Major Tom’s War: from the National Army Museum to Armistice 100

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old…’

It’s a cliché to describe any moment in life as a whirlwind but it is also hard to think of a better expression for the last two hectic months.

The launch…

The eve of my grandparent’s 100th wedding anniversary seems much longer ago than September 20th 2018. I don’t think I will ever forget the moment when Parmjit Singh, my commissioning editor at Kashi House, proudly presented me with the First Edition of Major Tom’s War for the very first time, just minutes before the launch took place. About 100 friends and family members and – something I am having to become accustomed to – complete strangers came together to celebrate the end of an unusual book’s ten year journey towards publication. Jassa Ahuwalia made the whole thing so easy and I enjoyed the evening at the National Army Museum very much.

As I dropped off to sleep that night, my hand resting on the silky grey covers of my book, my actual, real, wonderful book, I thought, goodness, this is the best thing I have created since my two daughters. It was a moment of perfect happiness.

Of course in the cool light of day like any new mother I examined my offspring with anxiety, ready to seize on any tiny blemish, and of course there are small things which need to be tweaked and adjusted when this long and complex book moves into a second edition. This is after all a first novel not just for me, but for my gallant publishing team at Kashi House too. The reviews have been very enthusiastic and kind thus far and I will be forever grateful to all the pioneering readers who have invested in a First Edition and who can say, with pride, that they were among the very first to read Major Tom’s War. I am signing as many as I can – if you would like one, please get in touch via the website at http://www.majortomswar.com.

What happens next…

The book is here to stay. People are now reading it all over the world, with particularly intriguing early success in India. It is a heady and stressful sensation now the words which have been in my head for so long are out there taking on a life of their own. I know that people are longing to read it in France too but first we have to find a French publisher willing to take it on. Several irons in the fire there, so things are looking hopeful.

Bavay is a real place…

I have just returned from an extraordinary fortnight spent in France for the Armistice 100 commemorations. This was my fourth visit to the little Franco-Belgian border town of Bavay, home to the mayor Gaston Derome, one of the book’s main viewpoint characters, and also intimately connected with Tom Westmacott, my Indian Army cavalry officer and APM grandfather. I have made friends for life in Bavay, and all because one conscientious man wrote a thank you letter to another, and that other (with a little help from his wife) kept it. Whenever I walk across the Grande Place from Gaston’s Mairie to the deceptively saintly Queen Brunehaut’s column, I can hear horses’ hooves on cobbles, although no cobbles now remain.

My day job is as a museums and heritage consultant, and the town asked me over two years ago to create an eight-panel exhibition for them about Major Tom’s War for the Armistice 100 commemorations. I called it ‘Grande Guerre, Petits Destins’ (literally Great War, Small Lives) which may well be the title of the novel in its French edition, which we hope to see published soon.

I made the exhibition a comparative study of Tom and Gaston and in doing so realised that there were more similarities between these two mild-mannered men than I had at first thought. Both wore spectacles, both faced and triumphed over personal tragedy immediately before the war, both put their lives at risk for the sake of others, both believed more in the power of kindness than violence. Two ordinary men doing their best to survive extraordinary times.

The exhibition was attended by over 600 people in the seven days it was open, including classes from almost every local school, and is now the property of the town, for use in schools, libraries etc. Almost every child in Bavay now knows the name of Gaston Derome. Before I wrote Major Tom’s War, none of them did. Gaston is important to the book but also to France. His story of courage rehabilitates the WWI areas of occupation whose inhabitants are still sometimes cruelly nicknamed even within their own country as ‘les Boches du Nord’.

My cousin and sister and their families joined me at the end of my fortnight in Bavay to commemorate the 11th November, so all three of Tom’s surviving grandchildren were present. We also were most touched that the great-great-nephew of one of the dead buried in the cemetery came all the way from England by motorbike to pay his respects. My friends Loic and Martine came dressed in period costume, Loic as the priest-interpreter, Tom’s friend Luneau.

Bavay’s mighty procession, led by the town band, marched around the war memorials, the dignitaries wearing tricolor sashes and our family members wearing poppies, which are most coveted in France and should be sold there set off in the drizzle. We stopped at every war memorial in the town, including one to the resistance fighters of both wars, who have their own hymn. It all ended after an hour in Bavay’s bleak little cemetery, now bedecked with red, white and blue flowers as bouquet after bouquet and our own simple wooden poppy crosses were placed on the graves of the 12 men who lost their lives in Bavay either at the very beginning or in the last days of the war.

As we stood beside them, hoarse from repeated singing of the God Save the Queen, the Marseillaise and, in a touching tribute to Tom’s country of birth, the Indian National Anthem Jana Gana Mana, pondered on the lottery of war which meant that our grandfather came through the liberation of the town largely unscathed, while Kev Disspain’s great-great-uncle Clarence did not. Clarence Lionel Disspain was one of the ‘six men of the North Staffordshire Regiment’ Tom found dead, still warm, felled by a shell blast as they left the billet (in Gaston’s factory) which Tom himself was about to enter.

