Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Truce - 1914

When tens of thousands of young British and Commonwealth men went off to war so eagerly and naively in the summer of 1914, it was generally thought that they would be home by Christmas. But by then the troops on the Western Front were well entrenched along a mostly static line that would witness a brutal war of attrition during the next four years.

One of the absurdities of war is that the people who are expected to kill one another have no personal enmity towards one another. This became particularly clear on Christmas, 1914, when there was a spontaneous cessation of hostilities between British and German troops in the front lines. The Germans were decorating their trenches with small Christmas trees and singing carols. The British “retaliated” with English carols, and soon the men were shouting greetings to each other. Many met in No Man's Land (the area between the opposing front lines) where small gifts like chocolate or buttons were exchanged, and pictures of sweethearts were shown. In some places, the opposing troops played soccer, and drank together. It became known as the "Christmas Truce", and was dramatized in the 2005 Oscar-nominated French film entitled "Joyeux Noel". The commanders, of course, didn’t like this fraternization with the enemy, and tried to ensure that it never happened again.

See the trailer for "Joyeux Noel".  Also moving and powerful is this Sainsbury ad.

Christmas is a time to truly reflect and heed Longfellow’s words, sung for generations: “peace on earth, good will to men”.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Doctor, Soldier, Poet

My family and I visited Ypres (now Ieper) in Belgium a few years ago when I was doing research on my first Muskoka Novel, The Summer Before The Storm, set during WW1. The first thing that struck me, besides the fact that the city has been beautifully restored from the rubble of war, was that Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” – penned on the battlefields nearby - was plastered everywhere about the town, even in our hotel lobby. The WW1 museum, housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, is called “In Flanders Fields”. How surprised I was when I boasted to the owner of the English bookstore that I lived in John McCrae’s hometown, only to have him casually reply, “Oh, you’re from Guelph, Ontario.”

I know that the small museum in Guelph honouring John McCrae regularly has visitors from Europe, so their respect for this famous doctor-poet is more than lip service for tourists.
The author paying homage at John McCrae's grave in Wimereux, France
 I found humanist John McCrae a fascinating person, and couldn’t resist having some of my characters work with him in France in Elusive Dawn. Two of them attend his funeral. Here are excerpts from a letter one writes about it.

We attended [McCrae’s] poignant funeral in Wimereux along with so many others, including lots of brass hats, which speaks of the esteem in which the Col. was held. What was almost hardest to bear was to see the Colonel’s horse, Bonfire, following the flag-draped coffin, with the Colonel’s riding boots reversed in the stirrups. I’ve never seen a sadder animal, for surely he must have known that his beloved master was gone. I cried hardest then… Among the many flowers was a wreath of artificial poppies that the officers from the Colonel’s hospital had managed to procure from Paris. I do think that the Colonel’s most famous poem resonates with everyone, for it seems as if a veil of sorrow has descended on all the staff and patients here. His words will live on and touch many more lives – children yet unborn. That is a noble legacy, is it not?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Officers and Prisoners

In Elusive Dawn I have a Canadian officer pilot – let’s call him Z - who becomes a Prisoner of War (POW) in Germany, so I wrote his experiences to reflect what was typical -  based on real WW1 POW camps - as well as to illustrate some of the seeming absurdities of war.

Z began his incarceration in Vohrenbach, an idyllic new camp for officers in the Black Forest.  The commandant was an easygoing fellow with an English wife, so he was particularly decent to British POWs. (Canadians were British subjects in those days.)  Food was adequate and sometimes included potato salad and sausages. Giving their parole – a promise not to escape – officers were permitted to go for unguarded walks outside the camp.  With his officer’s salary that Germany had to pay him, as well as money from home, Z could buy good booze and other treats at the canteen.  It was an officer’s duty to try to escape, but most were quickly apprehended.
Holzminden officers' POW camp, Germany, WW1
When Vohrenbach was turned into a reprisal camp for French POWs, Z ended up at the notorious Holzminden prison in Prussia – the fiefdom of the brutal commandant, Hauptman Karl Niemeyer. Pilots and Canadians had a reputation for being troublemakers, which is why over 100 of the 500 POWs at Holzminden were Canadian.

Karl Niemeyer
 Niemeyer had lived in the United States for 17 years before the war. The prisoners mocked “Milwaukee Bill’s” often-laughable English, landing some, like Z, in deep trouble.

Niemeyer singled out a few well-known prisoners for harsh treatment, like Leefe Robinson, who had earned a Victoria Cross for being the first pilot to shoot down a German Zeppelin over Britain.  Z also became Niemeyer’s whipping boy, enduring long stretches of solitary confinement.

Rations at Holzminden consisted mostly of odious black bread and dishwater soup, so care packages from home and the Red Cross were essential to the POWs survival. In the latter stages of the war, they ate better than their guards and the starving German population – unless they were in solitary confinement.

Unlike the ranks, officer POWs could not be forced to work, so they relieved boredom with sports, plays, concerts, lectures, debates, reading. And planning escapes.

POWs in Germany were sent to neutral Switzerland or Holland during the latter years of the war if they were ill or had problems with their nerves after prolonged imprisonment. By the end of the war, 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops were interned in Holland alone. Once there, they could live in hotels if they could afford it, and officers could have their wives join them.

