‘Glory’ will be published by Orion on April 10 in this, the centenary year of the landing of allied troops on Gallipoli.
My grandfather died at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli on August 21st 1915. He led his men across a dried salt lake towards a well-armed, well led enemy who held all the upper ground, including Scimitar Hill where my grandfather was killed. His body was never found and my grandmother who had six young children, continued to believe that he would emerge from a Turkish hospital or prison camp. Most probably he was burned, dead or alive, in the fires all around.
I was born during the Second World War and grew up in its aftermath and later lived in New York during the Vietnam War. War was always an important part of my consciousness. But this family loss in the First World War is the inspiration for my new novel, ‘Glory’. I have archive letters and diaries to bring the events alive. But when I travelled to Gallipoli and walked the jagged cliffs and gullies for myself, I soon realised that my grandfather’s experience was a very small part of that tragic and pointless campaign.
In ‘Glory’, as well as basing the older soldier on my grandfather’s military history, I have created other characters, young soldiers who endured all the misery and horror of the campaign. It has taken me from Gallipoli to England where wives and lovers have their own struggles, and to Egypt and Malta where men were held in reserve or lay in hastily commandeered hospitals.
The dream of snatching Constantinople and opening the gateway to Russia was a powerful one. But as I continued to research and write the story, I became more and more clear that it really had been only a fantastical dream, hatched up by politicians in London with no real understanding of the enormous difficulties. Unfortunately, it had to be fought by brave men like my grandfather, Brigadier-General Thomas, Earl of Longford, who gave their lives out of duty or patriotism. If there is any glory, it is all theirs. Sometimes I find the waste of lives almost unbearable.
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I spent some time finding an appropriate poem to precede the fifth and final section of my novel, ‘Glory’– A Story of Gallipoli’. There are so many heart-stopping poems written about World War 1. Many of the best known poets such as Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon fought as soldiers and wrote out of their own experience. The picture painted is often bleak and sometimes angry. Only Rupert Brooke who died of a septicaemia before he could fight, looked on war as an exciting challenge - not the sort of glory I am looking for. But, although my story is filled with horror and tragedy, it does not end without hope. There is a future and perhaps even for the better for those who survive. So I was looking for a poem that allowed for a modicum of light in the darkness.
Possibly, the search is a ridiculous or even disrespectful one. I hope not. Sassoon and others wrote exquisitely about the beauty of the countryside behind the trenches on the Western Front or even around them in the early part of the war before mud and shellfire destroyed everything. Here is the first verse of “Before the Battle”;
“Music of whispering trees
Hushed by the broad-winged breeze
Where shaken water gleams
And evening radiance falling
O bear me safe through dark, you low-voiced streams…”
I also particularly like “Returning, we hear the larks” by Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed in 1918.
” Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! – joy –strange joy. Lo!
Heights of night ringing with unseen larks. Music showering on our upturned list’ning faces…”
But neither Rosenberg nor Sassoon were ever on Gallipoli and their descriptions are of a landscape quite different from the cliffs and gulleys, the blue seas and the steep plateaux of the Turkish peninsular. When I complained to a friend of my dilemma, he suggested the ecstatic poem by Sassoon, “Everyone Sang”.
”.. Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun;
My heart was shaken with tears: and horror
Drifted away…O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”
Remarkably, Sassoon described in his memoir, “Siegfried’s Journey”, how he wrote the poem at home one evening when he was feeling particularly dull and that the words came as if he was ‘remembering not thinking.’ The trouble is that my novel or rather my characters, Arthur, Fred and Sylvia, would not see their lives reflected in that poem.
Sometimes I was reminded of searching for a fossil in a field. Something I’m good at. My policy is to walk normally until I feel a strong pull to look down and there, sure enough, if I stare long and carefully enough, will be a fossil, not necessarily large but carrying all the charisma of its 200 million years.
In the end, I did choose a poem. It is by Lawrence Binyon called “The Unreturning Spring”.I felt that,despite the “days rolled in blood”, it allows for a more general sense of consolation through the repetition and renewal of nature.
“A leaf on the grey sand-path
Fallen and fair with rime!
A yellow leaf, a scarlet leaf,
And a green leaf ere its time
Days rolled in blood, days torn,
Days innocent, days burnt black,
What is it the wind is sighing
As the leaves float, swift or slack?…”