Belgium 1917

‘Squadrons of shells howl overhead exploding with blinding fury on Broodseinde Ridge, just forward.’ * ‘General Gough’s offensive up on Gheluvelt Plateau, supposed to be over in seventy-two hours is bogged down, a frightful mess – tens of thousands of casualties!’ * ‘At roll call we grapple with the fiasco that has been Menin Road.’   * ‘All clear in our section, we’re told to surrender felt hats and collect helmets, a return to the front is imminent, the betting, that muddy hell: Passchendaele.’ * “At light you’ll see Zonnebeke on your left and what’s left of Polygon Wood to the rear and right. There’s a dirty big mound up there they call “The Butte”. It’s a hot spot, alright.” * ‘I look across the slag-heap of death and destruction we crossed in the dead of night to reach camp here at Westhoek Ridge and feel a shiver run down my spine.’   * ‘Boarding a column of buses we join an endless parade of overloaded French limbers, troops and artillery convoys jostling through dismal towns back to that city of fear, where you never know what’s going to happen to you or from what direction: Ypres.’ * ‘Filing by sullen Zillebekebund and still miles from the front, the sickly-sour stench of decomposing bodies assails our nostrils.’        * ‘In this grotesque fairyland the ghost town of Zonnebeke hovers like a mirage on silver sheets of water polka-dotted with bodies and I see my comrades heaving forward like yoked beasts of the field, aching for life, fighting back tears or wild with rage.’

‘Squadrons of shells howl overhead exploding with blinding fury on Broodseinde Ridge, just forward.’
*
‘General Gough’s offensive up on Gheluvelt Plateau, supposed to be over in seventy-two hours is bogged down, a frightful mess – tens of thousands of casualties!’
*
‘At roll call we grapple with the fiasco that has been Menin Road.’
*
‘All clear in our section, we’re told to surrender felt hats and collect helmets, a return to the front is imminent, the betting, that muddy hell: Passchendaele.’
*
“At light you’ll see Zonnebeke on your left and what’s left of Polygon Wood to the rear and right. There’s a dirty big mound up there they call “The Butte”. It’s a hot spot, alright.”
*
‘I look across the slag-heap of death and destruction we crossed in the dead of night to reach camp here at Westhoek Ridge and feel a shiver run down my spine.’
*
‘Boarding a column of buses we join an endless parade of overloaded French limbers, troops and artillery convoys jostling through dismal towns back to that city of fear, where you never know what’s going to happen to you or from what direction: Ypres.’
*
‘Filing by sullen Zillebekebund and still miles from the front, the sickly-sour stench of decomposing bodies assails our nostrils.’
*
‘In this grotesque fairyland the ghost town of Zonnebeke hovers like a mirage on silver sheets of water polka-dotted with bodies and I see my comrades heaving forward like yoked beasts of the field, aching for life, fighting back tears or wild with rage.’

Flanders: Summer 1917

Eight hours into the trip the convoy finally shunts to a halt in a marshalling yard near the town of Cassel, perched bold on its hill. * Sorted, we’re lined up and ordered to march by company independently to nearby Bavinchove, where, we’re told, billets are ‘scattered’. Understanding this to be code for ‘scarce’, we take off like a mob of swamp wallabies.   * The day turns into a sticky boiler but we don’t care, singing like summer crickets marching through tiny Staple, Wally’s band ablaze, bystanders and shopkeepers waving and applauding. * I catch my first glimpse of the village: Grand Sec Bois; not ‘grand’ at all but tiny and quaint, a collection of primitive brick and thatch dwellings crouched around a church spire …  * To the south I can just make out the long green line of the great Forest of Nieppe. * One hot afternoon Cozette, the children and I head over to Vieux Berquin to milk Freyja, Great Aunt Margot’s kitchen cow. * An injured Tommy tells me the Germans had been searching for a long-range gun parked on the railway line near Strazeele …  * A fleet of double-decker London buses waits to transport us south to the Steenvoorde area near the French-Belgian border. * At the foot of the hill we wander into an ivy-covered estaminet in a little village with a big name: Godewaersvelde. * We decide to hike to Mont-des-Cats, a high hill some distance from the camp. * We’re route marched to another camp beyond Dickebusch, deliberately tramping out of step all the way, resenting the flogging we’ve copped after doing our very best. * Disembarking at Abeele Station … we slosh up to the camp and, coming to a Military Policeman on duty at a crossroad … decide to stick it to him for the caning we copped yesterday. * Poperinghe, the ‘Dodge City’ of Ypres Salient and well known to troopers for good times. * Bags wants me to shoot through with him and meet up with a girl he’s met in Merris, France, because, he says, I know the short cut across the border around Mont-des-Cats …

