We all know soldiers have private lives. Novels about war naturally devote space to characters’ back-stories, thoughts, feelings and relationships, and everyone knows a manly war hero can be given a softer side by bunging him the obligatory love interest. Yet there’s another, even more private side, and I’m beginning to realize it’s more important than I thought.
My journey began while working on my present novel of the Crimean War. In ‘Soldiers of the Queen’ my hero is placed for good dramatic reasons with the 34th Regiment of Foot, but I was depressed to discover that the best primary sources are a digest of the Regimental log, a handful of officers’ letters, and a portion of an officer’s journal. Those are all very helpful, but my characters include several private soldiers and a particularly crucial Colour Sergeant, and none of those documents showed much interest in such lowly souls. The log didn't even give names of anyone below the rank of ensign, and casualty lists record them only as numbers of 'Sergts' and 'Rank and File'.
Then came the miracle. A delightful lady called Anne Beal wrote to me about the Crimean Memorial Appeal, and mentioned in passing that her interest in the war arose from the fact her great-grandfather George Clarke had served in it. He was a Colour Sergeant, as it happened. In the 34th Regiment of Foot. And she had a dozen of his letters sent from the Siege of Sevastopol.
We all know those moments when the words ‘Holy Grail’ dance in golden specks before our eyes. I shall draw a decent veil over my embarrassingly slavering response, but fortunately Anne was kind as well as god-sent, and she sent me not only photographs of the letters themselves, but perfect clean transcripts with explanatory notes from her own research. Eleven of the letters were to George’s wife Mary Anne, who’d been left behind with the rest of the regiment at Corfu, one was to her parents, and the whole set covered the exact period of my book.
|Original envelope of one of George Clarke's letters - by kind permission of Anne Beal|
They were everything I could have hoped for. What I needed most were everyday details of life in the regiment, and George’s letters were pure research gold. How much did it cost to send a letter home? What kind of ‘souvenirs’ did soldiers loot from dead Russians, and what could they expect to sell them for? There were so many of these gems that I’d noted the first six letters before it really occurred to me what was missing.
After a year’s research I probably knew more of what was happening than poor George did, but I still found the omission intriguing. War is a pretty big thing for a soldier, this was almost certainly George’s first, and yet he seemed hardly interested in it at all. There are dutiful references, of course, but even these are mostly concerned with how soon the siege will be over and he can be reunited with his wife. At first he thinks the siege won’t last long ‘for the Russians are actually eating their horses for want of food’, but later notes sourly that despite the constant firing he doesn’t see ‘the slightest alteration in the place’. A month later he still doesn’t know when he’ll be coming home, but thinks ‘there will be no more fighting’. Two months later he writes with endearing honesty: ‘I shall be very glad when this affair is over for I am getting tired of it.’
There could be many reasons for this reticence. The siege was in stalemate, there was little real progress to report, and George himself points out that the regiments were so widely spread that general news was thin and unreliable. Yet even when his regiment is actually engaged, George’s accounts of the action are the briefest I’ve ever seen. Writing on the day after the Grand Sortie of March 1855, he doesn’t even mention it until his third paragraph when he’s already discussed domestic details of money and his wife’s health.
|George Clarke's signature - by kind permission of Anne Beal|
That’s what’s fascinating. It’s not that the war isn’t worthy attention, but that George is far more concerned with his own quiet little private life. He writes about sick friends, relays news of his brother in the Rifle Brigade, gossips cheerfully about lapses of behavior among fellow NCOs, and is desperate for real newspapers from home. He worries about money and frets about the unreliability of the post, but most of all he is anxious about his wife, and how well she’ll be treated by the regiment without him there to look after her:
I received your two letters dated 11th & 12th December in which I find your face and throat to be much better which gave me much pleasure to read but on the other hand I was sorry to hear of the ill treatment of Sgt Howfield to you. But my dear, don’t have anything to say to him only what you cannot help for I am sure he would do you an injury if he could.
