War provides the bookends for the protagonist in my latest book, Sadie’s Wars. She lives out the first world war in Australia waiting for the return of her husband, while in the second, she experiences the horror of the blitz in England.
On our latest trip to Australia, we made a point of visiting the War Memorial in Canberra. Designed by C E W Bean, the war correspondent throughout WW1, it is both temple and museum extraordinaire. The grounds struck us immediately. Coming up to Armistice Day the surrounding green space were littered with simple, home-crafted knitted poppies. I imagined how they had been made with love and care, each one slightly different. Overall the effect was a symbol of beauty and devotion to the idea of sacrifice.
A sacrifice that was made by so many young, perhaps naive, Diggers as they thronged to experience adventure, but then became some of the bravest men to fight in that war. A very informative guide showed us the WW1 exhibits and pointed out some things I had not known but was obvious from an oil painting on display. Each of the men at the Gallipoli landings carried a ration bag at their waists. It lay like a white flag against their dull, khaki uniforms, providing the perfect target for Turkish snipers. Many of those first casulaties were shot in the upper thighs and groin area. A casual decision with far reaching consequences, an accident of war.
There were some heart-stopping moments on our trip. One came the day after as we returned to tour the WW2 halls. Sadie’s sons in the book are in bomber command, so we stopped at an exhibit where you stood in a pod to feel the vibration of being in a Lancaster bomber while watching a video of an actual sortie. We could not believe what we heard and stayed to listen twice more. That bomber took off from a Lincolnshire aerodrome, where my book is set, at an airfield we know well. It is now part of my sister-in-law’s farm at Elsham. She had died the previous year and we felt her presence guiding us to that exhibit.
A few days later we were in Wagga Wagga, a modern and attractive city with lots of museums and art galleries. After visiting a glass museum and a modern art gallery, where the stand-out exhibit was a blow-up giant rabbit (yes, really), we visited the town hall which was featuring WW1 panels. The very first one I stopped at was this one. Private Allan Bruce injured on the western front and cared for at Graylingwell Hospital. For those of you living around Chichester, you may know Graylingwell. I had been at the Graylingwell Fair selling books with Chindi only two months before. Those very close connections we have with Australia flooded my mind and soul. How did Private Bruce cope losing a leg and both middle fingers? As I walked around the other panels reading the stories, the overwhelming feeling was of sadness. These soldiers returned injured in body and mind, several taking thir own lives rather than living with the consequences of war. These young men left, full of pride in their country and empire, with high hopes, seeking glory. We need to remember them and the Australians do.
Every town has its Anzac Avenue, every town has its RSL (Returned Services League) club in a prominent position. Every town has more than just a cenotaph where people gather once a year to lay wreaths. I was pleased to see that.
War is loathsome but the twentieth century had more than its share. It’s the heartbreak of mothers and wives, of families and communities we need to honour, not war itself.
I loved writing Sadie’s Wars. It’s based on a true story. It has heartbreak and romance but mostly it is about the consequences of war on ordinary people, their lives and loves. Although the third in a trilogy about one family, it works well as a stand-alone novel.