We were commemorating the end of a brutal war in a small town and in a small-scale way, not at one of the huge events at the Arc de Triomphe (where the lack of a high-ranking British politician or member of the Royal Family was noted with dismay) or Ypres or the Cenotaph. This was a conflict which derailed millions of small lives and it was good to stand there quietly, shoulder to shoulder with the ordinary townsfolk, as in the person of today’s mayor, Alain Frehaut, they said a genuine and heartfelt thank you for their liberation 100 years before.

And then we slaked our parched throats with champagne, and toasted ‘a la France, aux Allies, et a la Victoire’ – just as Tom did 100 years before.

In my next two blogs, I will be looking through Gaston Derome’s photograph album and following in the footsteps of Tom and the Indian Cavalry on the Western Front

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Turn the first page…

‘Closer inspection revealed… dark, surprising and tragic secrets, which provided the release I needed to begin again and write Major Tom’s War as a novel.’ 

My mother first showed me the fat, dog-eared, faded-pink album in the early 1970s. My grandfather’s First World War ‘diary’ looked like one of the family photograph albums I already loved to leaf through on rainy days because, like those, it had been made by my clever grandmother Evie, from card and cloth and glue.

Tom’s war diary is more of a large scrapbook really, into which Evie carefully assembled typed-up versions of his letters, photographs, cartoons (like the ones shown here) and other war-related material collected by him at random during 1914 – 1919.

As a child I looked only at the pictures of fine horses and alien, stiff, uniformed men with bristling moustaches. Deciphering the fading typescript and cramped annotations was beyond my capabilities then.

In 1975 or thereabouts an inspirational history teacher at my school, Fortrose Academy, John D. Campbell, legendary for his classroom digressions which were always even better than his lessons, introduced us to the First World War. Mum retrieved the diary from my aunt’s cupboard and I brought it into school, feeling a frisson of pride when John D. spent most of one class reading aloud from it. With fine joined-up thinking the English department of Fortrose Academy then gave us the War Poets: Sassoon and Brooke, Owen and (especially) Edward Thomas have been my companions through life ever since.

I found myself working for the Imperial War Museum in the mid-1980s and showed the diary to Phillip Powell the librarian there. He asked leave to copy a few unusual and shocking sections from it to the museum archives: these brief extracts have already appeared in a few non-fiction works on the Western Front.

I must add here that geneaology is a shared family passion and my sister Steph and cousin Pippa are the joint custodians of a great deal of family archive material.  When my own daughters began to study the First World War I remembered the diary and borrowed it back from Pippa to show them.

All this happened to coincide, for various dull reasons, with a convenient period of acute insomnia and so for something to do in the wee small hours, I began to transcribe the diary from beginning to end.

This soon became a compulsion which threatened to take over daily life. There was far more to the diary’s content than I had realised and this was almost certainly the first time that anyone had read all of it in detail (with the exception, probably, of Phillip Powell) since my grandmother had created it in 1919/1920. I also translated the documentation in French contained within, with a startling outcome (more on that in another blog). Action within the diary unfolds in England, India, Belgium and Germany as well as France and I caught my first glimpses of the many characters who will share your journey through the pages of Major Tom’s War.

There were also envelopes of letters. Reading these alongside the content of the diary made me realise that Evie had ever so slightly edited Tom’s stories, but why? Finding a stuck-down entry and steaming this top layer off to find a shocking story she had typed up then thought better of hidden underneath gave me the answer.

Once I had completed a version of the diary/letter content in Word for people to read, Pippa, Steph and I agreed that we should digitise our grandfather’s diary as a safeguard, which would allow its content to be easily read by future family members, historians and others. The result is http://www.majortomswar.com which combines the archive sources with complementary material on the book, including chapter notes.

I finally began to write Major Tom’s War as a work of non-fiction around 2009 but soon found that Tom’s voice alone was not enough to sustain it. I became immersed in work and family and gave up for a time. My grandmother’s voice in particular was missing, I felt, and I suspected either that her letters to Tom had all been lost in France; or, more likely, she had considered them of no interest to posterity and binned them.

About three years later the diary summoned me back. Sure enough, among a brown envelope full of loose letters and photos, I found a single surviving second page of a very different kind of letter from Tom which I have included in the book: an agonised crie de coeur at Evie’s rejection. Why?

Closer inspection of the diary itself and other archive documents began to yield some dark and tragic family secrets. This helped to provide the release I needed to begin again and write Major Tom’s War as a novel. It is a fact-based work only lightly dusted with fiction. Many of the words of Tom and others are used verbatim. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new genre, family history fiction?

Major Tom’s War was published by Kashi House in London on September 21st 2018 (no random date, but more on that another time), in a beautiful hardback first edition.

I must thank Parmjit Singh and his dedicated publishing team for taking on such an unusual project (and its eccentric author) and for being prepared to produce it against the clock during 2018, as a commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice, just as in had hoped.  If you need to purchase it online you can do so direct from them at http://www.KashiHouse.com.  As a non-profit publisher which is part of the UK Punjab Heritage Association they would really value your support.

Thank you for reading my first-ever blog.  Feedback and questions always most welcome. It will be good to have company at last, as the working life of an insomniac writer can often be a very solitary one.

Enjoy the read.

Vee  x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He goes: I follow: no release                                                                                                     Until he ceases.  Then I also shall cease.”                                                                                   The Other, Edward Thomas