Where did the story begin? How did the character, Liam Elliott, make his first appearance?
For family reasons I’ll withhold the surname, and just say that William – his given name – was my grandfather’s brother. Both served in WW1, Will with the Australians, as a machine gunner, and Bob with the Royal Field Artillery, as a horseman. The family came from York.
I spent most of my early life in West Yorkshire, but visits to Grandma in York, were a regular childhood treat. I loved books, and Grandma had a virtual library housed in the attic, legacy of her father-in-law, a bookbinder. Amongst them were some of my favourites, bound collections of illustrated Victorian magazines.
During one visit as a teenager,I came across a couple of volumes I hadn’t seen before, still in their cardboard sleeves. One, bound in gold, was a souvenir of the Coronation of George VI, in 1937. After marvelling at pictures of our present Queen as a little girl – and all the ladies in old-fashioned frocks – I put it aside and reached for another.
Bound in black, Covenants with Death was a picture book of a different nature. If the first was celebration, this was grief in all its aspects. There were heaps of rubble that might once have been a town, aerial shots of shell holes and stumps of trees in an endless muddy swamp. Pictures of bloated horses and barbed wire, half-buried artillery and trenches strewn with broken bodies. And crowning the horror, like a parody of the monarch making his vows, was a uniformed skeleton with hand to breast, skull gaping for the camera.
In the last few years as we’ve marked the Centenary of WW1, such images have become familiar to us all, but at the time I was just fifteen and they shocked me. Those pictures made Grandma’s story of being blown up at a munitions factory during WW1, seem like a minor domestic accident.
I closed the book carefully, almost dreading what I might find next. To my relief, the box contained nothing more threatening than family obituary notices. But there was official correspondence too, concerning the Menin Gate in Belgium – and a mounted photograph of a massive archway, white stone flanked by brick, standing in solitary grandeur.
So this was the place my mother had mentioned when speaking of WW1. It looked like an entrance into a walled city, except there were no walls to be seen, and the Menin Gate seemed unattached to anything that might be called a town. I know now that it was photographed in the early 1920s, after the mounds of rubble were cleared, but before the Flemish wool town of Ypres was rebuilt.
Opening a heavier envelope, to my surprise I found a quarto photograph, on stiff card and unframed, of a handsome young soldier. He wore the distinctive bush hat of the Australian forces, tipped back to give a good three-quarter view of the face. Following what I’d just seen, it had the most extraordinary impact. Shock, maybe. Surprise, certainly, followed by a moment of warmth. It was as though I’d finally come face to face with someone I’d heard about and always wanted to meet.
I knew that Will had been killed just days before his 24thbirthday, and knowledge like that strikes deep. By reputation he was a decent man, but even so, something seems to elevate those who die young, especially in war. The camera fixes a moment of nobility, while the mind dwells on sacrifice.
Hard to match that with the book I’d just set aside. But if there was precious little nobility in those wartime pictures, the sacrifice could not be questioned. Feeling chastened, I was about to restore things to their rightful place when I realized there was something else in the envelope, something small but quite weighty. Bound in indigo, with Gothic initials impressed in gold leaf on the cover, a little book slid into my hands.
I could barely believe my eyes as I read the flyleaf. Will’s name and signature, his three digit army number and the unit to which he was attached: a machine gun company of the 2ndInfantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces. Below, was written: In the event of my death, please forward this diary to –there followed his father’s name and an address in York.
Incredibly, I was holding something that the man in the photograph had written: his own pocket diary for the year 1916. Thoughts and experiences inscribed on a daily basis and carried close to his heart. It was like receiving a gift, a personal and intimate gift from his time to mine.
‘In the event of my death…’That gave a chill. ‘Blown to bits,’my mother had said, gazing at wayside poppies on our summer journeys to York. ‘Nothing left to bury…No known grave… his name is on the Menin Gate…’
I stroked the little diary, imagining the writer’s fingers around it, the times he must have taken it out to write, before returning it to his pocket. It seemed incredible to be holding something so precious. I turned each leaf, finding writing so tiny it was hard to read. The Memoranda ran to several pages, densely written, and then, surprisingly, just a few brief comments at the beginning of the year.
One read: ‘Drill as usual. 5th& 6thBatt leave Tel el Kebir for Suez. Living on dry bread and tea, except for what we buy.’
Those words dried my throat. How unutterably cruel. And then I was wondering, why Egypt, what was he doing there? How did that tie up with Flanders and the book I’d just put away?
Since we didn’t do modern history at school, I started digging in an old encyclopaedia. The huge entry devoted to what we now call WW1, gave an overall picture of the conflict. From a sketch map, I was able to identify the front line as it cut through France and Belgium, and to establish how Egypt, Turkey, Gallipoli and the Dardanelles came into the equation.
I tried to match the diary to this bigger picture, but it was like having just a few pieces of a huge jigsaw. In Will’s record, The Sommewasn’t even the Somme, it was Albert, Pozieres and La Boisselle. Flanderswas Armentieres and Poperinghe, Ypres and the Menin Road.
An avid reader since childhood, I kept thinking this would make a great story about a young man who leaves York for Australia, only to be caught up in WW1 a year later…
But school, exams, and life intervened, and not until I was given the diary, almost twenty years later, did my enthusiasm take hold again. I was ready to do some real research, but there was a snag. I was trained as an artist, not an historian, so how to do it? Despite my inexperience, I was lucky. I kept meeting the right people – seemingly by chance – who taught me a lot, shared their knowledge, and helped me along the way.
Nine years later, I had written what turned out to be two bestsellers – ‘Louisa Elliott’, set in 1890s York, and ‘Liam’s Story’, about the writer of the diary. Those years of research and writing, were blessed by a seemingly endless string of coincidences. These seemed to come to an end with the unexpected appearance of poppies in my garden, in the summer of 1991, the year Will’s/Liam’s story was first published. As though the ‘presence’ I’d been aware of had been working hard, and now that his story was told, he could finally be at rest.
But in recent years there have been more coincidences. The most remarkable was seeing – to gasps of astonishment – Will’s name on television.
On Sunday, 30thJuly 2017, the BBC paid tribute to the fallen of Passchendaele in a programme broadcast from the Menin Gate, Ypres. The great arch bears almost 55,000 names – those of the British Empire whose graves were lost during a battle lasting more than three months.
At the very start of the programme, presenter Kirsty Young was explaining the memorial’s significance. She stopped by the Australian battalions. And there, just behind her, was the real name of the man who wrote the diary. The man who’d inspired me to write his story.
I could not believe my eyes. Pausing the programme, I took a screen shot of the presenter with those Anzac soldiers’ names behind her.
It was almost as though Will was tapping me on the shoulder. Don’t forget, he seemed to be saying, my anniversary is coming up soon…
20thSeptember, the Battle of the Menin Road – I hadn’t forgotten. The first time I visited was on Will’s anniversary in 1987, with my mother – and with my husband, I’d visited several times after that. In September, 2017, we were there again – this time with our son – to pay homage to the man who, against all the rules, kept a diary. A man whose memory lives on.
And yes, I was carrying Will’s diary in my pocket.