Research Notes – The Great War (12) Passchendaele 1917

My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. One of my characters will be in the mud of Passchendaele in 1917. I visited the area in 2013. It is still chilling to think of the horrors that the soldiers endured.

The stalemate along the Western Front in 1917 looked like it might finally be breaking, with successes by British and Canadian forces in taking Messines and Vimy Ridges, respectively. The German salient had been pushed back and the plans to break the line were being formulated. The forthcoming battle would officially be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but would be more famously known as The Battle of Passhendaele, after the little village a few miles to the east of the site.

The area from Ypres to Passchendaele slopes continuously uphill—not an ideal way for the British to forge into battle. Even the soil around the area was about to become an obstacle. It had the consistency of clay—dense and heavy and prone to holding water. Before the war, the farmers who worked this land had needed to build up an elaborate drainage system to draw off the water during the rainy season. The battles fought in the area over the course of the war had demolished this fragile system, with the result that rain-soaked fields would become mires of thick, clinging mud. The success of the British advance in the Third Battle of Ypres was dependent on the weather cooperating.

June 1917 proved to be a good month for getting ready. In July the weather was for the most part agreeable, and the gun batteries came forward and took up their positions. The standard means of attack was to use heavy artillery to bombard the enemy in their trenches and then to send infantry ‘over the top’ to fight man to man. The initial bombardment could go on for weeks at a time, rendering the field into which the soldiers would follow a nightmare landscape of craters, rubble and ash. Though this approach had so far not proven to be an effective method, the generals were still enthralled by the idea of ‘more’ —more artillery cannons, more guns, more men, and not to mention, more casualties.

Airplanes had become a means of reconnaissance and the reports brought back by the pilots stated that the German morale was low and conditions looked good for an attack. However, British intelligence-gathering during the war was neither very objective nor accurate. The spies were told what the commanders hoped was true, and the spies basically confirmed that it was.

The artillery began raining death on July 18th, with the infantry attack scheduled to begin on July 31st. But as the shriek and blast of the heavy mortars went on for those two weeks, the weather began to turn. At first, occasional heavy rains filled the myriad shell holes littering the fields and due to the poor drainage, they remained that way. Still, on that last day of July 1917, the men crawled from the trenches at day break, carrying 60-80 pounds of gear on their backs and began to advance. They made two miles by nightfall and considered it a good start.

The next day, the first of August, it began to rain in earnest. This was no summer shower; it was a steady, soaking, continuous downpour. It rained for two weeks straight. The already saturated soil began to dissolve. The shell holes filled and the engineers tried to build up wooden walkways around them. The soldiers were slipping in the mud, falling in, and with their heavy packs weighing them down, drowning. The boards laid down to create footing were little better. In the rain, they became slick so that the soldiers had to tread carefully. The Germans shot the slow moving infantrymen off the boards, they fell in the mud and drowned.

August gave way to September and still the rain fell. Despite all this misery, the attack went on and finally Canadian troops took and held the village of Passchendaele. The advance on the Ypres Salient had gained the British four miles at the cost of a quarter million men.

British military historian Basil Liddell Hart relates the story of a staff officer who visited the battlefield after the fact. As he gazed out at the sea of mud, he said, “My God, did we send men to advance in that?” He then broke down and wept as his escort led him away.

There would never be another battle like Passchendaele. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night that battles like those fought on the Western Front could never be fought again:

“See that little stream we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. …This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes.”

He meant the only people that could fight that sort of battle were those who possessed a sure faith in their countries, their institutions, and their own unquestioned value systems. Only that kind of faith and confidence could prepare men sufficiently to endure the hell of such battles. Men like that were now gone: rotting in the fields of Belgium and France or if they lived, no longer in possession of such faith.

Nevertheless, the war itself had another year to run. New methods and new weapons were about to change the practice of war forever.

Images courtesy: Canadian War Museum, The Times of London, The Spectator, and Wikipedia

An Introduction to Copyediting

I finished a month-long workshop on copyediting last week and learned a few new things. I was also relieved to find that I haven’t been making too many mistakes in my own writing. So what exactly does a copyeditor do? And what’s the difference between editing, copyediting and proofreading?

Copyeditors work in the world of publishing, whether it be book, newspaper, magazine publishing, or online publishing. Any industry which requires written material will need a copyeditor. The copyeditor will perform his or her complex set of tasks behind the scenes: fixing awkward sentences, correcting mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling, and checking that titles and other proper names are accurate. Copyediting is much more than proof reading; it requires a mastery of the rules of grammar and a desire to make the written word shine. A copyeditor will transform an awkward or clumsy sentence into one that is as smooth and graceful as a choreographed dancer.

