Saturday, 19 August 2017

Books On Arras: Poppies, Nature and La Bataille

I've been wondering whether I can still call myself a writer of any description whilst it's taking me so long to get anything written. Just to prove the book is still progressing, I thought I'd share with you some of the reading that I've been using to make sure I've got my facts straight and able to create some verisimilitude.

The section I'm working on at the moment has some description if the wildlife in France amongst the horror of battle, linked with the wildlife that RGH would have had contact with as the son of a farmer in Somerset. There's a good reason why so many WWI soldiers wrote about the lark, as it seemed to be ever-present, and the birds seemed to raise their chorus to be heard above the rattle of the guns. I was on holiday in Cornwall a week or so ago, and came across 'Where Poppies Blow' by John Lewis-Stempel, which gives an overview of the relationship soldiers had with wildlife in the trenches, and the importance of horses and birds, for example, to how the war was waged and how the men lived. I also came across the pictured 'Nature in the West Country' to do my research on Somerset for the princely sum of one pound in the National Trust second hand bookshop at Killerton House. RGH, like many young men of the era, was closer to nature than most of us would be today. 'Where Poppies Blow' serves as a reminder that the men were part of the very earth itself.

Amongst the many books I've read on the subject are these two. 'Cheerful Sacrifice' by Jonathan Nicholls collect many first hand accounts of the men's experience at Arras in 1917. 'To Arras, 1917' finds universality in the particular as Walter Reid tells the story of his ancestor Ernest's experience as an officer at Arras. My RGH is as far from being an officer as it's possible to get, so his story is in the mud, across the wire, knee-deep in water and close to the voles and birds. Both books have been very useful for research, as well as being good reads in themselves.

When we went to Arras in April, I bought this book, which is a beautiful hardback with some wonderful pictures of what Arras looked like at the time, and of the experience of the men underground. Although the tunnellers that provided practically a subterranean city under Arras to hide 24,000 troops were vital, this is not RGH's story. I am planning on using some ideas from that fascinating environment for another project, however. I'll let you know how that pans out.

The most pleasant surprise was finding, in several Arras bookshops, the graphic novel 'The Battle: Arras 1917' by Frederic Logez. The artwork is in places basic but it's engagingly laid out and uses a number of voices to portray a number of different experiences of the battle. There's a French version and a translated English version: I bought the latter, which is hesitantly translated but still very readable.

There's always a danger of doing too much research and ending up feeling swamped and not knowing what to use - or even remember. Likewise, the other danger is of inadvertently using too much of it. The story I'm telling has a factual basis, but events are fictionalised. The first 30,000 words concern themselves with events leading up to Arras, then we're into a central section which focuses on the day itself. That's where I am now.

This is some of the stuff I've already read on the subject. 'Forgotten Voices' by Max Arthur is particularly good, and isn't just on Arras but a whole array of personal accounts from the men themselves who fought on the front lines. 'Before Endeavours Fade' is a comprehensive guide to finding and exploring the war graves in France.

And here's the pile that I haven't read yet...
I'm not allowed near bookshops for a while...

Sunday, 23 April 2017

22nd April 1917 on 22nd April 2017

I'm just back from a few days visiting Arras. We took in: the Wellington Tunnels; Hervin Farm Cemetery where RGH is buried; the Vimy Memorial and the Arras Memorial before heading home. We visited Robert's grave on the hundredth anniversary of his death. A more detailed blogpost will follow soon, but in the meantime, here are some images from that day and the Hervin Farm:

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Arras novel is taking shape...

Edited extract from a draft section of the book I'm writing about Robert Gooding Henson and the Battle of Arras:

Thousands of Tommies, all together, were training for the battle that would soon come. Flagged courses were constructed over the rough terrain, where they would rehearse movements over and over again. The weather was cold, storms intermittently battering them in every way over and over again. The only relief was the resumption of the sporting tournament. One day, when the snow fell and obliterated the pitch, the officers decided they should forego football and a boxing tournament was organised. 

Whilst thousands of soldiers were accommodated in secret rough-hewn tunnels dug under the decimated city of Arras, Robert’s Battalion were shifted in buses to Dieval for Brigade exercises, then marched to Hermaville, a farming village just eight miles west of Arras. This day, 7th April, was an auspicious day for the Somerset regiment. This was Jellalabad Day, which celebrated the regiment’s successful escape from a trapped position in Jellalabad during the Afghan War in 1842. Celebrating one of Somerset’s greatest military victories on the eve of their greatest sacrifice was an irony that was yet to occur to most of them. Huts were set up with a piano, crates of beer, and a musical evening was provided for all the men. 

On 8th April, the men were settled into tents just outside a larger, more industrial village named Maroeuil, which was four miles closer to Arras. Unlike the twenty-four thousand soldiers who surged from the hidden tunnels in the city to take the Germans by surprise, Robert’s Battalion camped out. Whilst in a heavily wooded area, they were still more vulnerable and more likely to be spotted by German aerial reconnaissance. A party of officers, in an unusually intrepid operation, reconnoitred the trenches north of Arras ahead of the attack, and a plan was hatched.

