Friday, October 12, 2007

Another Pilgrimage ...

from Jacqueline

Just back from across the pond – again! This time, though, I spent almost half the time in northern France, visiting the battlefields of The Somme. As you probably know, I’ve been once before, a visit to both Ypres and The Somme. This time I wanted to concentrate on just one area for the next book I write in my series featuring Maisie Dobbs, the ex-WW1 nurse who later becomes a private inquiry agent.

It’s a funny thing, this “research” business. If you are a writer of fiction and you want to breathe life into the world you’re creating, then you’ll probably find yourself doing a bit of research – perhaps ambling around an agricultural show, or racing a Porsche at break-neck speed. You might actually get your hands on a gun, just to get the feel of it, or you'll walk along a street your protagonist will walk, and you'll be people-watching, window-shopping, standing, looking, lingering there. And for your research, you'll probably read a book or two or three, or a pile of books. And what are you looking for? You’re waiting for a nugget, a peg to hang a scene upon, a gem with which to start a conversation, to shape a character or to twist the plot. Sometimes you know it when you see it, sometimes, it comes back to you when you are in the doldrums, facing that blank screen and wondering how long it will take you to pay back the advance if you put in your application at Macys today. And sometimes it’s just there, immediately, you know what will happen, because you saw it in your mind’s eye as you walked the walk of research.

So, because the root of each of my novels thus far has been the legacy and impact of The Great War, I go back to look at where it happened. I won’t write a long account of my visit in my post today (you can read about my last pilgrimage to the battlefields by going to the following link:

But here are some photos from this visit – and Marianne, there's one just for you, so look out for it (there were more, but could not upload them for some reason, so will send them to you) But first, Newfoundland Park:

One of the most poignant places to visit is Newfoundland Park, in Beaumont Hamel. On the first morning of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the men of (mainly) the Newfoundland regiments went over the top only to be mown down by enemy machine guns. The first line, second line and communication trenches were filled with the dead and dying within minutes. After the war, Newfoundland bought the land, threw a fence around it and left it to nature, although they brought in plants native to the island, so that their men and boys could rest in a place with reminders of home. The first picture shows the giant caribou sculpture, the second is taken from just under the statue, across the land – you can still see the scars of the trenches. Where you see the battlefield cemetery in the distance – that’s just in front of the German front line. We were there first thing in the morning, just as it might have been in the minutes before the whistle blew for the men to go "over the top." Soon that mist would rise to reveal the true terror of the day.

And here are some more:

One of the wreaths left at the top of the famous Lochnagar Crater:

And a memory to a fallen soldier:

Most of the British and Allied cemeteries of the Great War are true battlefield cemeteries, smaller enclosed
places of rest dotted along what was once no-man’s land along the Somme Valley. Sir Edwin Lutyens, who designed the layout of the actual cemeteries, said that he wanted to bring to mind a battalion of soldiers marching in an English field. The soldiers were initially buried where they fell, and reburied with non-secular markers after the war. This one sits in no-man's land in the place where the Accrington Pals were slaughtered on July 1st, 1916. In the distance you can see the tip of another Cross of Sacrifice (all the cemeteries have a Cross of Sacrifice). You can stand there and see the crosses in the distance marking more cemeteries:

I stood on this hill in exactly the spot where Siegfried Sassoon stood to watch the opening of the Battle of the Somme, where he saw men like small armies of ants rushing straight into hell.

Just a few more to go now .... This is a memorial to the men of the Devonshire Regiment, memorialized close to a small cemetery where they are laid to rest. At the top of the marker it says, "The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still."

Old shells from a battle long ago. You can still put your hand in the ground and pull up live ammunition.

The Delville Wood memorial to the missing of the South African regiments who fought there is a magnificent structure dedicated to the missing, many of whom lay undiscovered deep in the soil of the wood. Of course, the wood was decimated in the war, but has been allowed to grow into a quiet, peaceful place, much as it was before the war. I caught this ray of light beaming down through the trees, to the place where soldiers fought, died and remain to this day.

I don’t know, yet, what nuggets I will use, how I will pull thoughts, feelings, impressions from this visit to inform and give weight to the novel I will start writing on November 1st. Perhaps they need a bit of time to simmer, now that I’m home. I may use a lot of what I’ve learned in my visits to this region, I may use just a snippet. But the thing you come to know, as a writer, is that with this process called “research” you are always doing it, and you always use what you’ve learned – it might not be the next book, but it will inform your writing. Trust that process.