‘Eight hours into the trip the convoy finally shunts to a halt in a marshalling yard near the town of Cassel, perched bold on its hill.’
*
‘Sorted, we’re lined up and ordered to march by company independently to nearby Bavinchove, where, we’re told, billets are “scattered”. Understanding this to be code for ‘scarce’, we take off like a mob of swamp wallabies.’
*
‘The day turns into a sticky boiler but we don’t care, singing like summer crickets marching through tiny Staple, Wally’s band ablaze, bystanders and shopkeepers waving and applauding.’
*
‘I catch my first glimpse of the village: Grand Sec Bois; not “grand” at all but tiny and quaint, a collection of primitive brick and thatch dwellings crouched around a church spire ….’
*
‘To the south I can just make out the long green line of the great Forest of Nieppe.’
*
‘One hot afternoon Cozette, the children and I head over to Vieux Berquin to milk Freyja, Great Aunt Margot’s kitchen cow.’
*
‘An injured Tommy tells me the Germans had been searching for a long-range gun parked on the railway line near Strazeele …’
*
‘A fleet of double-decker London buses waits to transport us south to the Steenvoorde area near the French-Belgian border.’
*
‘At the foot of the hill we wander into an ivy-covered estaminet in a little village with a big name: Godewaersvelde.’
*
‘We decide to hike to Mont-des-Cats, a high hill some distance from the camp.’
*
‘We’re route marched to another camp beyond Dickebusch, deliberately tramping out of step all the way, resenting the flogging we’ve copped after doing our very best.’
*
‘Disembarking at Abeele Station … we slosh up to the camp and, coming to a Military Policeman on duty at a crossroad … decide to stick it to him for the caning we copped yesterday.’
*
Poperinghe, the ‘Dodge City’ of Ypres Salient and well known to troopers for good times.’
*
‘Bags wants me to shoot through with him and meet up with a girl he’s met in Merris, France, because, he says, I know the short cut across the border around Mont-des-Cats ….’

 

Bullecourt

 ‘Wild cheering erupts next morning when Corps Commanding Officer ‘Birdy’ Birdwood announces that the Old Bat has been selected to attack and capture the village of Hermies – even louder when he tells us USA has declared war upon Germany.’ * ‘Like apparitions we drift from the snow upon the ruins of Havrincourt and take shelter behind a remnant wall from a pitiless wind slicing across the countryside like a bayonet.’ * ‘An officer is shouting. ‘Men, the Second Division attack on Bullecourt hasn’t gone well. They are in a desperate situation under heavy shelling and have been forced to withdraw.’ * ‘Through swirling smoke I glimpse Riencourt on a ridge and directly behind it, splashed in sunlight, Bullecourt – our objective!’


‘Wild cheering erupts next morning when Corps Commanding Officer ‘Birdy’ Birdwood announces that the Old Bat has been selected to attack and capture the village of Hermies – even louder when he tells us USA has declared war upon Germany.’
*
‘Like apparitions we drift from the snow upon the ruins of Havrincourt and take shelter behind a remnant wall from a pitiless wind slicing across the countryside like a bayonet.’
*
‘An officer is shouting. ‘Men, the Second Division attack on Bullecourt hasn’t gone well. They are in a desperate situation under heavy shelling and have been forced to withdraw.’
*
‘Through swirling smoke I glimpse Riencourt on a ridge and directly behind it, splashed in sunlight, Bullecourt – our objective!’

