On Passing the New Menin Gate – More World War I Reflections

The New Menin Gate – courtesy of Tripadvisor


Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.


These are the angry words of Siegfried Sassoon, who took exception to this structure, and presumably to the bigger war memorial in Thiepval in the Somme valley also. The Salient he refers to is the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the Western Front around the town which also, if I recall correctly from my battlefields tour included “Passchendaele at two o’clock”.

Ypres is a weird place. I can say so because I was there. It was flattened during hostilities a hundred years ago, then rebuilt from scratch, so one is in a Flemish town with an impracticably large guild hall and all the shops selling WWI memorabilia. In nearby Hooge there is a crater from a mine – fenced off to avoid live ordnance – and a Blighty cafe. There is a heavy energy about the place; I find it hard to be more precise than that, but one feels it. The land around is undulating to flat, making warfare difficult; it is easy to believe that the hostile armies had a good view of each other!

That said, there is something majestic about the Menin Gate. It is disproportionately large for the size of the town, but that isn’t the point. It is a war memorial to every British and Commonwealth soldier whose resting place is unknown. I should say a word about war graves – they all conform to an Art Deco design and there are certain standards that are always adhered to. You won’t be seeing lights, balloons and flowery wreaths spelling out TOMMY on a war grave.

And the dead are still remembered. Every night of the year – every single night since 1927, the only exception being during the Second World War – a group of buglers, pipers and drummers play the Last Post in the archway of the Menin Gate. The night I was there, a balmy one in early May, a choir sang “Abide with Me“. To my genuine surprise I found myself moved to tears. I think it might have been because the toxic energy of all those battlefields had enervated my system, but there was also beauty and honour in the observance. I don’t blame Siegfried Sassoon for the rage and hurt he felt, and the burning sense of injustice. I can only begin to imagine what he experienced out there. But I think perhaps in this instance he might have been a little unfair.

Stigma and “Cowardice” in World War I and Some Thoughts

Today is Easter, the festival of renewal and hope. The story of the crucifixion and redemption is a powerful one. I hope everyone who celebrates has a good day. I’m continuing to work through the novel, and will be blogging more about some of the historical events that inspired it over the coming months.

Editing the war scenes in the novel, picking through each line and sentence and paragraph for any possible inaccuracies and infelicities, has brought the unfortunate history back to me. It’s impossible to pore through books and source material without being brought out of oneself for a while and taking a moment to feel common, human sympathy with those who suffered. Men and boys who could not endure day after day of artillery bombardment. Or, in the case of this teenage lad:

Private Thomas Highgate was the first to suffer such military justice. Unable to bear the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons, he had fled and hidden in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Just 35 days into the war, Private Highgate was executed at the age of 17.”

(from the BBC webpage)

A seventeen-year-old boy. I want to mother the poor fellow and give him tea and biscuits. But I can’t reach 100 years into the past and stick his bullet-riddled, torn body back together. I can’t give him his innocence back.

Much of this suffering was inflicted by older men on younger. One example of these older men was the bould Canadian doctor, Sir Andrew Macphail. According to Wikipedia, Macphail enlisted in the War at the age of 50 (now there’s a man who wants to recapture his earlier virility if ever I heard of one.) He served in the Ambulance Corps – heroically, one presumes, as I doubt the man could take a dump in the loos back at Base in Rouen without making it a heroic one –  and took it upon himself to write an Official History of the Great War in 1925. About mental breakdown in combat, he had this to say:

The War Office went so far as to recognize three forms of neurosis or psychoneurosis, namely, shell-shock, hysteria, and neurasthenia. Sir Frederick Mott observed, however, that all persons so affected ‘had an inborn or acquired disposition to emotivity‘… Soldiers who developed these manifestations in the stress of war would have presented a similar spectacle in corresponding circumstances in civil life.

So what he’s saying is that the massive numbers of shell-shock victims on the battlefield were all mentally weak anyway. Ladies and gentlemen, victim-blaming par excellence, 1925 stylee, with no statistical data anywhere. Though I can’t help wondering how he would have categorised a man like Siegfried Sassoon, who earned a Military Cross for his courage in battle then later had a huge nervous breakdown, chucked the medal into the Thames and wrote a letter to the papers telling them the whole war was a horrific swizz. That would stuff up Macphail’s theory a bit. But the good doctor is not finished yet:

Under cover of these vague and mysterious symptoms the malingerer found refuge, and impressed a stigma upon those who were suffering from a real malady. ..What was once a disease had in 1917 become a stigma, and yet…fear of the ostracism of contempt for weakness at best and cowardice at worst did much to counteract the emotion of fear of the enemy…Hysteria is the most epidemical of all diseases, and too obvious special facilities for treatment encouraged its development. ‘Shell-shock’ is a manifestation of childishness and femininity. Against such there is no remedy.

Well once something is called “feminine” you are pretty screwed. “You crack up under relentless shelling like a girl!”, eh? It astounds me that it never once occurs to this man, who is presumably equipped with all intellectual faculties, that the war itself was a horrific waste and slaughter, that men were asked – and after early 1916, forced, thanks to conscription – to endure what man cannot endure, and that the whole rotten system was to maintain them in this unrealistic – and insane – state of endurance so the old men could get their stats right.

