Skip directly to content

Going to Flanders

on Mon, 03/03/2014 - 15:46

This blog entry was written by our very own Alan Monaghan, Dublin-based author of the Soldier's Song trilogy. Here is his experience of visiting Flanders, in the north of Belgium, where the first book of his series is set.

Writing a novel about the First World War is a strange, intense and often unnerving experience. You learn that whizz-bangs and toffee-apples are much more lethal than their names suggest. You try to conjure up the special wobbling sound that distinguishes an approaching gas shell from high-explosive or shrapnel. You put yourself in the place of men who lived in extreme filth and terror, surrounded by death and danger on every side.

Of course, it is all the harder if you've never set foot on a battlefield. Up until recently, I'd never been to Flanders or the Somme, never been to a remembrance service or walked in a war cemetery. In Ireland, where we have only recently come to terms with our involvement in the war, and where the political divides that were opened during that conflict are still very real, we are remarkably isolated from that sort of thing.

Then a magazine editor phoned me. She had read The Soldier's Song, liked it, and wanted to send me to Flanders to research an article on the Irish involvement in the war. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

I arrived in Ypres on a blustery, rainy day. The remarkable thing about Flanders is that it looks exactly like Ireland - especially when it rains. But I was seeing place names that were somehow familiar; Messines, Locre, Kemmel. And Ypres itself looked exactly as medieval as I had expected, with cobbled streets, a big market square and the massive Cloth Hall. I had to keep reminding myself that it's all fake - Ypres was reduced to rubble during the war and every building, including the very gothic Cloth Hall, is less than a hundred years old.

But everything else was real. The Menin Gate couldn't have been more real and imposing. The fifty thousand names engraved on it - from Colonel Loveband to Private Murphy - belonged to real men who had died here but had no known grave. The Last Post Ceremony, which takes place under the gate every night of the year at 8 PM was all the more moving as the bugler's notes echoed between the stone panels that bear those names.

Next day, I went to Tyne Cot - the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, and walked among the twelve thousand gravestones that stand there, then saw the memorial wall where another thirty-five thousand of the missing are named. One of the most remarkable things about the place, however, was a little detail you might easily miss. One of the carved stone wreaths in the plinth of the Cross of Sacrifice, which stands at the centre of the cemetery, has been left off. Underneath, you can see the concrete of the German machine gun post it is built on top of.

On my last day I went to Messines, to visit the Irish Peace Park where the Prime Ministers of Ireland and England recently laid wreaths to commemorate the sacrifice of the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions during the war. From here, it was only a short distance to Spanbroekmolen, where the crater of one of the massive mines detonated under the Messines Ridge can still be seen. The changes that the war wrought to the very landscape of Flanders are amazing.

And yet, it was on a perfectly ordinary farm track, beside a perfectly ordinary field that I was most struck by the atmosphere of the place. Two low bumps in the track marked the location of a German bunker, and as my guide explained to me how the battle of Langemarck had unfolded here in 1917, I found myself anticipating things he was about to say. I had written about Langemarck in The Soldier's Song, and specifically about a real assault on a German strongpoint called Vampire Farm. Vampire Farm, it turned out, was just over there, and I was  standing near the very spot where my characters had started the attack.

So there I was, slightly unnerved again. Four years after it was published, I was standing in the middle of my own book.

Stirring stuff. You can visit Alan's website here, and the first of his trilogy can be bought here.

Other recommendations

Before we go, we'd like to let you know that World Book Day 2014 will be on this Thursday, March 6th. We're looking forward to the fun and festivities, and we hope you enjoy the day too. Keep on reading! Keep up to date with this blog for future news and events from the literary world, and why not follow @Geraldine_Cooke for more musings?