I always loved writing and now I get to do it full-time. How lucky is that? I even got a publication out of it. See https://www.ekphrastic.net/ekphrastic/the-bookstore-by-aline-soules
On the eve of World War II, my mother was engaged. His name was Richard (I’m not sure of his last name, but it might have been Hudson) and he ended up in the Royal Air Force, not as a pilot, but as an aircrew member in the RAF Bomber Command. Based on my mother’s age in 1939 (she was born in 1908, so 31), she and Richard must have decided to “wait” to marry until the war ended. Statistics for survival were slim. Forty-six percent (46%) of the 125,000 aircrew were killed. That’s 57,205 men. In addition, 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 ended up as POWs. That’s a total of 60% of those airmen. In June 2012, the Queen unveiled a memorial to them. Richard was one of the dead.
My mother was a trained “almoner,” the term in the UK for a medical social worker. She was stationed in Stirling, Scotland, but periodically travelled to London for her work. As a result, she experienced some of the London Blitz, which ran from September 7, 1940 – May 11, 1941. One of her experiences early in the Blitz was meeting the woman who became the main character in my book. This woman, in the French Resistance, had been “extracted” from France because the Germans were getting too close to her. “Extracted” was the term used to describe the process of taking someone out of danger, often via plane. Ironically, there she was, in London, during the Blitz, for “safe-keeping.”
She had an older brother. The siblings had been born in the same house in the region of Alsace in Eastern France. Her brother was born in 1917. She was born in 1920. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I included a section that ceded Alsace and its northern neighbor, Lorraine, from Germany to France. Between 1871 and 1919, the regions of Alsace and Lorraine had gone back and forth between France and Germany five times. As a result, no one worried about citizenship because there was constant shifting and there was no point in changing.
When the brother was born in 1917, he was German, as Alsace belonged to Germany at that time. When the sister was born in 1920, she was French, as Alsace was now part of France (it has remained so since that time). When World War II came along, the brother was drafted into the German army as a German citizen. She ended up in the French Resistance.
I knew I could make a story out of this.
Meanwhile, by 1940, both my parents had lost their partners and had to struggle on through the war with grief in their hearts.
So many words have already been written about Ukraine that I wonder at my own audacity in writing more, but there’s a compulsion to this horror that’s hard to resist.
What is it about war? What is it we crave? I suspect that no one has ever lived a day on this planet without a war being waged somewhere. We call it inhuman. We call it inhumane. But it’s one of the most basic human things we do.
I wonder sometimes if we’re cousins to lemmings with our desire to self-destruct. People point to power, to legacies of hate, to other causes that are all true in their own ways. But, deeper, there’s something else and I’m not sure what it is.
Talk to veterans of WWII and some will confess that it was the best time of their lives, if they lived through it. The camaraderie that can only be forged in facing tough times together. While newer wars are fortunately less glamorized than WWII, that camaraderie is still as strong as ever, a clan, a club, a family.
There’s something, too, in the tendency of victims of PTSD to rush towards danger rather than away from it. The thrill, the need for danger, the challenge of surviving odds.
Yet, when we look at the broken soldiers with lung problems or missing limbs or PTSD, when we look at the grieving wives and mothers and fathers of the fallen, deep down we know better. We just ignore it and carry on.
Photo Credit: Alamy
When I wrote my last blog post in mid-February, I had no idea that the Russians would invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Over the last month, I’ve watched this horror with thoughts of my late father’s experience in the early part of World War II, when the Soviet Union was aligned with Germany. The Soviet Union didn’t “switch sides” to the Allies until July, 1941.
Dad was born in Warsaw in 1910 of an English mother and a father who was half Polish, a quarter French, and a quarter Austrian. His schooling was in Poland, but he went to the Sorbonne for university, probably around 1927 or 1928, and graduated as an electronics engineer in the early days of that specialty. After graduation, he had his pick of jobs, working for Marconi, designing airplane engines for Rolls Royce, and working for Phillips in Eindhoven. He also married and had a son, probably in 1931 or 1932.
By the mid- to late-1930s, everyone knew war was coming. He signed up, along with many others, hoping to get a “better” spot in the army (whatever that was). He ended up in the infantry, assigned to communications. The first thing an army wants to do in any battle or any new place is set up communications and who better than an electronics engineer? His unit and others marched towards Germany in what was known as the “false” war, before the “official” war began, so he wasn’t in Warsaw on September 1, 1939, when German forces bombed Poland on land and from the air.
