I was born into a family with a strong military tradition on both sides. As a child I assumed that everyone had parents who had ‘been in the war.’ Growing up in troubled Tyrone, I was surrounded by mementos of those times. Rows of medal ribbons including my father’s MC, POW tags with Japanese lettering, my grandfather’s dog-eared letters from the Far East heavily redacted. And there were photographs of all six of my mother’s family in uniform at the same time. My grandfather – both in that of the Rifle Brigade during the First World War and as a much older man during WWII. Pictures of my impossibly young uncles, in the Australian services, one a Digger, the other dapper in the dark blue of the RAAF. And a sweetly feminine photograph of my mother, aunt and grandmother all in the WAAF together.
But there was little talk about the war either in our home or outside of it. I understood that my grandmother was something of a mathematical wizard not least because she would blind me with her science when helping with my homework. My mother, unlike anyone else’s mother, could fix televisions and radios and spent hours under the bonnet of the clapped out cars my parents drove back then. I knew nothing of my uncles. I have a dim memory my grandfather when I was very small. I was to grow up before I wondered how did he learn to make toys or why it was inevitable that he would get stomach cancer? Where did my mother learn her electronic skills? What had my grandmother done that was so clever in the war? Everyone suffered they said and so there is nothing special about their story. It was just duty they said. I sensed the shroud of sadness that kept them from saying more.
But this was not the only reason that their experiences in those years were kept bottled up at that time. In the struggle for Irish freedom these narratives were politically inconvenient and the sacrifices made by the Irish volunteers in both wars were subject to what has been called a national amnesia. Remembrance Sunday was reserved for the tiny rural, churches where stoic widows surreptitiously pinned their dead husband’s medals to their moth eaten coats. I sensed that having such a family meant that we were, in some way that was not explained, less Irish. Their service and sense of duty in those global conflicts was considered at best irrelevant and at worst treasonable.
Time has healed much and a more mature Ireland now recognizes and embraces these stories. This novel is my attempt to help to restore some balance and pride in what my family and hundreds of thousands of other Irishmen did during those awful years and to recognize the toxins their experiences must have left with them.
My father landed in the first wave of the D-Day landings at the age of 19. He had what they called a “good war” and was highly decorated. He was a big jovial fellow during the day but he shouted in his sleep every night. My mother’s tears never dried and Remembrance Sunday was a torture for her. Their ordeals permeate my DNA and like all creatures I suppose it may be some time before I lose the genetic memory of it. Writing their story has been a cathartic journey with their ghosts.
Some years ago I was visiting the RAF Museum in Hendon and stumbled on the famous Bomber the Avro Lancaster, S for Sugar which bucked all the awful statistics and flew over 100 missions and survived the war. I was completely shocked to see my uncle Tony’s name on one of its engines. Later on a stop over in Singapore I visited the Museum at Changi POW camp and I found a photograph of his brother Nick, just recognizable even in his emaciated state. It was as if my family were scattering a trail for me, coaxing me to look further. Then on the trip to the Pas de Calais, whilst looking for my uncle’s grave I found, as a result of another coincidence that marks this story throughout, the very spot where he died, and then I felt sure that I was meant to write it.
The story of my family’s war is an extraordinary one but the research of the facts, painstaking though it was, left me feeling dissatisfied. Like most who have lived through conflict they spoke little about their experiences and they wrote few letters, and so I had little to add to the historical data. I read personal memoires of Australian Digger soldiers, RAF Bomber Command airmen and WAAF radar mechanics and wondered how my mother’s and her brothers’ might have been written. I wrote a novel because I wanted to move in their personal spaces so that their story lived. I needed to to imagine how they felt, how they reacted to fear and loss and to put words in their mouths. I went to where they had been– a ranch in Australia, the lonely railway station where the two young boys began their life in the new world, the POW camp in Changi, the airfields and pubs of Lincolnshire. I taxied out to the runway in a Lancaster so that I could hear for myself the massive roar of her engines. I found the names of thirty Jewish boys on the ship’s manifest of the Jervis Bay that carried my uncles to the southern hemisphere and thus Zach, Nick’s fictional friend came to life.
As a partner in a law firm, I have been writing legal reports and drafting affidavits all my working life. How difficult can this be I thought? Little did I know that my poor left brain would have to crank painfully into life, all of my drafting skills, especially those for brevity and precision, thrown to the wind so that my imagination, not much used in the legal world, could very slowly and haltingly germinate. On the plus side, perhaps the sense of mortality that unfortunately comes with advancing years has leant the work an added poignancy. I hope so.
(c) Caroline Preston
About This Tumult:
The Tottenham family is falling apart. There is no money to maintain the crumbling house in Westmeath, and decisions have to be made. Brothers Nick and Tony, fed up with the constraints of rural Ireland and with escalating family tensions, make the long journey to jackaroo on their uncle’s Australian farm.
But it is 1939, and World War Two looms. Nick and Tony’s futures are thrown into chaos as the entire family signs up to help the war effort. Little do they anticipate the unimaginable terror, starvation and heartache that lies ahead of them, or what it will take to survive.
This Tumult is based on the author’s own family history, taking in the battle fields of Syria and Java, a farm in Australia, night sorties over Germany and France, Lincolnshire air fields and the horrors of a Japanese prison camp. It is a remarkable story of hardship, heroism and extraordinary coincidence.
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