On Battle and Rest: Albert

‘When Serge pokes his head in the barn to tell us we’ve been ordered to proceed east of Albert we reckon we’re up for a stunt and aren’t the boys keen – itching for it since the Germans began retreating in March.’ * ‘Effervescent as school boys, the Old Bat assembles outside Ribemont church, Wally and the Bangers rumble to life and First Brigade takes the first steps to wherever Colonel Bogey might lead us today.’ *    ‘Rounding a bend I see her, the old widow of Meaulte, always standing outside her cottage whenever we parade through, waving a little French flag and sending every soldier her love and appreciation.’  *    ‘The new boys want to know about Pozières and so John, Collin and a few of the other veterans recount events.’ *    ‘Training at Albury Camp outside Bazentin-le-Petit is deadly boring for us old hands, revisiting elementary basics.’ * ‘I’m roped into an advance party to go over to Buire-sur-L’Ancre to help officers negotiate billet terms with village officials and landlords.’   * ‘In searing heat the Old Bat sets off on the first leg of a nine-mile hike to Mailly-Maillet north of Albert.’ * ‘We again bid the Denoirs farewell and commence a nine-mile hike to Bray-sur-Somme.’ * ‘At Edge Hill Railway Siding near Dernancourt, officers bark at us to line up, collect rations and commence a phased embarkation into a line of waiting wagons.’ * ‘We go rambling through wooded hills tumbling down to the river as far along as the pretty little village of Suzanne, crouched on the bank adoring its own reflection.’

‘When Serge pokes his head in the barn to tell us we’ve been ordered to proceed east of Albert we reckon we’re up for a stunt and aren’t the boys keen – itching for it since the Germans began retreating in March.’
*
‘Effervescent as school boys, the Old Bat assembles outside Ribemont church, Wally and the Bangers rumble to life and First Brigade takes the first steps to wherever Colonel Bogey might lead us today.’
*
‘Rounding a bend I see her, the old widow of Meaulte, always standing outside her cottage whenever we parade through, waving a little French flag and sending every soldier her love and appreciation.’
*
‘The new boys want to know about Pozières and so John, Collin and a few of the other veterans recount events.’
*
‘Training at Albury Camp outside Bazentin-le-Petit is deadly boring for us old hands, revisiting elementary basics.’
*
‘I’m roped into an advance party to go over to Buire-sur-L’Ancre to help officers negotiate billet terms with village officials and landlords.’
*
‘In searing heat the Old Bat sets off on the first leg of a nine-mile hike to Mailly-Maillet north of Albert.’
*
‘We again bid the Denoirs farewell and commence a nine-mile hike to Bray-sur-Somme.’
*
‘At Edge Hill Railway Siding near Dernancourt, officers bark at us to line up, collect rations and commence a phased embarkation into a line of waiting wagons.’
*
‘We go rambling through wooded hills tumbling down to the river as far along as the pretty little village of Suzanne, crouched on the bank adoring its own reflection.’

 

 

Good old Aussie girls

Lewis17

In Wounded: a Great War novel, Snow is wondering how it came to be that he ended up in the war. He thinks about Connie, ‘… she who vowed undying love and showed me the white feather of cowardice when I didn’t enlist immediately, marrying Tom the electrician practically the minute the troop ship cleared Sydney Heads. … Now, there’s Connie, starting a family back home and here’s me stuck in a khaki column marching to battle in France.’

The idea for this came from a letter to my mother from ‘Tom’, which I found inside an embroidered card in dad’s shed. I believe Tom and my mother were engaged but she broke off the relationship and soon after met and married my father (in 1921). As George tells Gilles in 2009 in Wounded: ‘… Lily peeked through a crack in a paling fence and saw him, “bright as a brass button with a beer in his hand” …. Her sisters warned her not to get involved. Certainly, break off the engagement with the plumber who’d returned mentally ill from the war, but getting in with another returned serviceman was “jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.” Lily didn’t care, she loved dad at first sight ….’

Here is an abridged version of the letter from Tom to my mother I found inside the card.

