Going to the chapel

I decided on a title for my second novel, the story of a British officer of World War I with amnesia who returns to England to face an aristocratic life he can’t remember and the Romany wife he doesn’t know. I decided to call it AFTER THE BELLS. Bells of victory, you know, bells.

And now I have this stuck in my head:

 

But the bells we generally associate with June are wedding bells. My parents would have been married 70 years this year. My father was going to college on the G.I. Bill when they met. They set up housekeeping in a house he had built for her, a classic little just-like-the-neighbors bungalow, and they proceeded to have five children, just like the neighbors.

My father had a girlfriend before the war. She wrote him every day. He received her letters, usually more than one at a time, during calm interludes between horrific storms. After the war, he couldn’t bring himself to see her because he associated her with his terrible combat experiences.

Before World War I, she could have sued him for breach of promise. An engagement was a serious contract in those days, a delicate dance of etiquette performed to conceal the nitty-gritty negotiations going on behind the scenes. When the suitor asked her father for her hand in marriage, he was talking about money, or status, or some other quantifiable thing. Even for the Edwardians, romance was a nice extra.

Like so much else, those conventions were blown out the door by the war. Nobody wanted to wait six months to get married — in six months, the groom might well be dead. Many young men popped the question, said, “I do,” and had at least one night of honeymoon all during one leave. Who knew when he’d have leave again? Who knew whether he would come back? At least she’d have a soldier’s pay, and there might be a baby, the ultimate reminder that life goes forward even if we don’t.

But no matter how practical their thinking, they still got dreamy! The British newspaper the Telegraph reported in 2013 the results of a study by Genes Reunited, a family history website, that reviewed contemporaneous news reports related to romance and marriage, including the trend of courtships carried out via the mail and resulting in weddings of complete strangers.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/10406047/WW1-romances-and-the-hasty-weddings-scare.html

Here are some brides on the big day. Note the German couple.

Bridal couple

Bride street clothes
Married in streetclothes — no time for a wedding gown?

Bride with huge bouquet

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The bride is in mourning.

 

Rats were not the only critters

FANYs with their dogs

FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) with their ambulances and their dogs.

 

It was time to take my cocker spaniel to the vet for his annual checkup. I reflected, as I lugged him onto the table, what good he would have been to a platoon in the trenches.

None. He is deaf now and incurably mellow.

I did have a rat terrier. She’d have been a small terror in the trenches. Rats on the battlefields grew to be the size of cats, but a good terrier could kill quite a batch in a short period of time. See the result of 15 minutes’ work by the Jack Russell in the soldier’s arms.

trench_rats_4

Dogs had many jobs in and out of the trenches. Some were police dogs, some were messengers.

Military police dogsMessenger dogs

These dogs, with the German Red Cross, helped get the wounded in.

German Red Cross dogsRed Cross dogs at work

The most famous working dog of the war was the much-decorated Sgt. Stubby, the mascot of the U.S. 102nd Regiment, who served in France with the Yankee Division.  In his eight months of service in combat, he participated in 17 battles. He gave warnings of gas attacks and incoming shellfire and found and comforted the wounded. He himself was gassed and wounded by hand grenades. This is Stubby with his medals.

Sgt Stubby
Eerste Wereldoorlog, Verenigde Staten. De Amerikaanse legerhond Stubby die de rang van sergeant had, overleed in 1926.

Stubby could respond to salutes with salutes of his own, but he wasn’t the only dog in the army who recognized rank. Here is the divisional commander with the divisional dog.

Divisional commander with divisional dog

As well as any jobs they might have had, dogs and other animals were a source of love, comfort and entertainment.

 

This dog was wounded in a gas attack.

Dog injured in gas attack

This dog would not abandon its owner.

Refugee woman with dog

Is this dog about to take to the skies? Not if that cat has anything to say about it!

Pilot dog with cat

 

Here are pet cats, bunnies and a surprise.

Canadian with catsailor with cats

Soldiers with bunnies

Soldier with kangaroo Mena Camp Egypt

And this is my very ferocious, steal-pizza-off-your-plate rat terrier, Starburst.

