before. And my characters might both be French Australian, but they came from very different backgrounds and experiences. Annie had a difficult childhood dominated by war and her father’s absence; Louis, whose childhood was cosmopolitan and carefree, was coming of age at a time when everything would be thrown into question by a conflict that would engulf the world and truth itself. It was just as hard to write this novel as the first; harder even in a way, precisely because it was the beginning: reading about the causes of the war and the chain of events in those fateful few weeks from June 28 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, you get a sense both of the so-called ‘inevitability’ of the war but also the fact that it need not have been so. There were times when the momentum could have been halted–but it was not. I chose to tell that story, and the way in which a carefree summer turned into a deadly winter, through Louis’ eyes as he goes from helpless witness of the attack in Sarajevo to scarred and determined young war correspondent on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Both the novels have had unexpected offshoots: minor characters from My Father’s War inspired a short story of mine, The Other Anzac Day (set during the battle in Villers Brettoneux on 25 April 1918) which was published in a UK collection, Stories of World War One, edited by Tony Bradman(Orchard Books, UK, 2014). This story, told in the voice of Archie, a tough but troubled young Australian soldier, both echoes and contrasts with Annie’s own view of that ‘other Anzac Day’ in My Father’s War. And Louis’ daughter as well as the son of one of his pre-war Austrian friends will be featuring in a novel I’ve been writing, set at the beginning of World War 2 this time, to appear in 2019. In the novel, the experiences of World War One, which transformed the lives of Louis and his friends, haunt the lives of their families too–and of course, by extension, their communities and nations, as the drums of war beat yet again.

 

More about My Father’s War and 1914:

My Father’s War

By Sophie Masson

(My Australian Story, Scholastic Australia 2011)

ISBN 9781741698282

It scares me a lot, thinking of Dad out there, far away in that dangerous, terrible place, wondering how it will be when he comes back-if he comes back, that is . . .

Annie’s dad has been away for two years, fighting on the Somme battlefields in northern France. For months there has been no word from him, no letters or postcards. Annie and her mother are sick with worry, so they decide to stop waiting-and instead travel to France, to try to find out what has happened to him. There she experiences first-hand what war is like, as she tries to piece together the clues behind her dad’s disappearance. Will Annie ever see her father again?

Teacher’s Notes My Father’s War: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8005439_228.pdf

1914

By Sophie Masson

(Australia’s Great War, Scholastic Australia 2014)

ISBN 9781743622476

A small black bottle or a torch came sailing through the air, and landed on the side of the car, close to the Archduke. An instant later came a terrific bang, the road exploded in a shower of dust and stones, and tiny sharp things went flying through the air like angry bees.

In June 1914, Louis and his brother Thomas are enjoying the European summer in a small town near Sarajevo. In the shadow of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, the world erupts into war and Louis’ life changes forever. Old Europe is torn apart and Louis finds himself in the midst of his own battle – and fighting for the truth in war means that sometimes even your own side is against you.

Teacher’s Notes 1914: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8284239_24164.pdf

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