For my entry today I've been pondering the plight of animals in war. The subject has become a rich seam for authors and film makers. War Horse is too well known to even mention, but just looking along the shelves of children's fiction you can hardly fail to spot them: Soldier Dog, War Dog, Shadow, A Soldier's friend, The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, A Horse called Hero (see Sam Angus' blog on this site about her book), and my children's favourite, I am the Great Horse (a horse in ancient warfare by History Girl, Katherine Roberts). I could go on. Half of these are by the wonderful Michael Morpurgo who has really cornered the market in the animal + war story. I will try to suppress my envy. Consider it stuffed like the dormouse in my teapot of literary jealousy.
So when I came to write Dawn, the second and final part of my World War I series for teen readers, dogs, horses and cats were all familiar presences but what about elephants?
Research is a wonderful thing - a real treasure hunt for anyone with an imagination that latches onto the unexpected. It proves time and again that real life is far stranger than fiction. My idea of London during the German bombing campaign did not include pachyderms but I found a by-the-by comment in Neil Hanson's The First Blitz that started my imagination off on a new track. On one of the very first night raids, a troupe of performing elephants were evacuated from Chelsea Palace to the Embankment. The animals belonged to Lockhart's circus which enjoyed a long fame since Victorian times, carrying on even though one of the original owner brothers had died in an elephant stampede. (Can any elephant expert verify if the Wikipedia entry is correct? I would love to know more about the Lockhart brothers.)
Even in a world at war, the (elephant) show must go on. A writer is very unlikely to make up a detail like that as it is so odd, but I couldn't get these peaceful evacuees out of my mind, parading under the arches while the bombs fell around them. (Apparently they were very well behaved and didn't stampede, unlike the time that did for the unfortunate Lockhart). Elephants by the Thames. I wanted to be there with them so my heroine had, of course, to encounter them. The plot took off in a direction where she would cross paths with the troupe which necessitated a trip to Westminster Bridge and a charge of treason. From little elephant acorns a whole story plot grew.
Writing this blog entry, I see I have underestimated the presence of elephants on the home front when I did a search for working elephants. I hope you enjoy as much as me this photograph of an elephant employed in a munitions factory in Sheffield. Yes, Sheffield. Not somewhere in the empire but in South Yorkshire. That gives me an idea. Hands off, please, Mr Morpurgo, I spotted the elephant in the room first...
You can also read part one now which covered the events of 1914-16. No elephants but a chocolate Labrador does make an appearance.