Having a slight obsession with WW1 and writing my blog posts with a photo of my grandfather and his WW1 medals in my eyeline, I couldn’t resist asking Paul Marriner, author of The Blue Bench to come on to Linda’s Book Bag today to tell us a little bit about the 100 years since the signing of the Armistice and what it means to his writing. I’m thrilled with the utterly fascinating guest post I have to share with you and I can’t think of a more appropriate day to share it.
I also have a brilliantly generous offer from Paul who is making The Blue Bench e-book available to blog readers for free and is allowing me to give away a print copy too. Details at the bottom of this blog post.
The Blue Bench
Margate 1920 – The Great War is over but Britain is still to find peace and its spirit is not yet mended.
Edward and William have returned from the front as changed men. Together they have survived grotesque horrors and remain haunted by memories of comrades who did not come home. The summer season in Margate is a chance for them to rebuild their lives and reconcile the past.
Evelyn and Catherine are young women ready to live life to the full. Their independence has been hard won and, with little knowledge of the cost of their freedom, they are ready to face new challenges side by side.
Can they define their own future and open their hearts to the prospect of finding love? Will the summer of 1920 be a turning point for these new friends and the country?
There’s a Facebook page and trailer for The Blue Bench here.
November 1918 when the Great War ended …
‘The Times They Were A Changin’ (were they?)
Or – why The Blue Bench is still relevant, 100 years on
A Guest Post by Paul Marriner
I am not a historian in any formal sense, but I like a story with drama, interesting characters I can identify with (both vulnerable and secure) and a place and time with a sense of melancholy and change. And history is full of them – both fiction and non-fiction. I’m especially engaged if I can recognise the protagonists’ conflicts and behaviours as still relevant today. All of which helps to explain why I was drawn to the time and events that led me to write The Blue Bench – set in 1920, during the summer leading up to the unveiling of the Cenotaph and interment of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November of that year.
And when Linda asked if I’d like to do a guest post for her blog around this time of year I jumped at the chance.
By now it should be obvious to all that 11 November 2018 is the centenary of the signing of the armistice which signalled the end of hostilities on the western front after 4 years of unimaginable horror. Though not the official end of the war, 11 November remains an extraordinarily important date for Britain. (and of course for many other countries, but today I’ll focus on Britain). As a point of interest the formal end of hostilities between Germany and the Allies came with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.
By November 1918 Britain had lived (and many had died) through four years of unprecedented killing, maiming and destruction. The men who went to war returned changed, either physically, mentally, emotionally or socially – the last in the sense that during the war they had left their known environs and social groups and mixed with a wide range of fellow soldiers from all over the country and, to an extent, from around the globe as Commonwealth countries and the US armies joined the fight. It is the case that the regimental system used by the British Army meant that soldiers’ immediate colleagues may easily share locales, background and acquaintances but only a trench awaywas a different regiment. They might come from a part of the country hundreds of miles away and speak a different dialect almost as unintelligible as a different language but they shared the same mud, huddled from the same shells and prayed to the same God, more or less. They also shared very similar experiences of what Army life meant, in addition to the shared experience of the battlefield.
There was also, to a lesser extent, a mixing of classes and education levels that wasn’t always representative of their day to day pre-war lives, though the class system was inherent in the Army’s rigid structures – few officers came from the working classes. So, to that extent, any resentment at the class system that kept the working man ‘in his place’ was reinforced. But some of the middle and upper classes found themselves, either by luck or design, fighting alongside the lower classes, and of course, vice versa.
So, for many reasons (physically, mentally, emotionally,socially) the men who came home were often very different to those that left and many had new aspirations for the post-war lives they would build.
Back home, while they were away, the women had their own struggles. They were still expected to keep households, raise children, form the backbone of their societies and support the country by taking on the jobs that the men were no longer around to do – and be paid less for doing so. And all while dreading the news, or lack of it, from the front.
The statistics regarding deaths and casualties during the war are staggering and, I’m sure, will be well publicised in coming days. Sometimes we become inured to the numbers, simply unable to comprehend their scale – so I will just add that in many ways it’s even worse than the numbers you see. Consider that every single death represents someone who was a son, possibly a father, possibly a brother and cousin, or a fiancé or an uncle or a Godfather … you get the idea. It’s not unreasonable to assume that each death actually affected perhaps five or six people (on average) almost directly – so, for example, we can multiply the number of British soldiers killed during the war (c. 700.000) and guess that perhaps 3-4 million loved ones also suffered directly and untold numbers indirectly. That’s a number worth thinking about: 3-4 million.
When you also take into account that many of those people would have lost more than one loved one then both the breadth and depth of the scale becomes astonishing. Yes, perhaps there is a degree of sensationalism in looking at it this way – but I don’t think there’s much.
And when the men came back from the war the women were obliged to give them back their jobs. In some ways this is understandable as the men had to be re-integrated to society and, in many cases, would resume responsibilities for looking after wives and families. But we can probably assume that many women were unhappy at losing any new found independence, especially if they were unmarried and needing to support themselves. And the state of not being married was more common, due to the availability of fewer men as a result of the war. This trend had begun during Victorian and Edwardian days as the young men were sent off to far flung reaches of the Empire – either to keep it under control or seek their fortune (or both, in many cases).
Reintegration of men into society was further complicated by so many disabled veterans looking for work and finding little. Army disablement pensions were not generous by any means and many relied on charity for food and accommodation.
Throw into this mix the economic difficulties that came from having to fund a war and it’s easy to see how the country can be considered as quite broken in many ways, even as the war came to a close.
