I remember my grandfather as a quiet, soberly-dressed old man whose passion was classical music and who lived in a genteel corner of Richmond-on-Thames. His house backed onto a little creek, where mandarin and goldeneye ducks and other exotic waterfowl congregated beneath an ornate Chinese bridge. There was always tea at my grandfather’s place – lots of tea – as well as cake and biscuits, some of which were not all that fresh. The only really colourful aspect of those visits, apart from the ducks, was a life-sized full-length portrait of my great grandmother in a vivid pink evening gown, which dominated the front sitting room. I later discovered that this grand lady had taken on the task of raising my father and my uncle in the 1920s (by then she was a widow, and only ever to be seen in black), because, for some reason, my grandfather couldn’t manage it.
Long retired from a sporadic career as a barrister, grandpa now spent much of his time cataloguing sheet music at the British Museum, work he undertook on a voluntary basis and for which he ultimately received an OBE (Order of the British Empire). As a ten-year-old boy, this did not impress me very much. My grandfather’s life struck me as sedate, not to say boring. I knew he had fought in both world wars, but he never talked about the action he had seen, at least not to me.
But then, a year or two before he died, my grandfather gave me a book from his library. By this time, I was about twelve years old, and beginning to take an interest in history. The book was an account of the Battle of the Somme, which was fought between July and November 1916 at the cost of around 125,000 British dead (and at least as many Germans). What struck me most forcefully were the photographs detailing not only the appalling destruction of towns, villages and landscapes, but the gruesome effects of shelling “when the defence had no deep shelter”. Even in blotchy black and white, they were the stuff of nightmares.
My grandfather had served in the Royal Lancashire Fusiliers right through the First World War, and had seen action in some of its bloodiest episodes, including Gallipoli, the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), and the 100 Days offensive of 1918. It was much the same story with his older brother, my great uncle, who served in the Manchester Regiment, and was part of the original BEF (British Expeditionary Force) that had crossed over to France in August 1914. According to one story, great uncle Alan had got drunk with his fellow officers during the crossing and climbed up onto a table (as young officers will) just as the ship hit a large wave. Alan fell and broke his leg. By the time he returned to active duty a few months later, all the junior officers who had made the crossing with him had been killed.
After my grandfather died, his papers and his extensive library made their way my parents’ home in rural Essex. With little room in the main house, most of the boxes ended up being stored in a disused bungalow on the edge of our rambling garden. Thirty-six years later, the Essex house was sold and a considerable down-sizing begun. It was then I found my grandfathers’ boxes from the First World War. Inside were regimental year books, items of military equipment, a divisional history of the East Lancashire Division, captured German documents, an officer training manual, a copy of Wyndham Lewis’s vorticist magazine Blast from 1915, lists of postings, photographs, a solitary letter from Gallipoli, and a huge cache of military trench maps. It was clear that my grandfather, then a young man in his twenties, had started keeping these assiduous records while serving on the Western Front, when the chances of being killed were very high. It was as if he felt the need to flesh out the history of what might prove to be a pitifully short life, to bulk out the fact of his existence with as much detail as possible.
To modern eyes, those details are sobering, even shocking. The manual, given to officers of the East Lancashire Division by an incoming commander, reminds its recipients to: “Be bloodthirsty, and never cease to think how you can best kill the enemy or help your men to do so.” The regimental log records a single day’s attack, in September 1918, when the 10th Manchester Battalion lost three hundred out of its four hundred and fifty men, and twelve out of sixteen of its officers. On these occasions, many men simply vanished in No Man’s Land, their remains recovered only weeks or months later, if at all. Over four long years, my grandfather must have lost many comrades and friends – or had he simply stopped making friends altogether? Like his brother, he survived the war unscathed, at least physically. How did he explain that to himself? How did he justify having a life to go back to, when so many good men had lost theirs?
One aspect of the Great War that had always fascinated me, and which has largely been forgotten, was the vast recovery and reburial effort that began as soon as the Armistice had been signed. At that time, the War Office calculated that at least 450,000 British and Empire troops had no know grave. The location of their field burials had been lost – often eradicated by shelling – or their bodies had never been recovered at all. Volunteer companies, incentivised with double pay, undertook a lengthy search of the old battlefield, a dangerous task as well as a traumatising one, given that the land had been sown with literally millions of unexploded shells. In framing a novel, I decided, mad as it might seem, to place a murder – a crime – at the heart of that effort and see where it led me. Two Storm Wood was what finally, and painfully, emerged.
My grandfather’s boxes provide much of the background to the novel. They helped me to reconstruct with a degree of confidence times, places and mind-sets very different from my own, without relying exclusively on histories and second-hand accounts. I’ll never know if my grandfather would approve of the result (if nothing else, I hope he would appreciate the nod to music in Captain Haslam’s civilian occupation). Nevertheless, the novel stands as a small tribute to him: a man I hardly knew, but whose determination not to be forgotten, to leave something behind, still echoes in the minds of his descendants a hundred years on.
(c) Philip Gray
About Two Storm Wood:
THE GUNS ARE SILENT. THE DEAD ARE NOT.
1919. On the desolate battlefields of northern France, the guns of the Great War are silent. Special battalions now face the dangerous task of gathering up the dead for mass burial.
Captain Mackenzie, a survivor of the war, cannot yet bring himself to go home. First he must see that his fallen comrades are recovered and laid to rest. His task is upended when a gruesome discovery is made beneath the ruins of a German strongpoint.
Amy Vanneck’s fiancé is one soldier lost amongst many, but she cannot accept that his body may never be found. She heads to France, determined to discover what became of the man she loved.
It soon becomes clear that what Mackenzie has uncovered is a war crime of inhuman savagery. As the dark truth leaches out, both he and Amy are drawn into the hunt for a psychopath, one for whom the atrocity at Two Storm Wood is not an end, but a beginning.
For fans of Ben MacIntyre, Munich by Robert Harris and Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith.
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