The process begins with the writer producing the article, feature or novel. This raw material is presented to the editor, who reads it with an eye to the story and structure of the piece. The changes they may recommend will include: plot modifications, character adaptations; and in nonfiction pieces, adding additional resource material. After the writer has made the changes and the editor has approved the manuscript, deeming it to be ready, the piece will passed on to the copyeditor.

Using the company stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook, the copy editor reads the manuscript with an eye toward lucidity, consistency, and errors. He will closely scrutinize punctuation and spelling, check the accuracy of titles and other proper names, and modify sloppy or lazy sentences. When changes are made, the copyeditor does so while keeping in tact the author’s voice and meaning. If the author’s meaning is unclear, the copyeditor will include a note asking for clarification. When the changes made are satisfactory to the writer, editor and copyeditor, the manuscript is passed along to the proof reader to check for typos or other errors that may have sneaked into the copy. The manuscript is nearly ready for publication and if the editor and copyeditor have done their jobs, the piece is now the best it can be.

I’m sure you can see how learning the basics of copyediting would be beneficial to an aspiring author. A submitted manuscript that is clean, free of errors and smoothly written will be much more attractive to potential agents and publishers than one that is sloppy and clumsily written. And especially for the Indie author going the self-publishing route, having a copyeditor’s eye is absolutely essential!

Research Notes – The Great War (11) Keeping House In 1914

My current work in progress is a historical novel partially set during World War One. To write the story accurately, I’ve been reading about all things war related. This is not really about The Great War, but it is about the time period. As with the details of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic and other events that would impact the lives of my historical characters, I want to make sure I write everything authentically. That includes the way they would have worked, eaten, dressed and housed themselves.

My central character in the 1910’s timeline, Gladys Henry, is a young woman who, although would have been considered fairly middle class –her father is a clerk at the bank in their town in the west of England– has had to take on a job when the family falls on hard times. Her father becomes too ill to work and of course, without work there is no pay. In those days, the options for women to work were limited. Without some sort of training in a profession like teaching or nursing, women would likely have to find work as domestic help. This is the case with Gladys. She spends her days as a maid in the services of a wealthy family in the town, cleaning the manor house in which they live.

Now, this all probably sounds very Downton Abby, but I absolutely refuse to rely on another work of fiction as a source for information. (Besides, I really wasn’t a fan after they killed off Matthew. Ugh.) Anyway, in my internet search, I came across an article titled “Home Duties” from a periodical of the time which describes the tasks involved in keeping house in those days.

In cleaning the bedrooms for example, windows would be opened wide, no matter the season. Curtains or draperies would be taken from their rods and shaken out, carpets would be rolled up and removed to the outdoors to have the dust beaten out. The now bare windows would be washed as would all the mirrors. Upholstered furniture would be brushed and leather furniture wiped down with damp, flannel cloths.

Sheets would be stripped from the beds and taken to the laundry where they would be washed and scrubbed by hand and then hung on lines to dry, after-which they would be ironed by a fire-heated iron. The rest of the bedding: blankets, quilts, coverlets, etc. would also be shaken out and left to air on the outside clotheslines. As you can imagine, the weather would have a huge impact on the housekeepers’ ability to perform these duties!

When furniture needed to be polished, a home made polishing agent was concocted. I found this recipe for one in the article:

  • Half pint of cold water
  • One ounce of Castille soap cut into slices and dissolved in the water
  • Half pint of turpentine
  • One ounce white wax, one ounce bee’s wax, dissolved in the turpentine
  • Mix the water solution and the turpentine solution together
  • Add one to two tablespoons menthylated spirits and shake vigorously.

When all was cleaned, dried and removed of wrinkles, everything would be put back in place, and if the rooms would not be in use till guests once again visited, everything would be covered with dust sheets.

Whew…. makes me grateful for my Shark vacuum and my Maytag washing machine. This might seem like research ovrkill, and in truth not all of that will make it into the story. However, just knowing how they performed their duties helps keep mistakes from creeping in. For example, erroneously describing the use of a commercial product which may not have existed in those days. It’s the small things that can make or break a story sometimes. I just wish I had a couple of Victorian ladies to beta read this book for me!