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Rain, rain, go away

Why does it have to rain so much? Why can’t we be where these people are, having lunch in the pleasant sunshine?

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Because this is Ieper, Belgium, known during World War I as Ypres. In fighting over this little town, this last little scrap of Belgium, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. It once looked like this.

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Unless your backyard looks like this, the mud of Passchendaele, enough about the rain.

Passchendaele back yard

 

Wilfred Owen, War Poet

wilfred-owen-hires-cropped

I’m still reading poetry from WWI, specifically from the poets who died in the fighting. Among them is Wilfred Owen, probably now the most-read of the war poets. He wrote about the horrors of the trenches and the futility of the war. He was killed Nov. 4, 1918, just seven days before the Armistice that ended the war. He was 25.

I’ve read and read aloud … and realized from the docudrama “Anthem for Doomed Youth: The War Poets” (Britbox) that there’s a huge difference between my little voice and a man’s bigger, deeper voice.

Here is “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen, though his more popular work is “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” This is my favorite line from “Anthem.”

“The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells…”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4–FiANvXE

 

 

“Orisons” means “prayers.”

 

 

 

Poetry and soldiers

I worked on TIN SOLDIERS for two hours the other night. If an agent asks for a full manuscript, I can send near-perfection. Although, I always have it in the far back of my mind, and when it’s published, I might be seen rushing after buyers in a bookstore, shouting, “I just want to make a little change on page 147!”

In the interest of finding a title for my Romani novel, I have been reading WWI poets. The book I began with was a collection of works from the soldier poets who were killed in the fighting. You would think none of them had ever lived in a city, the way they go on about sheep on the hill and thrush in the hedges, but those represented England to them, and everyone on the battlefields was homesick, and living in horror.

800px-Ewart_Alan_Mackintosh

My favorite is Lt. Ewart Alan Mackintosh M.C. (The Military Cross is equal to the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Cross.) He served in the 4th and 5th battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders. He wrote a parody of the comic song “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers” that goes “Sniper Sandy’s slaying Saxon soldiers.”

He also wrote the poem “In Memoriam: Pvt. D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench May 16th 1916 and the Others who Died.” Here’s part of it.

Oh, never will I forget you, / My men that trusted me, / More my sons than your fathers’, / For they could only see / The little helpless babies / And the young men in their pride. / They could not see you dying / And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant / They saw their first born go, / But not the strong limbs broken / And the beautiful men brought low, / The piteous writhing bodies, / They screamed, “Don’t leave me, Sir,” / For they were only your fathers / But I was your officer. 

He was killed Nov. 21, 1917. He was 24.

www.iwm.org.uk/history/9-poets-of-the-first-world-war

 

 

 

He did what??

zander belinda

My hero did something that completely astonished me. How could he?!? How do we writers think these things up, these bits of story that seem to come out of nowhere? Is it just our subconciouses at work, or is there some font of imagination that we tap into?

However, it happens, it happened to me, and now I have to deal with the consequences. What comes next, what, what?

I am trying that technique where you write down a question — “What happens between this event and the next? What fills that gap?” You write the question on paper: tactile sense, visual sense. You read it aloud: visual sense, auditory sense. I suppose you could lick the paper or smell the ink, but that seems kind of silly. Read it to other people, type it on your keyboard. Read it aloud to yourself just before you go to bed. And when you wake up, you have the answer.

***

24 hours later: Got it.

 

The Unknown Warrior

Unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall

Britain buried the Unknown Warrior on Nov. 11, 1920, in Westminster Abbey after a procession and ceremony that included stopping at the newly dedicated Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, for a playing of the Last Post.

https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/unknown-warrior

The burial service was followed by the Great Silence, when the entire Empire and its allies during the First World War (except the U.S.) fell silent for two minutes. The Great Silence included traffic, trains and everything else that makes noise. It is still observed in Britain at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in remembrance of the Armistice that ended World War I.

These events figure in my novel.

More about the Great Silence:

The-Great-Silence-1918-1920-Living-in-the-Shadow-of-the-Great-War-by-Juliet-Nicolson-review.html

 

 

Photo of the ceremony at the Cenotaph from the collection of Marion Doss.