What happened when the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing? Who cleared the battlefields and built the great monuments to the fallen? And why did so many men who served - and survived - in France and Flanders end up living and working among the ruins of the war they'd fought?
The Glorious Dead is the fictional story of a group of soldiers who remained in France and Flanders following the Armistice, who served their King and country with a shovel and who found and buried the thousands of bodies abandoned on the road to victory. It is the story of men living among the destruction, death and decay of the so-called ‘war to end all wars’. It is the story of an uneasy peace as over 15,000 ex-servicemen remain abroad working in the former theatres of war, burying the dead and rebuilding their own lives. The work of these men is one of the most original yet neglected aspects of this most compelling era in our nation’s history.
Theirs is a story worth telling.
Beside the old Ypres-Roulers railway, south of St Julien, the shattered relic of a copse called Wild Wood contains the remains of seventeen men killed in the heat of battle and buried hurriedly among the blackened stumps of trees. Over a year-and-a-half later, little has changed. The splintered wood is still the only feature on an otherwise empty, bombed-out landscape on the road to Poelcapelle.
‘Some men of the 10th Battalion Gordon Highlanders are buried…’ Ingham pauses before jabbing a finger at a square on the map that indicates their ultimate destination this mild, spring morning, ‘…here!’
The men lean over the concertinaed canvas spread over the bonnet of the truck parked temporarily in the middle of the cobbles of the old Grote Markt. Behind them are the surviving walls of the old Cloth Hall; beyond that, the rubble of St Martin’s Cathedral. Pillars and doorways remain shored up with timber buttresses; wooden scaffolding surrounds the remnants of the bell tower.
‘So just a simple exhumation job this morning, eh sir?’ Ocker asks. ‘Dig ‘em up and bring ‘em in.’
‘Correct,’ says Ingham.
This is the kind of work they like. Simple; straightforward. Map references; digging; re-burying. Not the searching, not the wandering, the constant prodding with improvised probes made from old machine-gun cleaning rods, the emptying of pockets, the checking muddy teeth.
‘According to our information they were killed during the initial phase of the advance to Pilkem Ridge and were buried here…’
‘…on 31st July 1917,’ Mac says. ‘Aye, I know.’ The men slowly turn their heads and stare at Mac, then back at Ingham.
‘Correct, Private MacIntyre. I ought to have realised.’
‘Realised what?’ Fuller whispers. ‘Realised what?’
Ocker shakes his head and holds a finger to his lips.
‘Anyway,’ Ingham goes on. ‘These men - these brave men - are to be transferred to White House Cemetery at St. Jean. Graves have already been prepared for them in the concentration area, Plot III. It’s a little higher than the battlefield burials so should be better drained.’
‘Which row, sir?’
‘Which row? Now let me see, row… row… Row H. Yes.’
‘And are they known, sir?’
‘I believe so, yes. Their details were recorded at the time…’ Ingham looks across the bonnet of the truck at Mac, who is studiously lighting a pipe. ‘And the graves have survived. Sergeant Townend and I located them while on reconnaissance the other day.’
‘Very good sir.’
The men dismiss and begin gathering their equipment together: sacks and shovels, jerry cans filled with cresol, seventeen canvas sheets, some ropes and pairs of rubber gloves.
‘You will supervise the exhumation. I will meet you at White House Cemetery at 1430 hours with the Chaplain.’
‘Very good sir.’
The men climb aboard the truck. Jack and Ocker load their bicycles on board as well, standing them between the wooden shelves that line each side of the wagon. There won’t be room on board for all the living on the journey home.
‘So what was it like Mac?’ asks Fuller as the truck bounces off along the cobbles. ‘Was it… did you? I mean…’
‘I know what you darn well mean laddie,’ Mac growls. ‘And well, I’ll tell ye shall I? Shall I? D’you really want to know?’
Fuller suddenly doesn’t seem so sure. Jack and Ocker look at each other.
‘For once,’ Mac begins, ‘on the morning of 31st July, you might have said things were going well. The bombardment had been good…’
‘That makes a change,’ Ocker interrupts. Mac glares at him and he looks down at the floor.
‘… the weather was dry too, that first morning.’
‘That was soon to change,’ says Jack.
‘Who’s telling the laddie this story?’ Mac grumbles.
My timetable this year has involved teaching poetry - epic poetry. First, the Iliad; then the Aeneid. I was pleased to be able to 'forget' the war for a while (as in the Great War, World War One, whose literary and historical battlefields I've been immersed in for the last five years while researching this book). But I was a little daunted by the length of both classical epics, as well as by their…
In case you haven't heard, Football's world governing body has banned the England and Scotland football teams from wearing poppy armbands when they meet at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier next Friday... the 11th of November.
Their objection is that the poppy could be seen as a political symbol. Such things are banned, along with any 'commercial or religious' endorsement on official clothing…
Ok, so... here's the thing. Crowdfunding is fun, but it's also bloody hard work.