The advancing Polish forces were driven back and his unit reached Warsaw around Sept. 10. Every soldier was given two hours to find out what had happened to their families. Dad had lost his wife, his son, his mother, his father, and, essentially, his country. I will never understand the level of despair he must have experienced. I do know that, at one point, he stood on a bridge between Buda and Pest contemplating suicide. This confession was one of the rare times he opened up to me about his war life. Usually, I had to learn about his experiences from others, sometimes other Poles who ended up in Scotland after the war, or fellow-soldiers of other nationalities (French, British), men who became friends in Scotland, where he ended up, where he married, and where I was born.
Dad was sent to the Eastern front in 1939 and captured at Lwów (Polish), Lemberg (German), Lvov (Russian), Lviv (Ukrainian), the town we hear about on the news regularly at the moment because it’s now in Western Ukraine.
Captured and a POW, Dad was put on a train to be taken east. Because Russia has the widest railway gauge in the world, when a train reaches the border, everyone has to be taken off the arriving train and put on a new train to move further east. My Dad often said that “there’s no bad time to escape. Some times are just better than others.” This was one of them. He took his chance while the POWs were being transferred from one train to another and took off.
I don’t know how long he was “at large,” having made his way west, but he was captured again, and, as before, he was taken at Lviv. This time, he must have been watched more closely when the train transfer took place, because he and his fellow POWs were well east of Moscow before they were disembarked and lined up for preliminary questioning. Their captors wanted to know names, ranks, serial numbers, and what the POWs did before the war.
Name, rank, and serial number are part of the Geneva Convention, questions they could be asked and ones they could answer. What they did before the war — that’s another matter. As the Soviet soldiers went down the line, the POWs invented answers to this last question: postman, farmer, laborer, whatever. Dad said “electronics engineer.” I don’t know what made him decide to tell the truth, but it worked. They culled him from the others, who glared at him (according to Dad), put him in a locked room, brought him a meal, and left him for the night.
Dad left. How isn’t entirely clear to me, but he said he left through the window. I assume it was locked, but apparently he knew how to open it with or without a lever, a tool, or whatever else he might have used normally. Once out the window, he ran across a field, but he was seen and he was shot in the upper leg. He kept going into the woods on the other side of the field.
By then, it was late winter 1940 and the Soviet soldiers apparently had little else to do but chase him, which they did for the following six weeks. He was trapped in those woods, eluding his captors day after day, and his only option for food was to creep out at night and get frozen or rotten turnips from a nearby field.
As spring came, the soldiers eventually went away, presumably sent to one front or another, and my father, still with a bullet in his leg, began a long journey west, a story for a different post.
What I took from this and embedded in my novel (I’m still seeking an agent) was the idea of eating turnips. What prompted Dad to tell me this story was his refusal to eat them. As a child of parents who’d gone through a depression and a war with rationing, I was expected to eat everything on my plate. When I saw that my father wouldn’t eat turnip, I questioned this, and that’s when he told me his story.
I’ve never been in a war, never been bombed, and never been a refugee, but war has been a part of my life since my birth. Born in Scotland, I grew up with parents and relatives who’d come through World War II and had stories to tell. They were never the stories of hell. Not because I was a child, but because no one wanted to talk about hell. They were humorous or matter-of-fact or quirky. These stories were my “norm.”
I wrote a World War II novel based on one of those stories. I began when I worked full-time, but as an academic research librarian in higher education, work was ruled by the term and I couldn’t write consistently. I’d start a new term swearing not to get so caught up in work that I’d have to set my novel aside. In a couple of weeks, the term subsumed me. My feet hit the floor at 5:30 a.m. and I’d work all day and into the night, often falling into bed at 11:00 p.m. or later. At the end of term, I’d collapse. Towards the end of break week, I’d “come to” and wonder what happened to my story.
Unable to write a novel that way, I left work in August of 2018 to begin again, this time putting my novel first — every day. The story is based on a woman my mother met during the London Blitz. No one famous. An ordinary woman coping with what the world threw at her. I interlaced some stories and events I’d heard as a child, and discoveries from my research. I finished my novel in the fall of 2021 and began my agent search, which will no doubt be ongoing for a while.
My goal is to share some stories that didn’t make it into the book. Background stories or stories I cut from my novel because they didn’t serve this particular story. As I continue my agent search, I’ll share some of these tales in blog posts over the coming months. I hope you’ll find them interesting.