Last night I was watching a lovely gem of a documentary on Yesterday, “Vimy Ridge – Heaven to Hell”, which focused on the Canadian Corps at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917; I beg you to indulge my wittering on the subject, as it does have relevance.
A detailed look into the Canadian contribution to the First World War is not something we hear about that often over here, but for me it has a personal draw aside from my general fascination with military history. My great-great-uncle on my mother’s side served in ‘C’ Company, 13th Battalion C.E.F., and last summer while my father was immersing himself in genealogy and delving into our family’s past I took the chance to delve into the military history of some of our ancestors: my grandmother’s father (the interwar years with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) and her uncle (the Second World War with the Sherwood Foresters), both on my father’s side, and the aforementioned Canadian connection.
Watching the programme, with its exploration of the innovations made that enabled them to carry the ridge in just four days, really demonstrated the leaps forward made at the time. Background information told us that after the German Army had taken control of it in October 1914, and that the Allied forces had been unable to take it back. The story that followed spoke of underground cities beneath the trenches to house the men before an assault, of mines and counter mines, of practising and leave and practising more, and of observers in aeroplanes sending coordinates for targets down to the artillery. This final one, given the infancy with which aviation was in, never mind military aviation, is extraordinary. These canvas and wooden flying machines flew over the lines, the observer able to relay information back to the ground in Morse code via a small one-way radio strapped to his leg, taking photos as they went; this was, quite possibly, the most important function they held, but this can be hidden by the romanticism of the dogfight – which, given the observer manned either a forward or rearward facing machinegun, stood in the cockpit with no safety harness, is equally extraordinary.
The key point here is that it is a story that should be more widely known, or rather one that I feel, especially in the current climate, should be. And this is true of writing a novel – you see, there was relevance – particularly historical fiction: you seek to write the story you wish to read, because so often you may have a particular interest yet it is neglected. History is, in fact, far more incredible than fiction, as I found researching for my undergraduate dissertation on why the Spanish Guerrillas were so effective during the Peninsular War, and there are areas within a favoured setting that remain a black hole to a wider audience. This is how I am shaping the foundation of my own work: by finding a story that hasn’t been told, one that I’d want to pick up, and tell it. Within my research I came across a number of wonderful exploits, and characters that blew me away. There was a great deal of material I had to strip away from my final piece (10,000 words really is not enough), but in many ways this is no bad thing: it has given me a host of material to work from, including the delicious prospect of the “What if?” situation. Taking this as the basis, I’m hoping to craft something that will transport a reader into it, carry them into another time and cast light on little known characters through the creation of my own.