If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Killing is a Sin

What does it mean to die well?

"Five and Six Platoons had walked straight into machine guns hidden behind the ruins of the high wall which enclosed the Farm.  It was a dear price to pay."

For some reason, my brief Thanksgiving post last Monday has now become the most viewed single article on this site. I'm at a loss to explain exactly why that might be. Honestly, had I known it would take off and outpace everything I've written over five years within a week, I'd have made better use of the opportunity to tell everyone more about my book.

Perhaps you've noticed the plugs I've been giving to "Killing is a Sin" at the tail end of my more recent essays. So far, it's only been available for e-readers, but just last week I approved the final draft and it can now be purchased as a paperback from Amazon sites in North America and the UK. I feel that it is an important work for several reasons, not without self-interest, and I hope you'll forgive my departure from the usual nature of this space so that I can tell you all the reasons as to why I wrote it.

Foremost, I'm not so much a historian as I am a storyteller with an abiding passion for history. Failing to find purchase beyond my work here in academic writing, I accepted a challenge last year to attempt to write fiction. I’d never attempted anything on the scale of a full length novel. A main motivator for me was that of the majority of military history novels, particularly those of the First World War, there was a lack of realism, and, in my opinion, too heavy a reliance on cliché and tropes that don’t necessarily hold up to factual scrutiny. I wanted to tell a story that, besides involving invented characters could really have taken place. I wanted to immerse the reader in as real a representation of the Western Front as was possible, and give them characters who were personalities that felt genuine and substantial; to develop scenery that played on the reader’s senses and imagination. I’ll have to leave it to you to judge whether or not I’ve been successful with that. In my opinion, if the work I've been presenting here has been to your liking, "Killing is a Sin" delivers just that. 

While it concerns soldiers at war, and using the historical touchstone of Vimy Ridge as a backdrop, it is not exclusively a war story. Mainly the book is about a young man in the middle of a vast and dangerous situation he cannot control, using the extreme human experience of war to explore ideas of morality within a historically correct, visceral and realistic narrative. Where this story is set, on the Western Front in 1917, has allowed me a superlative event in human history to work with.  My attempt to re-create this period with any hope to realism was based upon available primary documents including war diaries, reports and orders, military manuals and expert consultation.  I am in the deepest gratitude to a gallery of archivists, librarians and passionate devotees to history in the work they have done in making such material so accessible. 

To free myself from re-writing history, much of anything specific, all of the characters and most of the locations are made from the whole cloth of imagination.  Foremost for me was to look at the war from a Canadian perspective, which could have been problematic.  Canada’s contribution to the war militarily was organised- our Army still is- in what is known as the “Regimental System.”

Briefly, this meant that soldiers were grouped around a nucleus of command just below that of a general.  From 800-1200 officers and men at different levels of strength, each of Canada’s overseas regiments had their own, and quite well recorded, identity and experience of the war.  I could not interfere with that.
This difficulty has been side-stepped by widening France by an arbitrary seven hundred yards, North to South, to insert the 16th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and its component units. Though I've made it appear that the 16th Brigade reports to the 4th Canadian Division, an extant formation, no such Brigade numbered 16 existed.  Which means of course, the one battalion within it where this story is told,
The King’s Own Canadian Scots Regiment, is my own creation, but founded deeply in the traditions and pride of units which would have been its contemporaries had it been real.  It made sense for the nature of the book's plot to put my imaginary players within the 4th Division.  I required my protagonists to be within a unit whose camaraderie hadn't been much disturbed by attrition, so the King's Own would have to be late in arriving to the war. 

There is little coincidence that this book is being released now as the majority of the narrative takes place during the winter/spring of 1916-17.  The first chapter opens with the recollection of the men's introduction to the war at the tail end of the Somme campaign in October, 1916- almost a century to the day of this post:

By October, when the Regiment went up the line in earnest for the first time, the Germans
were now fighting from positions which had been, at the beginning of it all, far to the rear.  That fact had been used to reassure the men of the King’s Own; they weren’t to expect prepared defences.  When the leading platoons of the attack came upon the road they had to cross and were able to see beyond, all there was was the farmstead and what barbed wire there was had mostly been mounted on frames, lattice-like and scattered across the frontage, more an impediment than a true barrier.

“Take and hold the redoubt known as ‘Spoon Farm’ and the crossroads in locality to support assaults on sections of ‘Regina Trench’,” had been the Regiment’s orders that day, and now those in the van, Felix among them, were just beginning to believe they were going to do it, and without a lot of fuss, either. 

Five and Six Platoons had walked straight into machine guns hidden behind the ruins of the high wall which enclosed the Farm.  It was a dear price to pay.  Felix remembered how, at first, the dust splattering around him seemed to be rain.  That was, until Sergeant Merrick’s back tore open, grotesquely ripped in half from hip to collar. 

For more about this title, please see my author site or this short film:

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