They followed their orders but were not yet to know the full scope of what lay ahead of them. Troops from Australia, Canada, France, Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales were all defending the Ypres Salient and driving the Germans back long the line of the River Scarpe, and had been doing so for months that extended into years. The Fourth Division, of which the Somerset Light Infantry was a part, had orders to capture a section of the German trench system known as the Hyderabad Redoubt, north-east of the village of Fampoux...

Whilst this is taken from the book, it doesn't include anything to do with plot or characters. We'll save that for another day. I've taken the factual framework and constructed a fictional narrative that focuses on Robert's imagined experiences and later, how this relates to events after the war.

The 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Arras was recently commemorated on 9th April. Robert died on 22nd April. More on that soon...

Monday, 10 April 2017

Every Man Remembered

A little plug here for this website:

From the website's home page:

"Over 1.1 million Service men and women lost their lives during the First World War. We invite you to create a dedication to one of them, and to place a poppy on our map in their memory".

There's a really interesting interactive map, which enabled me to locate Robert Gooding Henson there along with the many also buried at Hervin Farm cemetery.

9th April was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Arras, bringing with it some strange family synchronicities which I will detail in a later blog post and also in the book. The book now has something of a structure. I have taken what I know of Robert's life (very little except where he lived and when and some sketchy family history)  and the movements of the Somerset Light Infantry, and woven it into a fictional narrative. Robert Gooding Henson is a character in the story. 20,000 words in and I'm close to the end of 1916. I don't know for certain whether Robert saw action in 1916, but the dates of everything else make it plausible, so my story has him at thr front during the winter of 1916. The book's second section will then move us to 1917 and the Battle of Arras. I have this roughed out but will be seeking out more detail to help with this when I visit Arras shortly. Subsequent sections of the book will bring the present into play, where I will be using a section about my father and then about my trip to Arras. After 1917, it's fairly fluid at the moment.

In 12 days, it will be a hundred years since Robert Gooding Henson died, just one of a great many remembered this month at Arras. A great many Scottish fell at Arras, as commemorated here, and Canadians too, at Vimy Ridge, as seen here. 

Another interesting article here:

and here:

Image result for football somerset light infantryIn November 1916, a "light company" sporting competition was organised whilst they were in a rest and train period away from the Front Line. Was RGH ever in a football team such as this?

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The writing begins and newspaper clippings of Robert Gooding Henson's death

Time for a quick update.

After some thought, with the working title of 'A Hundred Years To Arras', I'm using my research to write a fact-based novel. Beginning in 1916, just after my assumed date of when Robert Gooding Henson was sent to France, the first section of the novel will follow the 4th Division's deployment at the Battle of the Somme. The 4th Division, of which Robert was a part, were involved in the attack on 1st July 1916. The attack of the VIII Corps was carried out by the 29th, 4th and 31st Divisions in that order from south to north. The first objective of the 4th Division was to support the the Roayal Warwickshire Regiment to captaure a section of the German front line, romantically designated O6C93-Q6C99-K36C35-K36a82. The 3 Battalions that formed the second line behind the Warwickshires were the 1st Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, and some more of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, with the intention of advancing through the leading Battalions to capture the objective.

I don't know for sure whether RGH was involved in this battle, as about ten per cent of the regiment were left behind in billets at Mailly-Maillet, but for the purposes of the story I'm going to tell, he will be. The only spoiler of course that we can't avoid is that we know that he dies at the Battle of Arras.

My friend Garen Ewing, a brilliant writer and artist, and historical researcher extraordinaire, was kind enough to share with me a couple of newspaper clippings that he came across regharding Robert's death, as below:

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Family Connection

The last month has seen quite some upheaval. I've had some surgery and can only sit or stand for short periods. I'm recovering well I think, but during my convalescence I'm trying to avoid just staring at the TV, so thoughts come back to this blog and Robert Gooding Henson.

I was in the middle of investigating the family tree and the precise link to Robert Gooding Henson. This was to be a project I would work on with my father. Sadly, suddenly a couple of weeks ago, my father died.

We had been told that RG Henson was my father's grandmother's sister's son, but this wasn't all that clear as my parents come from a generation where their parents knew little and shared less about family history. In a poor mining community in South Wales, the priority was bringing up children and putting food on the table. We had begun to dig around a bit more.

My father's maternal grandmother was Mary Tucker, from Devon. She had a number of siblings, one of whom was Lucy Tucker. Lucy married Robert Henson, and they had a son whom they named after Robert's father: Robert Gooding Henson. They moved to Somerset, where they took on the farm there. The further records that I've been able to uncover state that, as suspected, RG Henson died of wounds on 22nd April 1917 but as yet I don't know how those wounds were inflicted.

So, for my Dad as much as for myself, the investigation continues...