I thought it might be useful here to talk a little bit about “Visiting the Fallen” and Arras itself, including my relationship to both. While writing the books, and particularly as the date for publication of ‘Arras North’ drew nearer, a number of people asked me questions about the work. In most cases, the questions were the same, or at least very similar, so I’ve included a few of them here, along with some answers. I hope they offer an insight into what lies behind the books and how they came about.
I knew I didn’t want to cover the Somme or Ypres. It’s not that I’m not drawn to either of those places, but both have been covered in some depth already. Despite being a short and easy drive from Calais, Arras is often by-passed by those heading for the Somme and I also suspect it’s maybe a little too far south for those visiting Ypres with just two or three days at their disposal. For many people, a visit to Vimy Ridge constitutes their only experience of the Arras battlefields. I’ve always thought that Arras and its surrounding area deserve far greater attention, and so I wanted to do something about that. I could easily have chosen one of a number of locations between the Belgian coast and the Aisne, but Arras seemed like a good place to start. As much as I enjoy visiting Ypres and the Somme, I’m not obsessed by them; I like visiting the other sectors of the Western Front just as much.
What about Arras itself?
I’ve always enjoyed staying in Arras. I love exploring its streets, and after a long day on the battlefields, or a day behind the lines, there’s nothing better than settling down with a carafe of red over dinner in the Place des Héros, or down by the railway station. Whatever the time of year, it’s always a joy. With the publication of the books, and after many research visits to Arras, I’ve begun to feel a little bit ‘Arrageois’; I feel very much at home there.
Does any particular part of the Arras battlefields appeal?
I love the countryside along the D.5. With so many cemeteries to visit along that stretch, it makes for a great alternative day out. Many of the cemeteries here are relatively small, but they’re all interesting one way or another, and they’re often quite isolated. There’s a real sense of being in the middle of nowhere and it’s very peaceful. I mention in ‘Arras South’ that a day spent here is well worth the effort and I hope the stories I’ve covered in that volume encourage more people to venture south. It’s the part of the Arras battlefield that perhaps most closely resembles the Somme, so anyone who enjoys the Somme will have no difficulty enjoying and getting to know the area between Neuville-Vitasse and Lagnicourt.
Do any particular cemeteries stand out?
Yes, of course. Anyone familiar with “The Somme Battlefields – A Comprehensive Guide from Crécy to the Two World Wars”, by Martin and Mary Middlebrook, will know that he was drawn to certain cemeteries. This is probably inevitable and I suspect many of us have our favourites. With regard to ‘Arras North’, Écoivres Military Cemetery certainly stands out on account of its setting. It’s beautiful in autumn just before the leaves begin to fall, but for me, it’s arguably at its best on a bright winter’s morning, especially with a frost on the ground, and in summer it’s a perfect place to stop and stretch the legs. With French graves to the left, British to the right, the view along the central aisle towards the Cross of Sacrifice seems to capture something of the essence of this sector which was initially in French hands until we took it over in March 1916. Down the slope, away from the road, is the River Scarpe, quietly winding its way through the fields towards Arras and the main battlefield. If you haven’t already visited Écoivres, do consider going there, it’s well worth a visit.
Equally, I never tire of wandering through Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery. Yes, it’s big, but once you get started it draws you in. Every time I go there I notice something new. I also find its geometry appealing; gentle curves, straight lines, rectangular plots, and that perfect circle just in front of the solid block that forms the entrance. The view towards Notre-Dame de Lorette is amazing and there’s something very ghostly, yet incredibly beautiful about those trees along the central aisle. You can see them on the front cover of ‘Arras North’, which is why that photograph was included in the montage immediately below the title.
I’m also fond of Level Crossing Cemetery. It’s actually south of the River Scarpe, but for me, its composition and character make a good enough case for linking it with those around Roeux, which is why I included it in ‘Arras North’ rather than ‘Arras South’. It was here back in 2011 that I made the discovery that George Baker’s headstone was missing its ‘MM’. It was an odd feeling knowing that I was the first person in 93 years to have spotted this; and if I wasn’t, then clearly nobody had bothered to do anything about it, which I can’t really believe. Anyway, it was a great moment for me. The ‘MM’, or Military Medal, is due to be added as part of the current round of headstone replacements by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which I’m really pleased about. The cemetery register has already been corrected to show the award.