I've sent hundreds of emails, handed out postcards, held a reading at a local branch of Wetherspoons, sent countless messages, thousands of tweets, pestered probably now ex-friends on LinkedIn and Facebook and generally made a thorough nuisance of myself. Oh and I've also dressed up and wandered around at various…
At least, when I'm in 'The Shed'. My daughter even got me a sign for the door for my birthday. And of course, I've shown you round before. But this is what it looks like 'behind the scenes' as-it-were... Only, without the music. And with a lot more coffee!
For the first time in some years, I find myself on a Sunday evening anticipating school again on Monday morning. Yes, I'm back - for a bit. But not for long. Just a couple of days a week until May, but it's enough to bring that slight sense of foreboding as the sun sets on the weekend, as the Countryfile theme begins and as the kids get ready for bed.
Sunday nights in September always bring that…
Unfortunately, the good people over at Unbound Towers don't work weekends, so this post is unlikely to reach you before Monday morning. But writing today, Saturday 13th August, the day the GB Men's Eights won Olympic Gold at Rio, is especially appropriate and poignant as a former Olympic gold medallist in the same event was killed on the Somme 100 years ago this year.
Frederick Septimus Kelly…
.. love a soldier.
(Or should that be a sailor? Never mind...)
I never thought publishing fiction would be easy. Far from it. But I must admit I didn't anticipate having to do this...
So, if you see me dressed thus this summer, playing World War One trench songs and handing out postcards, do please take one, pass it on and maybe encourage somebody to make a pledge to The…
That was the title of an excellent documentary on Monday night - presented by Michael Palin - about the men who died, and continued to die, after the 1918 Armistice was signed.
It's been on before and I saw it first time round. But it still makes fascinating viewing. It's this hinterland of Great War history - the margins, peripheries and hidden corners - that fascinates me. It's what led me…
It's not easy as a relative unknown on Unbound. Although there are a few of us on here, there are plenty more Unbounders who come to crowdfunding with an armful of loyal readers or viewers or fans.
What this seems to mean so far is this: the majority of people who have supported my book seem to know me in some way. They're friends, family, colleagues, ex-students, acquaintances and so on. Some…
Everyone - everyone, that is, with a family history stretching back in the UK for a few generations - has their own, personal Great War story. Mine is a simple one, maybe; but how it affects me - and how it came to inspire this book - is quite complicated.
My great Uncle, William Foster Johnson, my great-grandmother's brother, fought and died in the Great War. His record is a proud one: he won…
Bit dusty in here, isn't it? Let me just blow a few of these cobwebs away...
RIght, that's better. Although I've neglected the shed just lately, I've not been idle. Far from it. In fact, I'm about to embark on a tour of The Somme, taking with me this - a book by my postman's uncle. Well, postwoman actually, and great-uncle.
Martin Middlebrook is an icon among military historians, internationally…
It can’t have escaped anyone's notice that this year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. That huge, wasteful diversionary tactic (while the French were being ‘bled white’ at Verdun) which lasted 141 days and gained virtually nothing (unless, as Keegan says, you count the destroyed terrain which slowed the German advance in Spring 1918) began 100 years ago this year.
Thousands of people…
My blog book tour (bit odd that, when you think about it - a virtual tour for a book that doesn't yet exist!) begins today and I'm delighted to be a guest on Iain Standen's excellent blog 'Historic Musings'.
If you don't know Iain, he's a former Colonel in the Royal Corps of Signals, now CEO of the wartime code-breaking HQ Bletchley Park, as well as being an historian with a wide range of interests…
At the start of the war there were no official attempts to recruit artists or to commission them to paint the conflict. But the Army's insatiable appetite for men ensured that many artists ended up enlisting, and many of them sketched and painted what they saw. By 1917 there was a recognition that what was happening needed officially recording and the War Memorials Committee was established. Official…
Here it is folks, episode two of the video diary detailing the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the good and the bad and the happy and sad of the whole crowdfunding process... In this edition our intrepid crowd-funder engages in a detailed discussion about the Unknown Soldier and is forced to launch a defence of crowdfunding against the charge that there is 'nothing in it for the investor' (apart…
One of the most rewarding - yet unexpected - advantages of crowd-funding has been the level of engagement with readers (or would-be readers) - even those who may have no intention of pledging but have an interest in the subject matter.
One such occured the other day. I'd posted a link to the book on one of the many World War One sites on Facebook. As usual, my link to the book page made the still…
Apparently, YouTube is where today's stars are made. And what are they doing? Singing? Dancing? Writing? No. They're just talking - talking to camera, chatting, waffling, burbling away about whatever takes their fancy. And people love it. Or rather, them. So, in the spirit of the age I thought, 'why not?'. I'd been thinking of doing something to record the progress of my crowd-funding efforts and…
These people are helping to fund The Glorious Dead.