My Grandfather, Tom Longford, (circled) briefing his officers before going into action on Aug 21st at Suvla Bay Gallipoli.
(HC Blyde loose collection. From the Berkshire Yeomanry Museum.)
Publishing ‘Glory’ is an emotional business. Naturally people are interested in my grandfather’s story which inspired me to write the novel. His heroic and pointless death is bad enough. But for me it exemplifies the muddled thinking that surrounded both the idea of the campaign and its execution. First there was the failed naval attempt to force a way through the Dardanelles and take Istanbul, then the failed army attempt to take the peninsular, leading to final evacuation in January 1916. The Gallipoli Association provides data that tells the story in numbers: some 5559,000 Allied personnel were committed, of whom 420,000 were British and Empire troops, 80,000 French, 50,000 Australians and 9000 New Zealanders. There were 250,000 casualties, 58,000 dead, including 29,500 from Britain and Ireland, over 12,000 from France, 11,000 from Australia and New Zealand and 3,500 from India. I have been asked why I wrote a novel and not a history book. The answer is that fiction gave me the freedom to invent characters and place them where I want them. It allowed me to bring a strong human element to the story, to introduce women who were important even if not on the peninsular, and to describe in detail the tortuous geography of Gallipoli in all its dangerous beauty. Of course, historical fiction must still be based on reality and proper research. For example, I read the almost daily letters that my grandfather sent home while in reserve with his yeomanry in Egypt. He voices the patriotic sense of duty common at that time, also his doubts about the progress of the campaign. His letters to his children, illustrated with little drawings are heart-breaking. In ‘Glory’ he becomes Brigadier-General Fitzpaine, not my grandfather but someone who shares his attitudes and military history. Lately I have been sent a photograph of him briefing his officers at Suvla Bay on August 21st. A few hours later almost all of them were dead or wounded. I believe that fiction has the power to bring out the truth of a story in a direct and personal way. In ‘Glory’ I pay homage to all those who fought at Gallipoli and to those, like my grandfather whose bones remain there forever. My grandmother, at a memorial service held for my grandfather in 1916, wrote an additional verse for the hymn, ‘Within the Churchyard’:
‘And those who die away from home, Their graves we may not see But we believe God keeps their souls Where ere their bodies be’
As I was finishing ‘Glory’– A Story of Gallipoli’ I spent some time finding an appropriate poem to precede the fifth and final section of my novel,. 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?…”