In this week marking the end of WW1, I find myself reflecting on what it means to me. Inevitably, my thoughts go back to the first visit I made to the Menin Gate in Ypres – or ‘Wipers’ as the British Tommies called it. It was 1987, and I was with my mother, on a guided tour of the battlefields.
For me, it was partly a research trip, but most of all I wanted to pay my respects to Will, the man whose WW1 diary had inspired me to become a writer.
My initial plan had been to write a novel based on his life – luckily, a friend urged me to check his background first, to see if the stories told by the family were true. The facts discovered on my first visit to the Archives in York, revealed such a twist to the family tale, I knew I had to write about his parents’ generation first. That was how Louisa Elliott came into being – a triangular love story and family saga, set in York, Lincolnshire and Dublin, in the last decade of the 19thC.
At the time of my visit to Ypres, the novel had just been accepted by the publishers Chatto & Windus, and the sequel – about the writer of the diary – had been commissioned. The question was, how was I to write it?
Will, the man whose diary had come into my possession some years before, was my grandfather’s brother, a York man who’d gone to Australia in 1913, in search of a better life. Just a year later, in August 1914, he enlisted with the 8th Battalion in Melbourne. Around the same time In York, his younger brother, Bob, enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery. In the autumn of 1917, Bob’s war ended when he was sent home suffering from rheumatic fever. Meanwhile, on 20th Sept 1917, his brother was setting out to fight the Battle of the Menin Road – part of the greater battle known as Passchendaele.
The real man had survived Gallipoli and the Somme, only to meet his end in Flanders. And yet he was still alive to me. Still active in all the clues he dropped for me to follow. His story was that of Everyman in WW1. Will wasn’t a hero – he was an ordinary man, an English private soldier serving as a machine-gunner with the Anzacs.
The poppies growing by the wayside on my journeys to York, had always cheered me as a child – but as an adult, I understood why they made my mother sad. She wanted to visit the Menin Gate, where Will’s name was inscribed, and so did I. That we were the first of our family to do so, made it even more significant.
We’d seen the photos of Ypres in WW1 – reduced to rubble after five major battles in four years. Seeing it fully restored in September 1987, it was hard to believe. The Menin Gate – just a gap in the town ramparts by 1918 – was now a magnificent memorial to the fallen.
After a long day touring the battlefields, just before eight o’clock, with the rest of our small group, we made our way along the main street for the ceremony of the Last Post, and the laying of our wreaths. The sun had set an hour or so before, and it was a time of evening when the air is still and the first stars are beginning to appear. It seemed hundreds of people were moving towards the Menin Gate, and lights beneath the arch illumined crowds on both sides of the road. Traffic was stopped, trumpeters waiting to sound that haunting piece of music.
A couple of elderly veterans in wheelchairs, chests adored with medals, gave the ceremony additional meaning. Hard to grasp that they had been present when the town behind us was reduced to rubble, when this road was no more than a rutted track into a shell-blitzed wasteland. With their absent comrades, these old men had fought here, and survived. They were here to pay tribute to the lost. There was a feeling of great love in the air.
As the last notes of the bugle faded, my mother and I laid our wreath for Will, standing for a few moments in contemplation before reluctantly moving away. It was like parting from a beloved friend.
We had to leave; the coach was waiting. A few yards down the road, I turned to look back at that massive monument to the fallen – somehow more meaningful because it stood in the midst of a busy, bustling town. Just like York, I thought, the past marching side by side with the present: perhaps time really is a human illusion? And suddenly there came a moment of dazzling clarity. In my mind, as clearly as if it had been written, I saw the new novel in its entirety. Like a blast of oxygen, banishing fatigue, lifting me like a feather.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered.
As our little party left Ypres on the way back to Zeebrugge, I took out my notebook and started scribbling furiously, half-afraid that – like a dream – the revelation would fade before I had chance to get it down.
Will’s WW1 diary had been a great inspiration to me. Thanks to that moment in Ypres, I could see how Liam’s Story could be written as a dual-time novel. Two sets of lovers – yes – with a modern war running parallel to the story about WW1. And I had the perfect adviser for the modern part of the story – my seafaring husband, Peter.
At the height of the Gulf War, while my first novel was reaching a conclusion, Peter had spent five months aboard a tanker carrying highly flammable cargoes between Kuwait and Karachi. He and his crew braved the gunboats, the mines, the fighter jets and the Exocet missiles. Why? Because it was their job to keep the world’s need for oil supplied.
They passed through the Straits of Hormuz every week. Every Sunday, as it turned out. ‘Time to recite our Sunday prayers,’ was how Peter described it. His experiences at sea gave backbone to the modern half of the novel.
In the writing, Liam’s Story, with its family upheavals, secrets and tragedies, became a mystery for modern lovers Zoe Clifford and Stephen Elliott to solve. But as sea-captain Stephen is sent to the Gulf, the power of a haunting wartime love-story becomes real to them both. The message Liam Elliott makes clear, is that death is not the end. Love survives.
If you would like to know more about the reality of the Gulf War episode, follow this link: