Writing about war

Paddy Richardson, Dunedin, June 2017 

My latest novel, ‘Through the Lonesome Dark’ was released in May. It’s a novel about the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, about the men, mainly miners, who served on the Western front during the first world war digging tunnels and packing them with explosives for mine warfare.  Moving from crime genre to writing a historical novel has been a new experience for me, but like every other novel I’ve written it began as a tiny kernel of an idea which stayed with me and niggled. That ‘niggle’ is usually, for me the prompt for writing something. There are so many ideas, so many stories but somehow a particular – I’ll call it an impression because it’s not even quite an idea at this stage- a kind of feeling which may come from an image or a comment overheard or the fragment of a story-which somehow stays with you and, every so often gives you a bit of a prod. It’s almost as if the story is choosing you rather than the other way around.

My daughter-in-law is Belgian. I was talking with her mum who made the comment that there were strong ties between Belgium and New Zealand because of the number of New Zealanders who had served in Belgium in the first world war. Of course I knew about Flanders and the poppy fields but she said something that really caught my interest; did you know about the network of tunnels in Arras that New Zealand soldiers were responsible for creating? It was a huge complex beneath the city used for accommodating troops before the battle of Arras.  Apparently, the tunnels had been sealed over and forgotten about until they were re-discovered quite by accident in the 1990’s.  But what struck me most about it was that the tunnels were sign posted with New Zealand place names; Wellington, Auckland, Blenheim, Bluff….

That was the image that stayed with me; the labyrinth of tunnels marked with place names from so far away by young New Zealand men, covered over and forgotten for so long but then re-discovered apparently quite by accident.

In terms of writing a novel about it though-well the idea quite frankly terrified me. I’d be writing about men and war. It wouldn’t only be the challenge or writing from the consciousness of another gender but of another time as well. And the most demanding issue for me was that I’d be writing about war. I felt afraid that I just wouldn’t be able to do it. So just as a tentative starting point, I wrote a section about a boy called Clem and what I imagined it could be like in the tunnels. I intended that as the start of the novel but, as it turned out, it came much later. But- I thought at the time- yes, I had a sense of Clem -maybe I could do it.

When I’m writing a book which requires historical and/or social information I find that immersing myself in it is the best way I can get the breadth and depth of knowledge that I need before I begin to write so I began with research. I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that seemed relevant, I contacted the RSA, I went to the Hocken Library and Toitu, I phoned the Greymouth Museum and asked if they had any information about miners who’d joined up with the Tunnelling Corps. I read about the first world war, about mine warfare, about mining. I read diary entries and novels and poetry- I find that while I need the information that factual accounts give, poetry and novels give me the colour. I made myself as familiar as I possible could be with the main facts related to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company; the men involved in the first corps were recruited in 1915 and arrived in France in 1916, the first New Zealand troops on the Western Front. At first the company was involved in counter-mining activities, the building of tunnels and laying mines beneath German lines and then they moved into Arras where they extended existing underground systems into a complex of  headquarters including kitchens, sleeping quarters and medical facilities to secretly house what would be around 25,000 soldiers before the Battle of Arras, the idea behind it being that the slaughter of soldiers in the open that had occurred in places such as The Somme may be avoided; the soldiers would emerge from under the ground, dry, healthy and physically well equipped for  battle. On the morning of the battle of Arras, April 9, 1917 the openings to the assault tunnels were blown up the by explosives set to allow the troops to move out into battle.

While I was reading I was also trying to work out the basic elements of the novel. Where should it start and who would be in it? The New Zealand Tunnelling Company recruited miners so it seemed a young coal miner from the West Coast would work as the main character.  I decided on Blackball since it was close enough to visit and the history of the town as ‘the birthplace of The Labour Party’ interested me.

I started writing. My main character Clem had to have a family and friends- I had to find him a life. He became Clem Bright. He came from a mining family and grew up alongside two special friends- Otto Bader and Pansy Williams. This first part of the novel- Pansy, Clem and Otto- their childhoods and young adulthood, the outbreak of war in Europe and the repercussions it started to have on New Zealand makes up the first part. While I was writing this part I stayed for two weeks in Blackball, walked around the streets, down to the mine, to the creek, the cemetery. This was where Otto, Pansy and Clem had grown up; I had to know it as well as I could.

But next came the war itself and that was what had most worried me about committing myself to this novel; writing about the actual war, about battles and fighting, the immensity of it all just seemed far too big but what I came to realise is that it is people who go to war. I was looking at photograph after photograph of troops lined up, the men in those troops appearing indistinguishable from each other in their uniforms, faceless beneath their helmets.  But each of those men had a home and a family and people they loved, each had their own thoughts and hopes and fears. What I had to do, I told myself, was to follow Clem, an ordinary young miner from the West Coast.

 I finished the first and second drafts. I’d been very fortunate to have been awarded a Creative New Zealand Grant for this novel which allowed me to take myself and my draft off to Belgium and Northern France. I had the skeleton of the story and I wanted to fill it in with colour and texture and smells and sounds and tastes and feelings of actual places. The landscape I discovered was different to what I had expected-very flat, the clouds seem to hover  close to the land and the battle fields I had heard of and read about ; Ypres, the Somme, Polygon Wood, Flanders were so much smaller than I’d imagined. And then Arras, where I was able to walk the streets, run my hands over the texture of the stone buildings that edge the two main squares and go down into the tunnels which have been partially opened up.

And then the endless, endless cemeteries. You go up a little country road and there’s yet another one; the endless rows of white stones, so many of them marked with the curved fern, our own men. And that more than anything else brought me at least to a partial understanding of the horror and immensity and the terrible grief and waste of this war. 

This has been the most difficult novel I’ve written, in terms of getting the facts right, the time period right, and, most of all, trying to show the devastation caused to ordinary families and people caught up in a war caused by politics they scarcely understand on the other side of the world. But despite the difficulties and sometimes the almost overwhelming fear- I’m in the middle of this but I don’t know where to go next, is it even going to work?- it’s been the most rewarding and satisfying. Some reviews say I have it right, some say I don’t but I guess the most important thing for me as a writer is to have stretched myself beyond anything  I ever thought I’d do and, now, to want to try all over again.