My novels in the Simon Fonthill series have all been set in the last quarter of the nineteenth century but I must confess that it is the first world war that has always haunted me. It was, perhaps, too vast a setting and also too well tramelled by other writers for me to venture into it. Yet that bloody conflict has hung over me and my family for as long as I can remember and left too many ghosts, all of them inviting me to step onto the capes that they trail in the mud.
Ghosts like my Uncle Alfred, who won the Victoria Cross near Armentieres; Uncle Ernest, an acting Regimental Sergeant Major at nineteen "because there was nobody else left," who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal; and Uncle Bernard, who lost an eye and gained the Military Medal. My own father, Leonard Wilcox, went over the top as an infantry sergeant on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme and eventually died in 1945 of the wounds sustained that day. (Vanity always compels me to explain that although I am old I an not that ancient in that my father fought as a very young man but was comparatively old when I was born.)
So the time has come, I feel, to leave the red coats and pith helmets of "Queen Victoria's Little Wars" and accept the challenge of World War I. As a result, I leave at the end of the month for Belgium to tread the soil of what was, with Verdun, probably the most fought-over killing field in the whole of the war.
Of the million men killed in the Western Front in the Great War, a quarter of a million perished in the few square miles just to the east of the charming little textile town of Ypres, just across the border from France. The front line there bulged out and deflated regularly as counter attack followed attack for nearly four years. That bulge was commanded by the German guns on the ridges to the east of the town and there was no shelter nor escape from their shells. "The Salient," as it became known, became a graveyard and under its present day farms and woods lie the undiscovered bodies of some 40,000 men who fell and who died - many of them by drowning - in the mud.
The conflict seemed unending and included three major battles. The third of them, in 1917. was called Passchendaele. It was fought in rain that turned the trenches, shell holes and no-man's-land into a quagmire that sucked to their deaths men, mules and horses.
So it against this remarkable background that I intend to set my next novel - perhaps to lay
those family ghosts and, if I'm good enough, to pay them proper tribute. Fonthill and Co I must leave for a while as they cross the Zambesi into Matabeleland. I hope they will be back (the Boxer Rebellion maybe and then the second and best remembered Boer War?), but for the present it's a long long way to Passchendaele.