about writing and life and God

Another time, another place

on February 21, 2013

I spent the afternoon immersed in a segment of the First World War. 1917. The Battle of Cambrai. It was the usual incompetent-general-driven fiasco that characterised the first three years of the Great War. Around 44,000 men were killed – mainly squaddies, of course, horrifyingly young, and their young officers.

In the four years of that war, the glorious British Empire executed over 300 of its own men, dubbing them cowards, and shooting them by firing squad pour encourager les autres. Of course, neither Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nor shellshock had been recognised in those days. And there was also a condition caused by the horrendously loud and incessant barrage of noise from heavy artillery which damaged the hearing so badly that men went mad or were totally incapacitated by it.

The First World War was one of the special subjects I chose to  concentrate on for my Scottish ‘H’ level (A level equivalent) History. At that time, the BBC were running a wonderful series at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, with lots of original and contemporary footage. My mother didn’t want to watch but my father told her very seriously that he would sit with me and watch it. It was important, he said, that I understand about war. That it solved nothing. And that it was not glorious.

He had served in the second World War. One of the British sitting ducks for American bombs at Monte Cassino (what’s called friendly fire these days). He had been in Egypt – my auntie remembers a letter where he said that what he longed for more than anything was… a bar of soap! At the end of the war, he was in Italy. He saw Mussolini, strung up on a lamp-post. And he drove his Scammell truck up the mountains and across to Austria where he spent time in a village there as part of the occupying/reconstruction forces.

The people in the book I’m writing – the Novel-that-has-no-name (only it has but I’m not telling…not just yet!) – have been impacted hard by the Great War. Yesterday my thousand words suddenly turned into a sequence in a trench. Wholly unexpected. But once written, I realised it was essential. And in memory of the men who died, and out of respect for them, I have to get it right. I’d done a certain amount of research, but back I went to my notes and the maps of the Battle of Cambrai where two of the characters are killed.

Coming out of it afterwards was strange, and difficult. Getting into another time and place  and especially one so fraught and dangerous, reading the words of the officers’ reports  – one from a Welsh regiment, the other importantly for my story the record of the 51st Highland Infantry and the Seaforths in which my characters would have served – is stepping into another world.

And like all the folk touched by that war, it is not possible to come out unchanged. One of my heroes of the time is ‘Woodbine Willie’ – the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929)who wrote powerful poetry giving voice to the men out there in the trenches and the women back home. (The Unutterable Beauty is one collection.) Some of it may be a bit Kiplingesque for modern taste but it is never jingoistic and always fiercely Christian. For example :

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,

waste of patience, waste of pain,

waste of manhood, waste of health,

waste of beauty, waste of wealth,

waste of blood, and waste of tears,

waste of youth’s most precious years,

ways of ways the saints have trod,

waste of glory, waste of God –



Digital Image


And for the family at home, like my great-grandmother, who lost two sons:


Just a little scrap of paper

in a yellow envelope,

and the whole world is a ruin,

even hope.

1914-18. And have we learned anything yet?


2 responses to “Another time, another place

  1. cfdunnn says:

    How true, Dorothy, and very interesting. Coming out of an intense research session – especially when related to conflict – can be surprisingly difficult, and it doesn’t seem to matter what time-frame you are writing about – the results of war are just the same. Have you read Vernon Scannell’s ‘Walking Wounded’? I found it powerfully evocative as an older teen, and it has remained one of my favourite poems ever since. Take out the references to modern warfare and it could apply to any period of history. A really good blog – thanks for posting it.

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