  1. Welcome home, Jacqueline.

    What a wonderful post. Just the pep talk I needed. :-D I've been writing and using some of my recent English experiences as reference, not to mention bits from other places and times in my life. It really is: "write what you know and feel", to bring life to what you write and paint.

    And thank you so much for the photos. I know they're not all loaded yet, so I'll check back later. But the ones you took; the Australian one, the horse wreath, the Newfoundland Park - and their accompanying stories - are terribly moving. Knowing how affected you sometimes get with your research, I'm sure that you shared a tear or two with the mist and the memorial stones. The many souls buried there will be gratified that they are still cared about and not forgotten.

    Thanks for sharing your sojourn. I really look forward to your next book, and the one you'll start writing Nov. 1st. But meantime, I'll go visit your essay.


  2. Can't access your essay. Will try again later. :-D

    I mean't to tell you about a book I was given while I was in Torquay. "The Last Fighting Tommy: The Life of Harry Patch, the Only Surviving Veteran of the Trenches" by Harry Patch and Richard Van Emden. A friend of mine knows Harry, who is still kicking and lively at the age of 110. :-D It's a spell binding biography.

    Also: WHS had a special exclusive magazine issue about 'Passchendaele' - 90th anniversary commemoration. Lots of info and photos.


  3. Haunting stuff, Our J, and you write about it all so beautifully. I have no doubt that the nuggest that get wound into the next Maisie adventure will be the perfect ones, and I can't wait to read it.

  4. Welcome back, Our J. We missed you.

    The photos are moving and atmospheric. As you know, my great uncle Julius died in that war, 15 days before the Armistice. All wars are abominable but WWI is in a category all its own.

  5. Good post, Jackie.

    You're right, the proper research does breath life into a story.


  6. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, all for your comments. Marianne, I have the book, The Last Tommy - Harry Patch is an amazing gentleman. He has said that he can never close his eyes without seeing the shell exploding that killed his mates in the war - the fact that he lived through it and is now of a great age, and much wisdom, is extraordinary.

    Cornelia and Patty - we've talked about wars so much in our posts, that I drew back from commentary on the war itself. The pictures tell their own story.

    Thought your post was great yesterday, Jim, but was too jet-lagged to post a comment!

  7. Haunting is a good description. Nice photos!


  8. Thanks, Theresa - I was never much of a photographer, but I do my best. And yes, when I think back to my visits to this region, "haunting" is a word that comes to mind.

  9. How moving. I have tears in my eyes, I wish to go there, I have nothing to write about but I so want to stand there and just say thank you with my heart.

  10. Your post made me check out again a local library book, Barton and Doyle's "Beneath Flanders Fields" - all about the sappers and counter-mines. Chilling the descriptions of the warfare underground. Digging into no man's land - sometimes for months and months to lay the 21 mines for the Messines's detonation in June 1916. Never knowing if the "enemy" was listening and ready to bore a counter-mine torpedo into your own tunnel in 11 minutes flat as one British team could do. Constant fear of gas attacks. Dreadful the description of how mustard gas reacts in the warmth of the trenches. That drawing of the Prince of Wales' arrogant comment to "Canada" while smoking on top of tons of explosives... The sapper who survived alone after being buried with his comrades more than 6 days underground thanks to a countermine. The drawings of German concrete pillbox aid stations blown upside down by mines.
    How anyone survived trench warfare without losing his mind, especially the sappers, beats me.

  11. Meant to write "1917" for the big Messines mines. Reading about the digging under Hill 60 in Messines two years or so after the Allies lost it thanks to a gas attack made me think of Maisie. A quote from Lt. B C Hall, 3rd Canadian in that book, "I went to Hill 60 about August 1916 ...was absolutely dreadful - lice, bugs, every darned thing you could think of. If you cut your hand it was a criminal offense not to go and be injected against tetanus. Jaundice, boils and tentanus were rife. We were underground all the time and hardly ever saw daylight except from deep dugouts, and we were bombarded to blazes the whole time, and there were shots going off every week - either the Germans blowing us, or us blowing them. And it was terribly wet."