If we turn to ‘Arras South’, I’m always moved, in a good way, by Valley Cemetery. It’s a perfect battlefield cemetery. It’s tiny and sits well back from the road, though it’s not quite as isolated as it first seems. It’s actually not very far from Haucourt and the Vis-en-Artois Memorial, the top of which is just about visible from the cemetery. The solitary tree makes it slightly quirky, but it acts a real focal point and gives the site a unique sense of character. It also offers welcome shade on a hot summer’s day, and again, it’s a top picnic spot. The cemetery has great poignancy once you realize that the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry, created it by burying its dead here following heavy fighting around Upton Wood at the end of August 1918. It’s surrounded by fields, and in summer these are usually covered in crops, making it barely noticeable from the road. The Cross of Sacrifice is out there at eye level close to the tree, but blink and you’ll miss it, along with the CWGC sign. It’s another of those small gems set within this gently rolling landscape.
Perched above a sunken road, Mory Street Military Cemetery is another one that I like to visit, especially with groups. It’s a good place to talk about this part of the March 1918 battlefield, as well as the fighting that took place here during the last week in August after the tide of battle had turned in our favour. I also love the walk down to Moyenneville (Two Tree) Cemetery. Like Ten Tree Alley Cemetery, Puisieux, it just shouldn’t exist. How many similar cemeteries were closed after the Armistice on account of their size and isolation? Economically, it makes no sense at all, but we should all be very thankful that cemeteries like these still exist.
Why not write a book about the Battle of Arras 1917?
I think there’s still plenty of scope for another book on the Battle of Arras. Whenever I take groups over to Arras, one of the things we look at is how the battle developed from our own perspective, but we also consider the German response to it as well. A proper understanding of Roeux is really crucial when it comes to considering these two questions, as is Monchy-le-Preux, the capture of which turned out to be something of a mixed blessing. There’s still a lot more that needs to be explored, so there’s definitely room for more books on the Battle of Arras in 1917, including the fighting around Bullecourt. It’s something I may write about in the future, but I’m not sure I’d write it as a chronological narrative. I’d be more inclined to pick out certain aspects of the battle and cover these in a series of essays. Later this year, I’ll be examining some of these points in a talk that I’m giving in London. Unfortunately, by its very nature, “Visiting the Fallen” didn’t enable me to do that.
Why base the books solely on the CWGC cemeteries?
The Arras front was an important sector, and one that we held continuously for two and a half years. There was a lot going on there either side of the Battle of Arras. Battles are very often convenient things to write about. They have a starting point and an end point; there’s the build-up, the preparations, the fighting itself, then the outcome and the aftermath; and that’s it, end-of-book. Battles come and go, and in 1917 we go from Arras to Messines, then on to Third Ypres, followed by Cambrai; and that’s fine, we need books that cover battles. But, the story of what happened around Arras, or anywhere else for that matter, will always be incomplete if we confine our attention to the events of just a few weeks.
When we walk around some of the cemeteries near Arras, we come across a whole series of dates, none of which are connected to the fighting in April and May 1917. Monchy British Cemetery is a perfect example. If you look at the dates on the headstones you’ll soon realize that, paradoxically, although this cemetery sits in the middle of the Arras battlefield, it has very little to do with the Battle of Arras; the headstones there want to tell you a different story. Things like that call for some explanation, and somewhere that narrative needs to be covered too.
“Visiting the Fallen” offers a more complete picture of life in the Arras sector than if I’d restricted its scope to a few weeks when the fighting was at its highest pitch. The CWGC cemeteries can tell us a great deal, which I think is an interesting and alternative way of looking at things. Battles and battlefields are important, but so are the cemeteries if we want to understand the bigger picture.
Are the books about people or events?
They’re about both, though the people are always the starting point. Through them I’ve been able to reveal events that would otherwise receive very little attention. Such incidents and events offer a far richer picture; we get to see what it was like to serve in the Arras sector at any given time during that period of two and a half years, and hopefully by extension, we get a very good picture of what life was like on the Western Front.