Thankfully, now, the approach – in Britain at least – is more enlightened and all the young men shot at dawn have been pardoned. Have a peaceful Easter, everyone, and as Stevie Wonder sings, keep hatred from the mighty and the mighty from the small.

Update on Womentoring and Novel Progress

Since the launch of Womentoring on Tuesday, I’ve received an application – thank you! I will leave applications open for the next few days and then when that’s done I will start getting in contact. Thanks to everyone who has applied or is thinking of applying!

Edits continue apace and we continue to tame the monster. So I am all in the middle of battles and drama and high sentiment. Also this week I got sent the draft cover for the novel. It is very stylish and I’m excited to see the first images. Well done to all involved. Another step closer to a book – it’s so exciting 🙂

I’ve also made another tweak to my wordpress site. I took the top of the Kitchener poster I had in the last layout, chopped it in two and used it as my header and landing page image. The Kitchener poster with its caption “Be certain that your so-called reason [for not enlisting] is not a selfish excuse” is one of a medley of WWI propaganda posters I saw in the Imperial War Museum in 2011 and took photographs of. When you see them one after the other, in a dizzying reel, you begin to feel a bit harried and cornered. It’s a classic example of using shaming to get the objective you want – in Kitchener’s case, that was a million and a half men on the battlefield.


Womentoring Project Launch Blog Splash!

I have the pleasure of taking part in Kerry Hudson’s wonderful Womentoring project. I’ve volunteered my services as a mentor, which means I will provide feedback and assistance to your writing – so if you’re a woman and you’re interested in assistance from me, my Womentoring profile info is here.

Guidelines to apply (taken directly from their website)

How to apply

  • Email the womentoringproject@gmail.com with:

  1. 1000 word sample of your writing
  2. 500 word statement, specifying why you would benefit from free mentoring
  3. Your full contact details
  • Please cut and paste all of this information into the body of the email and ensure they are clearly titled as ‘writing sample’ ‘statement’ and ‘contact details’. The subject line of your email should contain the name of mentor you are applying for mentoring with i.e. ‘Sally Briggs’ if you were applying for a mentor called Sally Briggs.
  • It is really important to the project’s success that you only have one application active for one mentor at a time – the emails will be monitored in this regard.
  • Your email application, along with any others received, will be forwarded to the mentor for review
  • If you are successful your mentor will get in touch personally to discuss moving forward
  • If you are unsuccessful you’ll be notified by email – please note the response times will vary depending on the mentor but you will receive notification
  • If you are unsuccessful you’ll be eligible to apply for another mentor


  • As we have limited resources applications that don’t follow the guidelines above will automatically be disqualified. We have tried to keep them as simple as possible so please (please, please, please etc.) do follow them.

  • Choose the mentor you want to apply for carefully. Although all mentor profiles have biographies we strongly recommend also doing some research on your prospective mentor and reading/familiarising yourself with some of their writing before you apply to ensure the best ‘fit’.

  • The application system isn’t first come first served so do take time and care with your writing sample and statement. Give yourself the best chance by making your application as polished as possible.

  • Your 500 word statement is incredibly important and should explain exactly why you need free mentoring (i.e. why you are unable to access paid opportunities) and how having a mentor will benefit you. A good statement could be the difference between being successful or not!

Scenes From Hell

Every now and then you get the Scene From Hell.

You have two characters who need to say a bunch of stuff to each other. There are several reveals, but also things must be concealed Because Plot. It has to be done in one scene and the scene has to end in a particular way. On your marks – start the dialogue – Go.

You’re about 500 words into a he-said, she-said scenario and it just seems artificial. So you have to break up the dialogue. Somebody do something! Find an animal who will do something animal-y to distract attention! Have it start raining. And stop raining. And start again. Anything to break up the talking heads!

Congratulations. You have just found yourself in the middle of a Scene From Hell, where you have to serve up a smorgasbord of the prose equivalent of the screenplay term /beat or /noises off while you get the characters to reveal what they need to reveal in good order. You get to the stage where Raymond Chandler’s man with a gun is a plausible interruption. Especially if he SHOOTS EVERYBODY and solves the problem there and then.

And then even when the characters are talking, they get distracted. You end up going down a rabbithole and having to delete several lines up to keep them on track – yet make it not look like you’re keeping them on track. So, how to do it?

Well in my experience, half the battle of a Scene From Hell is knowing you’re in the middle of one. Once you are aware of that, for some reason it takes the pressure off. Knowing it’s going to be very artificial frees you up to use artifice, which is what you need in a scene like this, and in spades. Occasionally, the character will lose patience with you; I was driving to work one rainy morning pondering the Scene From Hell I was currently writing when suddenly one of my characters started waltzing the other one across the lawn. OK, said I, I’ll go with the flow.

And now I’m noticing something interesting. Those Scenes From Hell often read more naturally than the ones that flow. And they get fewer comments from the editor!

New Header

I’ve decided to alter my blog header, both because my mugshot was a bit large and Carly Simon might end up writing a song about it, but also because I thought it would be interesting to show some of the WWI propaganda posters that I saw in 2011 when I went to visit the Imperial War Museum to learn more about the setting for my novel. There is something quite relentless and inexorable about the messages being sent out.

As for Lord Kitchener’s opinion…well, I’ll leave you to be the judge of what I think.