The Wildgoose Chase

I met Chelsea Pensioner Walter Wildgoose in 1977 when he was 87 and I was 26. Through a series of letters written over the last year of his life, he passed along his life story - the workhouse children's home, a life in the British Army witnessing the opening battles of World War I and life in India, a remarkable family surviving the bombs of World War II London. This blog will document my research and progress on the novel I'm writing about this amazing man.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

World War I research roadblocks

Walter and son (also Walter) c. 1918

Though I have Walter's letters as a guide for the novel I am writing about him, one of the difficult aspects of the project is filling in the gaps and staying true to the man/the times.

Finding dependable resources to help flesh out the story can be circuitous at best (of course, that's part of the fun of it, as well). The Great War years are the easiest to research (along with WWII/wartime London) because of the wealth of eyewitness accounts and journals, scholarly works, literature, and so on. But I have run into some roadblocks re: specifics on:
  1. Mobilization/preparation efforts of the regular army in July/August 1914. Walter, having been with the Royal Lincolnshires since 1908, doesn't give any clues about this in his letters. In spring/summer 1914, was the military resigned to the fact that a war on the continent was imminent? How was it preparing for the threat? I do have some idea (through the letters and research) of the uniforms and kit, but if anyone has a specific checklist of these items it would be helpful. What was the mood of the officers and men? I'm guessing - from what Walter writes - that it was just another tour of duty for them (in the beginning, at least), but I could be wrong. How did the officers (the new ones) regard the regular army troops? How did the troops regard the new officers?
  2. Le Havre to Mons: specifics such as weather, mode of transportation, formations (which regiments were teamed together), communication with the French army and other British troops is needed. Thanks to the The History of the Lincolnshire Regiment, 1914-1918, edited by Major-General C.R. Simpson (London: Medici Society, 1931) and the Diary of Lt. C.C. Holms, The Lincolnshire Regiment (wounded 24 August 1914, died in Frameries 26 August 1914), I have a pretty good idea of the day-to-day routine and events of the early days of war for the Lincolnshires. Both of these resources can be found in the Reading Room of The National Army Museum, and the Simpson book can be found in the Reading Room of the Imperial War Museum, as well (referenced in earlier posts). Like most of history, these are written by commissioned officers as opposed to non-coms - I'd love to find something from that viewpoint if it's out there (doesn't have to be the Lincolnshires, just a diary or account from the non-com angle).
  3. First Ypres - Winter 1915 - 2nd Ypres: One of the gems I found at IWM (mentioned in earlier post) was a two-volume binding of field communications during 1st Ypres called First Battles of Ypres 1914 Messages of 9th Brigade, 3rd Division . It's a hell of a way to follow a battle, from the guys on the line to HQ - everyone trying to get more ammunition or troops from one place to another as needed. Just incredible. But apart from the Christmas Truce 1914, not much is written about the winter campaign or 2nd Ypres for that matter (except for the trench/gas aspect). What happened January-March 1915? What was the day-to-day routine for the men? What actions took place?
  4. Field casualty centres/war hospitals: Locations? Staffing? Who made the decisions about which injured men warranted a trip back to England? Sometime in late April/early May 1915, a box of ammunition fell off a lorry and crushed Walter's foot. He was taken to a field casualty centre and sent back to England to the Clopton War Hospital outside Stratford-upon-Avon. How was it determined that he would go to Clopton? (He'd been injured earlier in the war at Le Cateau - a leg wound - that wasn't serious enough for a trip home.)
  5. Reserves to Machine Gun Corps: After he'd had part of his big toe amputated and recovered from that, he was sent to the 3rd Reserve Battalion Lincolnshire (Grimsby) for a few months until he was chosen to become an instructor for the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps in late October 1915. How were these new instructors selected? Walter does write about Grantham and the muddy conditions there, but he doesn't get specific about day-to-day training. How did this work? Did the instructors train for a variety of things or were they specialists? Walter spent the remainder of the war in England as a machine gun trainer. What determined why he stayed in England instead of being sent back to the Front? I do know that he left Grantham in 1917 to teach machine gunnery at Camp Mansfield, and then was sent to Rugely (sp?) Camp in Staffordshire. He was there when the armistice was declared. I've found several journals and books on the Machine Gun Corps but there's not much in them about the training period at the camps. Most, naturally focus on how the MGC was used in battle. Any ideas on good resoures that give detail on the training camps?
In addition to the above-mentioned specifics, the debate goes on about World War I novels in general, i.e, keeping to the facts but somehow missing the bigger truth of the matter vs. playing fast and loose with the facts but trying to capture the thoughts/attitudes of those who fought the war and those who had to live with the realities of it back in England. Dan Todman addresses this issue in several posts on his blog Trench Fever (check it out).

My goal with this book is to stay true to Walter and his story, rather than the nit-picky facts of the events. Knowing Walter as I did, knowing his general view on life, his sense of humor, the sadness about some things, the ambivalence to others, I think it would be false to make some grand epic about anger and bitterness towards the war. He took it in stride - he was an army man, after all, from an army family. That said, the death of his brother Bert at Aubers Ridge affected him deeply, and any bitterness towards the war germinates there.

But - as a lover of history and facts in general - I do want to know the details. I want to be true to the events, as well, even if I have to manipulate things every once in a while. It is fiction, after all. We'll see what happens. It seems that anyone writing about the Great War is damned if they do (stick with the facts) and damned if they don't (by focusing on the feelings about the war). Ah, me.
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posted by MaryB @ 12:15 PM  


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