Also, I think most people are genuinely interested in the lives of others. The CWGC registers are often interesting things to browse. Sometimes they provide brief insights into the lives of those who died, but there’s often a lot more waiting to be discovered. Every headstone is a different story relating to a unique human life. I wanted to reveal the incredible richness to be found once we venture beyond the registers. I think people will get far more from their visits to these cemeteries if they know some of the stories behind the headstones. Without the stories there’s a tendency to switch off. I hope the books make this less likely and that they add value to people’s experience by maintaining their interest.
For anyone visiting a relative’s grave, or that of a particular individual, I think it’s also good to know a little bit about the other officers and men buried in that cemetery. I know one family for whom this was the case and they felt that their relative was in good company. It worked for them. It’s always about the individual, but again, it’s also good to paint the bigger picture.
Sometimes the story isn’t about the person buried there?
That’s true. For the most part, what we have are ordinary people who became caught up in extraordinary events. Sometimes we have to accept that there’s very little known about an individual, or even very little that’s interesting about them. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. That’s not to say that their lives were unimportant, because that’s not true either, nor is it respectful. However, those who were killed also had families, and sometimes it’s the other members of the family, their ancestors, or their friends and family connections that provide the greater interest. Personally, I find many of these connections fascinating, and I think others will find them interesting too. In any case, a good story is always a good story, whatever it is. Admittedly, the books are fairly eclectic, but for me that just adds to the interest. It was all part of the enjoyment and sense of discovery, and I hope my readers see it that way too.
What else influenced the books?
I’ve already mentioned the book by Martin and Mary Middlebrook. That was the kind of template I had in mind, though clearly our styles are different and I didn’t want to replicate what had already gone before. I think we both set out with the same sort of intention, and Martin and his wife certainly succeeded. Tony Spagnoly was also a big influence. He was an important figure in the early days of the Western Front Association. He wrote with great insight, often about people, and often about small events, such as raids, patrolling, goings-on in the trenches, as well as behind the lines, all of which were part of life on the Western Front. He didn’t just cover the obvious, and he knew how to sniff out and tell a good story. Needless to say, he was immensely knowledgeable and very well respected.
Also, at the risk of going on about the early days of the Western Front Association, I don’t suppose many people these days remember Alf Peacock, editor of the journal, “Gun Fire”. Issue No.21 was titled: “An Alternative Guide to the Western Front – from Nieuport to Pfetterhouse”. That was a really useful guide to lots of out of the way places between the Belgian coast and the Swiss frontier. Although it was a book about places, rather than people and cemeteries, it did influence me when it came to deciding whether to include some of the smaller sites, especially communal cemeteries, and those off the beaten track, like Railway Cutting Cemetery, Warry Copse Cemetery, and Moyenneville (Two Tree) Cemetery.
Other writers and the Great War aside, it strikes me that my time on the London Tasting Panel for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society also probably played a small part. The purpose of the panel was to capture the essence of each dram by describing it in words for the benefit of the rest of the membership. The results, which were then written up, would appear in one of the ‘Bottling Lists’ that came out every couple of months. Every cask, even if it came from the same distillery, was different to the rest; each dram from each individual cask was a unique creation with its own personality, a unique story if you like, just as every headstone in every cemetery represents a unique human story.
Pushing the analogy a little further, the panel was all about discovery and learning more about the subject, though it was also great fun as well. From a personal point of view, the same could be said for “Visiting the Fallen”. “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom” by Alfred Barnard, published in 1887, was based on his own observations after visiting 161 different distilleries. Similarly, ‘Arras North’ and ‘Arras South’ are based on my own observations after visiting 167 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. Incidentally, I still have my twelve volumes of handwritten tasting notes at home; as yet unpublished, so I suppose there’s a bit of a precedent there too when it comes to writing about things that interest me.
While we’re talking about other influences, we should probably mention Lennon and McCartney. The Beatles are one of my earliest memories as far as music is concerned. Take a song like “Penny Lane”, for instance. It takes us on a journey down an ordinary suburban high street where we’re introduced to various characters who work there. We’re offered a brief glimpse into their lives, but never the complete picture. The detail, though very specific, is actually incredibly mundane, but that doesn’t make the journey or the characters any less interesting; in fact, quite the reverse. In the end, our impression of Penny Lane is derived entirely from the characters themselves.
