Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Too Much Blood and Guts?

Readers of this alas too infrequent blog will know that I have decided to make a temporary departure from the adventures of Simon Fonthill & Co in the Victorian wars of the late nineteenth century to write a different novel, set against the background of the first world war.

Much of the action will take place in the killing field that lay to the east of the little Belgian town of Ypres. For four years it was known simply as The Salient as the Allies (mainly British) faced - uphill - superior German forces. In an area of probably no more than six square miles, the shells rained down as first one side, then the other, gained territorial supremacy.

The result was that the battleground became a quagmire, with, often, the British front line consisting only of a series of water-filled craters linked only by a few yards of deep mud. The misery of fighting in these conditions was compounded by constant rifle and machine gun fire, of course, but the main horror was caused by the constant shell fire that fell from the heights held by the Germans.

My reading of eye witness accounts of these events has produced some terrifying anecdotes that seem to be almost beyond belief. An advancing Tommy, for instance, saw his comrade sliced horizontally in half by a razor sharp shell fragment and watched in terror as the disembodied legs of his pal continued to march on for at least five paces before folding and falling to the ground. Even more disturbing was the experience of a section, also advancing across No Man's Land, who skirted a shell-hole at the bottom of which was a British infantryman caught up to his waist in mud. As they watched, he struggled to free himself only to sink further into the slime. The tried and failed to rescue him and, as the mud advanced up his body, he pleaded with them to shoot him. But no-one could bring himself to do so and eventually, heads down, they were forced to leave him, his screams sounding even above the gun fire as they trudged away.

To include or reject these horror stories? I have always believed in basing stories of combat on fact, but this sort of fact does seem beyond belief and one doesn't want to be accused of over-writing - of pouring on the agony - something of which even that splendid writer Bernard Cornwell can be accused (his Agincourt made me wince).

Yet war has to be portrayed in all its inglory if a writer is true to himself and the period about which he writes. So these and other, similar incidents, are going in. What do you think?