Prior to the war there had been an increase in debate and action regarding both workers’ rights and womens’ rights – political movements, often supported by growing unions for the former and the suffragists’ movements for the latter being obvious examples. To an extent, the war had put these on hold but with the signing of the armistice came an opportunity to pick up where they had been left. And in the case of the unions, perhaps with some added encouragement taken from the political movements in Russia that would lead to direct action and revolution – and Russia had been our allies in the war that had just ended.
So yes the war was over, but the peace couldn’t quite get started.
And yet, as I read about this period in preparation for writing The Blue Bench I felt that despite the malaise there was enough of a residue of hope and sufficient energy for change to rebuild the country, both physically and spiritually. It needed a catalyst. And Reverend Railton’s idea seemed to me, the inspiration that was needed.
Reverend David Railton MC served as an army chaplain on the Western Front during World War One, where he was awarded the Military Cross for saving men under fire. The idea for the grave of the unknown warrior came to him after he had seen a simple cross pencilled with the words ‘An Unknown British Soldier’ in a back garden near Armentieres in France in 1916. He understood the potential for a formal grave recognising the sacrifice of so many which could provide a focal point for the country as a whole but also provide hope for the bereaved that their loved one had returned. Thus the grave is not only a symbol of sacrifice at a national level, it also an actual grave for one man that may provide solace for many whose loved ones never returned. In this way it is a uniquely powerful concept. In addition to serving bravely and initiating the idea for the unknown warrior Reverend Railton also worked hard after the war to support the returning veterans, represent their interests and raise awareness of the difficulties of reintegration into civilian life for both disabled and able bodied veterans. Mention should be made here of Bishop Ryle, Dean Of Westminster, who took up Reverend Railton’s idea, was able to engage with Prime Minister Lloyd George and King George V, and was instrumental in its completion.
The country was desperately in need of a catalyst to both find a way to grieve and to move on. Reverend Railton found it.
And all these ideas came together for me in The Blue Bench.
But, back to the title of this article. If the immediate post war period provided the conditions to foment change, now we’re a hundred years on, did it happen?
Well, just as I’m no Historian, nor am I a Sociologist. It seems to me that many of the problems have been partially addressed but certainly not solved. Take three examples:
Integration of disabled men and women (I make no distinction here between physical and mental health issues). Regardless of the source of the disablement are we much better at integrating the disabled into day to day society? Better than 1918? Certainly. But have we solved it? Certainly not.For example, the success of initiatives such as the Paralympic games is encouraging but I’m not sure the awareness and public support shown at that level filters down sufficiently to the day to day issues faced by so many. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if the amount of progress is sufficient for 100 years of trying.
Women’s Rights. The #metoo movement is surely an indication that women are still not treated as equals in many areas, both professional and domestic. 100 years on it’s still apparent that women are all too often paid less than men for doing the same job. It’s true that the suffrage issue has been resolved but there remains an inherent bias towards men in so many areas and attitudes that is rooted in previous centuries. Many of these attitudes are so ingrained that we men often don’t even know we have them. I think it’ll take a few generations still, but I’m encouraged by the changes I see in my children’s generation.
Class. As education became accessible and the mandatory for all, I think there was an assumption that Class differences would be eroded – that we would morph into a meritocracy. In many parts of Britain this has not been the case, though it may be more an issue of economics than Class. So, I won’t say too much about this here except it is still often true to say, ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know.’ Again have we moved on 100 years? Probably yes. Have we moved on sufficiently? Open to debate.To many Britain will not feel even close to a meritocracy.
So yes, the times were a changin’ and yes, they still need to.
How does this relate to The Blue Bench? While writing I felt that despite the issues affecting Britain in 1920 and the malaise holding it back, there were two things offering hope and showing the way forward: The Unknown Soldier and the ability of women to lead men somewhere better (often without them knowing it).
What do I think 100 years on? If Evelyn and Catherine (heroines from The Blue Bench) were around today they’d be happily surprised at much of what they see but their Aunt Beatrice would remind them that there’s still much to be done.
Many thanks for reading,
Some of you may point out a few other key issues that I didn’t put in the list above: Attitudes to Race and Ethnicity, Attitudes to LGBT and Transgender communities, Attitudes to global integration (including, or not, Brexit)
Each of those can be viewed from a World War 1 perspective too, and it would be interesting to do so – but I fear we don’t have the space here and I’m probably not sufficiently qualified. But if readers have views they’d like to share then I’d love to hear them – all those issues would be recognisable to Evelyn and Edward from The Blue Bench.
(Thank you so much Paul for a wonderful guest post. It has made me even more determined to get The Blue Bench to the top of my TBR as soon as I can.)
About Paul Marriner
Paul grew up in a west London suburb and now lives in Berkshire with his wife and two children. He is passionate about music, sport and, most of all, writing, on which he now concentrates full-time. Paul has written four novels and his primary literary ambition is that you enjoy reading them while he is hard at work on the next one (but still finding time to play drums with Redlands and Rags 2 Riches).
You can follow Paul on Twitter @marriner_p.
The Blue Bench Giveaway
For a free e-copy of The Blue Bench please click here by 18th November 2018. Open internationally. Please note that this giveaway is independent of Linda’s Book Bag. It would be wonderful if you would leave a review if you do download and read The Blue Bench!
If you live in the UK and would prefer to enter to win one of two signed paperback copies of The Blue Bench, click here. Giveaway closes at UK midnight on 18th November. Please note that once Rafflecopter has chosen two random winners, I will not retain your data!