There are a number of reasons why I set out, in July 2014, to write about the First World War every day for the duration of the centenary. Primarily, I wanted to deliver an act of remembrance of a scale that in some way matched up to the significance of the 100th anniversary. I wanted to make the events of the Great War a part of my every day life, as it had been for the British population a century ago, to feel connected to the past. My friends would tell you that it is not uncommon for me to refer to Diary of the Great War events in the present tense!
Furthermore, I wanted to learn in more detail about what happened during the war and, sitting in the British Library surrounded by archives as I tried to work out what my project should be, I discovered the contemporary accounts of The Times newspaper. Its monthly diaries offered a voice from the past that tracked the war’s progress in the perfect balance of summary and detail to get the overview I wanted. Lastly, but by no means least, it felt important to share my project with as many people as possible, so that everyone might know the events of the war, its people, its places and its global impact.
I’m telling you this because it goes some way to explaining why I now find myself in Flanders. Having written every day for four years now, I felt compelled to cross the channel to visit the WWI battlefields of Belgium and France in something of a personal quest on three fronts.
First, it now feels essential to me to connect physically with the content of the Diary of the Great War as I reflect on my experience of writing. Hundreds of different cities, towns, villages and even individual farms are name-checked in the Diary over the years, most I had never heard of. While writing the Diary, I look up pretty much every one of them, positioning them on Google Maps, discovering their modern names (and, sometimes, which country they are now part of, where nations have shifted and changed during the 20th century). What is hard to grasp is what the war meant to these places. I want to visit some of the more frequently-mentioned towns to make them ‘real’; locate some of the more unusually-named places that have lodged themselves in my memory. They have almost become myth to me and I want to be in these places to live a connection to the past. I want to travel between them and through them to experience how the battles took shape along the front lines that strung these places together.
Secondly, and a little more frivolously, part of my trip will trace aspects of the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I first read this book about 20 years ago as a teenager and, with a burgeoning interest in the era, it completely captured my imagination. What continually fascinates me about the First World War is the many, many stories it contains: created, concealed, or cut short. Birdsong is in no small part responsible for my passionate interest in the subject and I will be re-reading it along my journey, visiting sites that until now I have only imagined, and so bringing the book to life.
Lastly, as for many who visit the battlefields, there are family connections. During the centenary I have remembered my great-grandmother’s family in a number of ways. Three of her brothers were killed in the war: Frank, George and Thomas Potter. I’ve written about them elsewhere but it is for Tom that I venture to Flanders. He was killed at Passchendaele. My great-grandfather on the other side of my family, Ferguson Hunter, also fought in the war and thankfully survived. He was part of the respected Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) Regiment. There are places I need to visit to stand in the shadow of my own ancestors.
These three influences will feature as this blog unfolds. And so my journey into the fields of Flanders begins…