France 13/1/18

My Dearest Doris

Just a line to let you know I am still in the land of the living and am keeping in the best of health. We are out having a good rest and am not having too bad a time of it but I am full up of it all. …The weather over here is very cold and one cannot get his feet warm. It is only about five o’clock now and I am laying in bed writing this note and am shivering and my feet are like a block of ice. I only wish I had someone to keep me warm. … A lot of the boys think the French girls lovely. They can all think for mine as I think they are not a patch on the dear old Aussie girls…. I suppose you are having lovely weather in Sydney about this time. I only wish I was over there having some of the good old times we use to all have down the beach. Doris, do you remember that last Sunday you were over at Mosman before I left and how I tormented you while we were waiting for the boat down at the wharf. Well, that will be nothing to what you will get if god spares me to return to the old home again. You may think I have got use to being away after being over here so long but I will tell you the gospel truth. There is not a night that I lay down to sleep and I am not thinking of you all and wondering how long it will be before we shall be together again ….Well, my dear, I don’t think I have any more news to tell you this time so will close with love to all out home and heaps of love and kisses to your own dear self.

I remain
Yours sincerely
Tom xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

 

 

 

Vic and Albert on Salisbury Plain

Lewis02

This is the original photograph from which the cover for Wounded: a Great War novel was extracted. It shows my father, Victor John Collin Lewis (b 1895) and his half-brother, my uncle, Albert Edward Worsley ( b 1884), on Salisbury Plain, England, in 1917. Readers of Wounded will note that Snow’s (Victor’s) best friends are named John, Collin and Louis. The reason is not entirely arbitrary. Because I did not know my young father, the thinking was that perhaps a composite of the four friends might give some indication of his true character as an infantryman. The truth is, I have no idea whether it does or it doesn’t; the reader can decide. Certainly, the fact of Victor having a half-brother stirred the imagination and this photograph watched over me throughout the entire preparation of the book, spurring me on when the going was tough and the motivation, flagging.

My dear Victor … Your loving Girlie xxxxxxxx

Lewis09Lewis10

You may need to magnify this  copy of a letter to my father penned by an affectionate admirer in 1918 from 4 Richmond Hill, Bournemouth, England, while he was recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound, but it illustrates well the many thousands of romances that blossomed through the Great War, indeed, one might argue, in spite of it, and of course, triggered in my mind the romance between Snow and Cozette, which forms such an important element of Wounded: a Great War novel.

‘… red, white and blue as the Union Jack …’

Lewis30

Bearing in mind that all characters in Wounded are fictitious except for a few senior military personnel, this is a photograph of dad’s mother, my grandmother, May Robinson (c. 1868-1941). Snow stares at a photograph which has arrived from home along with a parcel of goodies just before leaving for battle at Bullecourt and thinks,  ‘That’s mother all right; red, white and blue as the Union Jack, brazen Lancashire eyes accosting me, the intimation of a smile on her lips but more obdurate than warm.’

Somewhere in France

Lewis45  Lewis46Here’s a card sent by dad’s half-brother, Albert, to their mother May (Robinson) from ‘somewhere in France’. Dad is second from the right, standing, and Albert is on his right, arm around dad’s shoulder. It looks like they’re outside a boot-maker workshop. Dad doesn’t look too well and I think he was about to undergo an operation for appendicitis, which wasn’t entirely successful. Of course in my writer’s mind, this group became the ‘gang’: lanky Collin on Snow’s left, John with his arm around Snow’s shoulder, next to Horrie and Big Louis and, kneeling in front of Snow, Siddy (Snow’s hand on his shoulder) and Badge. In Wounded, Snow survives a serious gunshot wound at Passchedaele only to almost die from complications attending an appendix operation..

My Darling Son

Lewis15

My Darling son, trusting you will find some little comfort in this parcel. These few flowers are Pansies and Canterbury Bells. The Pansies are out of Aunty Bella’s garden.

With tons of love and kisses from Mother xxxxxxxx

PS: Flannel Flowers, Boronia, Kangaroo Paw, Gumleaf enclosed.

Love from Dad.