It strikes me that “Visiting the Fallen” works in a similar way. We get to see the Arras sector through an array of different characters. This was just something that occurred to me one day while out walking and reflecting on how the writing was going. It was never a conscious influence at all, more in the way of an afterthought, a reflection. What I can say is that I’m drawn to that kind of storytelling and I think it’s partly how my mind tends to work. As with the tasting panel, these things probably emerge subconsciously. Some people may find it surprising that not all the influences appear to come from my interest in the Great War, but then we’re talking about the process of writing here, not about the subject itself. I just throw these things in here for what they’re worth.
How will the website complement the books?
The case of ‘Fred’ Dennis is a good example. (See ‘Arras North’ – Behind the Stories) There just wasn’t the space in ‘Arras North’ to include everything about this fascinating character. If anything, I needed to thin out the material, not add to it. Fred’s story is also a perfect illustration of where my limits and ambitions lie as a biographer. The website may or may not help to promote the books and what I do, but it will provide me with an ideal platform to reveal some of the things I couldn’t cover owing to the size and nature of the work. It’s all a new departure for me, and for a while I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the website idea. However, I came to realize there were still lots of things in the books that I wanted to expand on, so I thought it would be good to find another way of doing that for my readers. I eventually managed to persuade myself that there were more advantages than disadvantages.
How did the chapter titles come about?
I have my editor, Irene Moore, to thank for that. The chapters in my original draft were numbered unimaginatively one to seven for ‘Arras North’, and from one to eleven in the case of ‘Arras South’. ‘Arras Memorials’ followed much the same line, each chapter bearing the name of the memorial to which it referred. Irene suggested that, rather than just numbering them, I might like to consider a title for each chapter, which then set me thinking. I knew the solution probably lay within the books themselves, so I came up with a shortlist of people and stories, and from there it was fairly easy; I just made a few choices and started playing around with words and ideas, which is something I like doing anyway.
I deliberately didn’t go for the obvious or the most dramatic stories; instead, I went for some of the more obscure. Wherever possible, I turned towards the slightly frivolous rather than the serious side of things. By their very nature, the books are littered with tragedies of one kind or another, so the chapter titles offered one of the few opportunities to lighten the mood a bit. I also think they fit well with the very eclectic nature of the stories themselves. Although the titles appear cryptic, the stories to which they refer are very obvious once you come across them in the text. The titles are therefore my own invention, but I have Irene to thank for posing the question in the first place. As for ‘Arras Memorials’, I have a slightly different idea for each of the four chapter titles, though I’ve yet to make a final decision on that.
Why ‘Pen & Sword’?
Over the last thirty years I’ve built up a decent collection of books on the Great War, so I was aware of ‘Pen & Sword’ and what they did. I thought they might take an interest in my project, so I was happy to speak to them. As it happens, I’d been put in touch with an author whose historical novel had recently been published by ‘Pen & Sword’. He recommended them, but I was already minded to make an approach in any case. Writing the books was relatively easy, but when it came to publishing them I knew that I needed people with lots of experience in that field. Only a fool would set out to write three books in one go, which, of course, was never my intention, but ‘Pen & Sword’ were very good about that too. Rather than ask me to cut material, they just suggested dividing the work into three manageable parts. That was very encouraging. I’ve never felt under pressure to alter the work in any way; if anything, I’ve always felt my publisher was keen to produce the kind of book I originally had in mind.
Will there be other books?
Probably, maybe; at this stage I’d say probably yes, but not immediately. I’ve got at least two writing projects in mind, but that’s not the same as committing to them. As for “Visiting the Fallen”, it’ll be interesting to see how the ‘triplets’ get on, and a lot may depend on that. We’ve reached that defining point where I can only do so much to help them on their way. They’re about to go off into the big wide world where they will have to make their own way. If they sink without trace, they’ll always be mine and I’ll always be pleased with how they turned out, but if people like them I think there’s probably every chance of another “Visiting the Fallen”- location to be decided. We’ll all have to watch this space.