Canadian officers had a clubhouse on the seafront in Scheveningen in Holland where booze was cheap. The Canadians had a baseball team and often played against the American Legation in the nearby Hague. Some men got paying jobs and fell in love with local girls. But they weren't allowed to leave the country, and Britain would have been obliged to send them back had they tried. However, if a prisoner managed to escape from Germany to a neutral country, he could go home – and back to war.

On July 23, 1918, after nine months of secret digging, 29 prisoners managed to escape from Holzminden through a tunnel. Ten of them succeeded in reaching Holland.

You’ll have to read Elusive Dawn to discover how Z ends his war.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Officers and Gentlemen

When patriotic young men flocked to join up during the Great War, those from the upper classes were deemed to have the leadership qualities required to be officers. Not only did officers have higher pay and more privileges - including a “batman”, a military servant, to look after them and their equipment - but they also enjoyed officers-only restaurants, bars, and brothels in the British sector of the Western Front.

But officers also had greater responsibilities, and were killed in larger proportions than their men. Carrying only pistols, not bayonetted rifles, junior officers lead their troops “over the top”, and were easy for the enemy to spot and target.

Too many of the Empire’s bright young men, destined for greatness, were slaughtered.  Wilfred Owen, considered the leading war poet of his generation, was killed exactly one week before the Armistice in November 1918.
Lady Diana Manners, 1916
 Lady Diana Manners lost most of her male cohort, including Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, and married the only survivor in her circle of intellectual friends known at The Coterie. Her entertaining memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, describes her privileged aristocratic life and friends, as well as her wartime work as a VAD (volunteer) nurse.

Vera Brittain’s more intense memoir, Testament of Youth, poignantly describes the loss of her fiancé, brother, and two close male friends - virtually her entire social sphere.  Vera was also a VAD, and a movie about her is soon to be released. Here’s a link to the trailer.

On the lighter side, at least one officer had weekly hampers of goodies delivered to him in France from the famous Fortnum & Mason in London. Apparently they also supplied some Prisoners of War in Germany. Such are the vagaries of war.

My Muskoka Novels immerse readers in the lives, loves, adventures, and tragedies of the “lost generation”.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Deadly Skies

"He was hit by shrapnel in his hotel room while standing at the window watching the bombing," wrote my grandfather-in-law in his memoirs. This happened to his colleague who was on leave in London during a Zeppelin raid, and had just mentioned to his friends how ironic it would be to die in an air raid on London after surviving so well at the Front.

Zeppelins over London

My characters have a few encounters with London raids. The following scene is from Elusive Dawn, and describes the first successful downing of an airship in Britain, in Sept. 1916, for which pilot Leefe Robinson received a Victoria Cross.

The thunder of distant explosions seemed to punctuate her statement.

“An air raid!” Sid cried with glee. She turned out the lights and went to the window, drawing back the blackout curtains, which were now mandatory. “Oh look, there’s a Zepp to the north, heading our way.”

The graceful, silvery behemoth was pinned in the beams of dozens of searchlights. Anti-aircraft fire burst around it like holiday fireworks. As if in celebratory greeting. Even though it appeared to be on the outskirts of London, they could hear the whine of shells and the cacophony of explosions.

“Oooh, there are a few more in the distance. They’ve just been spotted by the lights.” And began dropping their bombs.

“We should go to a shelter, or at least your cellar,” Jack suggested half-heartedly.

“Don’t be absurd, darling. The basement is the servants’ domain. This is the only excitement I get. I really can understand why you men want to go to the Front. There’s something deliciously stimulating, almost erotic, about danger. It makes you realize that you’re alive.”

“Aren’t you worried about your reputation – if we should be killed and they find our naked bodies?” Jack teased as he draped her silk peignoir around her shoulders.

“I don’t give a damn! Let the sanctimonious prudes realize that I lived and loved and had more fun than they did.”  . . .   “Oh, look! It’s been hit!”

The Zeppelin had been twisting in different directions, as if it were impaled on the beams of light and writhing to free itself. Suddenly it burst into flames, its nose drooping down, fire scrambling up the sides until it was completely ablaze and plummeting toward the ground.

“Poor bloody buggers,” Jack couldn’t help saying. Fire was the aviators’ worst fear . . .  He and Chas always took along their revolvers when flying. Just in case.

The Zepp was exploding as well, from the ammunition on board. The city was like a stage suddenly illuminated, and they could see people out in the streets. Cheering.

The other Zeppelins must have turned back or headed elsewhere, since they were no longer in view.

“They didn’t get very close,” Sid said, as if disappointed the Zeppelins hadn’t dropped bombs around her house.

Jack found himself perturbed and annoyed by that blasé civilian attitude that some espoused – that war was a fun diversion for a while.

He couldn’t help thinking about the aircrew who had just been doing their duty for their country, as he did, and who perhaps had wives and mothers and children awaiting them back home.

His ardour dampened, he knew it was time to leave.

During air raids, London policemen rode about on bicycles or in cars with placards announcing that people should take cover. Boy scouts bugled the "All Clear" when the raids were over.

Zeppelin bombing raids during the four years of the war killed 557 people, injured 1358, and caused £3 million damage. During the last two years if the war, the new German Gotha bombers killed an additional 836 people, injured 2,000, and caused a further £1.5 million damage. This first “Battle of Britain” served to terrorize the population, disrupt factory production, and draw pilots and resources away from the front lines for Home Defence.