Maybe it was the centenary and all the remembrance services, but for the last few years I’ve had the First World War on my mind—not every waking moment, you understand, or my brain would be dribbling out through my ears by now, but enough that I’ve ended up with three short stories in anthologies.
And, of course, because I write science fiction and fantasy (mostly) there’s a SFF element to all three stories.
My grandfather, Tommy Bennett (left), fought in the conflict, a volunteer in 1914, he went all the way to Pontefract from Mapplewell (a small Yorkshire pit village) to join the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. KOYLI. He survived the battle of the Somme, which was not one engagement but a series which lasted for months. The first day was the worst for casualties. It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, and one of the most infamous days of World War One. Gran’pa was wounded at Passchendaele in 1917, sent back home to be treated in a series of hospitals with half his calf shot away. He had not been discharged from hospital, so was still officially a serving soldier (a lance corporal by that time) when peace was declared on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. After a year in various hospitals he returned home to the coalface and spent the next forty years digging up coal, but at least no one was shooting at him. He got married, had a daughter (my mum) and lived into his eighties.
The anthology stories form a trilogy of sorts, linked to real people, real places and real events, however tenuously.
The Horse Head Violin
Published in the anthology Children of a Different Sky, edited by Alma Alexander
This anthology was a fundraiser for refugees, so the stories had to be relevant. Today’s refugee problems are horrendous. Everyone knows about Syria etc., but how many people recall the Belgian refugees of the First World War. Two hundred and fifty thousand Belgian refugees came to Britain during the war. The biggest influx of refugees in British history began on 14th October 2014, just days after Germany invaded Belgium. Following the fall of Antwerp, 16,000 refugees arrived in Folkestone in a single day, 14th October 1914, and we took them in. Let me say that again: we took them in! They were the first, so many arriving at once that they slept on the beaches and in community halls, anywhere they could lay their heads until they could be dispersed inland. Those who read Poirot might recall that he was a famous (fictional) Belgian refugee. My story follows a fictional brother and sister, sent to Leeds. They are welcomed and helped by a young woman who is the secretary of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe – a real person, the youngest ever lady mayoress of Leeds in 1913/14—who wrote (in her memoir Lady of a Million Daffodils) about the day she headed the committee of local ladies welcoming the first train of Belgian refugees. They settled here for four years, but within a year of the armistice they were gone. They didn’t always have a choice, their employment contracts in Britain were terminated to make way for returning soldiers, and the government offered them free one-way passage, but only for a limited period. They were pushed out of the country so quickly that they left little legacy.
Make Me Immortal With a Kiss
Published in Second Round: A Return to the Ur-Bar, edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier
The theme for this anthology was Gilgamesh’s travelling bar. The blurb says, “For thousands of years the immortal Gilgamesh has presided over the legendary Ur-Bar, witnessing history unfold from within its walls. Some days it is a rural tavern, others a fashionable wine shop. It may appear as a hidden speakeasy or take on the form of your neighborhood local. For most patrons it is simply a place to quench their thirst, but for a rare few the Ur-Bar is where they will meet their destiny.”
As one of the core authors I had to pick a period in which to set my story, and I chose the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July 1916, the British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities. It’s told from the viewpoints of my two protagonists, a young army officer and a VAD nurse who meet and fall in love at just the wrong time. It’s a bittersweet story and, given the numbers, almost bound to end in tragedy, though, I hope, not a pointless one. Keeping the tradition of including real people, I wove my grandfather, Tommy Bennett into this story in a supporting role.
A Land Fit for Heroes
Due to be published in 2019 in the anthology, Portals, edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier
I’m a core author for this 2019 anthology from Zombies Need Brains press. I’ve only just finished writing this story, so it hasn’t even been edited yet. As the third of my World War One stories, this one concentrates on the aftermath of war. Thousands of soldiers returned from four years in the trenches only to discover that the country they were fighting for no longer existed, at least, not as they remembered it. It’s that old story of never being able to go home, because home was four years ago. My two main characters are war-damaged, one mentally, the other physically. I tried to weave Tommy Bennett into this story, too, but the word count wouldn’t allow it. However, I did set the story in Mapplewell, the Yorkshire mining village where he lived. I also managed to get my grandmother, Annie Shaw (left), later Annie Bennett, into it briefly. One hundred years ago she was a barmaid at the Talbot Inn on Towngate in Mapplewell. She was a kindly woman, who wouldn’t have seen a thirsty ex-soldier without a pint of mild in his hand. That’s the background. The story takes place a hundred years ago in February 1919. It has a portal in it, of course, but you’ll have to wait for the anthology to find out the details.
Have I got the First World War out of my brain yet? I honestly don’t know. I mean, never say never again, right? But for now, having done three stories, one from the beginning, one from the middle and one from the end, I think I can let the subject rest a while.