Of course he worries. Anyone would, and the more I read the more I understood how natural George’s approach really was. The famous letters of Timothy Gowing of the Royal Fusiliers might be full of patriotic wishes to ‘strike a blow for good old England’, but Gowing was a young man with no dependents, and those with adult lives outside Crimea were bound to have a different perspective. George’s ‘outside life’ wasn’t just his ‘back-story’, it was pretty well his whole story, to which war was only the backdrop.
And as a writer, that made me think. My job is to keep a story moving forward, to keep attention focused mainly on the action in foreground, but is that really a realistic way to show war? I’ve dealt with a soldier’s all-engrossing home life before in the character of Woodall in ‘Into the Valley of Death’, but that was a significant story, and often the reality is in the sheer ordinariness of everyday life. Shouldn’t I be doing more to show that?
The obvious answer has to be – only with caution. A commercial novel needs to be reality with the boring bits missed out, and if I devote pages to my characters worrying about whether a cake will still be all right after a long voyage then it’s going to play havoc with the pace. But reading George’s letters have made me wonder if there isn’t a greater danger in exploring the real ‘private lives’ of soldiers, and if I need to be very careful about going there at all.
Because ordinary life is universal. Have a character shot in the leg and readers will sympathize in an intellectual way, but have him get cramp or have a stone in his shoe and the reader is instantly there with him. George’s worries are ‘real’ to most of us in a way that war is not, and as I read his letters I completely forgot about research and saw him only as a human being.
From 5’31” the men are actually sitting under fire, but still the conversation drifts round important topics like cigarettes and socks. Trivia, laughter, the stuff of normality, and at once their Russian nationality is lost in the human nature of the universal soldier at war. This is what soldiers are like, this is their real private life, and even if it's a 'front' to help them deal with stress then the 'front' is part of the reality of who they really are.
That kind of trivia we can write. Not too much of it, or we'll destroy the pace of action sequences, but we need to see men talking about the things that really interest them rather than those things the plot demands. They don't talk about the war because they're living the war, and what they really want to think about is everything else.
As George Clarke does. His isn't an epic adventure story, but the letters give an insight into his real life outside the borders of war, and it was impossible to read them without personal feeling. George died of cholera on 30th June 1855, and when I read his last letter of June 23rd I'm afraid I even cried. His poor wife! They were obviously a very close couple, and at the time of his death she was even expecting his child – the baby he so much wanted to see christened. I wondered how on earth the poor woman would cope alone.
|George Clarke's last letter|
That's a good reaction, exactly the one I would hope for in a reader, but what made this situation dangerous is the fact that I found out. Anne herself told me the expected child was born in August 1855, and since the father was not listed as deceased it seems likely poor Mary Anne didn’t yet know she was a widow. That child was Anne’s grandfather, and it was from him that she learned that Mary Anne had always kept George’s letters with her, and carried them about in his old cutlery holder.
This cutlery holder, to be precise.
So perhaps that's the one part of a soldier's life that needs to stay private - at least in an action adventure historical. If I’m writing ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ then of course I must make the reader feel every human shred of the cost of war – but if I want my readers to enjoy the fight then I need to keep back something of what that cost really is.
That sounds like a cheat, but I think it's a necessary one. Generals can't think of their soldiers on so personal a level, or how could they send them to death as disposable pawns? Soldiers don't do it either, and one thing I've learned from veterans is how they condition themselves to laugh and joke even about each other's deaths. It's the only way a soldier can do his job and stay sane.
Maybe the same is true of writers. I admit I take a possibly rather warped pleasure when a reader berates me for killing a character they loved, but I don't want the loss to be so unbearable that they can't enjoy the book at all. I'll go into the 'private life' of my characters, I'll make them as real as I know how, but unless it's absolutely essential for the story then I'm not going to explore their loss beyond the grave.
A very, very big thank you to Anne Beal for allowing me to write about her great-grandfather, and for giving permission to show her photographs. There is much more to the story, and I very much hope that one day she'll publish it herself.
Meanwhile the much duller A.L. Berridge's website is here.