In Flanders Fields

Does a confluence of events sometimes send you a message that you should do a particular thing?  On rare occasions, I feel as if that happens to me , and it happened with this blog.  I’d intended to blog on something else, had planned it out in my head for weeks.  And then these things started to happen.

First was KJ’s terrific December 24 blog on the Christmas Eve truce during the First World War (WWI).  Then came the release of the movie Warhorse on Christmas Day.  I’m not really keen on going to a movie wherein horses charge at people firing guns, but I noticed the movie.

Then came William Boyd’s essay in the New York Times (January 22) about why WWI still resonates in Europe even though the soldiers and most of the onlookers are now gone.  In that same issue was Dave Kehr’s article about Paramount Pictures’ restoration and reissuance of Wings, the silent movie that won the equivalent of Best Picture for 1927 (the first such Oscar).  The icing on the cake was reading Maisie Dobbs, a mystery set in 1929 London and involving people still coming to grips with the losses of WWI–The Great War, as it was known then, with no one dreaming the next generation would face a far bigger conflagration.

I’m a sucker for a good hero, and war produces heroes.  So I figured the universe was sending me a message that I should write about this war, which has long been an interest of mine.

Okay, yes, it’s unlikely the universe really cares what I blog about.  But still.

I think my interest in this war owes something to my longtime love of  1920s America, a period ripe with contrast and change, partly because of the war.  War generates social upheaval, and social upheaval generates conflict.  Maybe that’s why so many romances (and other books) are set in wartime or post-war eras.  And really, who doesn’t love a military hero?

But I think my interest in the war itself began when I was spending a month in bed because of back surgery a couple of years after the dh and I were married.  We rented classic movies several times a week and watched them together.  One such movie was Wings, a silent movie then available only for VCR.   We loved the movie.  I’ve used it in my class on films of the 1920s, and the students always love it.

I’ve shown films from famous comedians of the age, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, but the students always prefer the much longer and more intricately plotted Wings.  I think that’s because they become more invested in the characters than the shorter comic pieces allow.

The most famous star of Wings was Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of 1920s America.  Her costars were Charles “Buddy” Rogers, (future husband of America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford) and Richard Arlen.  They played a trio who’d grown up together in the same small town.

Clara Bow’s character, Mary, had a crush on Buddy Rogers’ Jack.  Jack, however, had eyes only for Sylvia, beloved of Richard Arlen’s Dave, and Jack’s jealousy caused a rift between him and Dave.

The two young men enlisted in the fledgling Army Air Corps (remember, the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk just over a decade before fighting broke out) and went off to training camp.  In that environment, their friendship ultimately overcame Jack’s jealousy though Sylvia remained a taboo subject between them.  She had allowed Jack to believe she might care for him because he was going off to war, something Dave knew but never revealed because he didn’t want to hurt Jack.

Meanwhile, Mary enlisted as an ambulance driver and followed her two friends to the Western Front.  I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I won’t give away plot details here.   The dh and I didn’t really expect a silent film to interest us that much.  We rented the movie because it was famous and it takes a lot of movies to fill up  a month.  We were surprised to find the characters so engaging and their conflicts so sympathetic–Mary’s ardent desire to help and be with Jack, his hopeless affection for Sylvia, Jack and Dave’s camaraderie, and the true and constant love between Sylvia and Dave–that they caught us both up in the story, as they have my students.

The director of Wings, William Wellman, was a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American pilots who flew for the French before America entered the war.  Wellman knew his subject very well, indeed, and turned a vast swath of Texas countryside into a replica of the Western Front.  According to Kehr’s article in the Times and to the piece on this film in The Parade’s Gone By, a wonderful history of the silent film era by Kevin Brownlow, many of the stunt pilots were veterans of the war.   Many audience members, of course, also would be.  Many would also be veterans of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the climactic clash of the film.  So this movie had to be accurate.

Kehr points out that rear screen projection was not an effect available at the time, so all the aerial duels had to be shot in the air, with stars flying planes and cameras mounted on the cockpits.  Arlen had flown for Canada during the war, but Rogers had to learn to fly for the movie.  The aerial shots are spectacular.  This is primarily a film about pilots, but the misery of the ground forces also appears. (For an interview on the restoration of Wings, click here.)

Y’all know I’m interested in military history, and I like a good book about tactics, but I mainly care what happens to societies and to individuals as a result of wars.  I think that’s why I liked Wings so much and why I take such an interest in the books I’ve discussed here.

In his essay in the Times, Boyd noted that 2014 will mark the centennial of the war’s beginning.  He suggested that the war still resonates because of the staggering casualty counts, which decimated a generation of European men.  He described the war as “nineteenth-century armies with twentieth-century weaponry.”  The flame thrower and the tank both debuted on the Western Front.  The moving poem “In Flanders Fields,” by Lt. Col. John McCrae (Canadian army), has been described as one of the most memorable war poems ever written.  Probably the most famous American song about the war was George M. Cohan’s “Over There.”  Its jauntiness provides a sharp contrast to the tone of McCrae’s 1915 poem.

If you saw the movie Chariots of Fire, you may remember a scene near the beginning, when Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) arrives at Cambridge and greets a wounded veteran who’s helping carry baggage.  A few minutes later, there’s a scene in the college dining hall that shows the long list of the college’s war losses painted on a wall.  Women who’d been raised to have marriage and family as their goals suddenly had no one to marry, a problem many American women faced after our Civil War.

A classic book on the war and its effects on that generation in Britain is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.  I own a copy but have to admit I’ve never read it.

I’ve also never read With the Allies by Richard Harding Davis, one of the premier war correspondents of the era, or The Long Weekend, a look at Britain’s interwar social changes by Robert Graves and Alan Horne.  Or The Real War 1914-1918 by Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, considered a seminal history of the war. Or Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  Or Into the Breach, a study of women on the Western Front, by Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider.

Yes, I do own all these books.  Someday, maybe soon, I’ll read them all. I may even write about this period if romance opens up to it.  Or if I decide to branch out to other genres.  Anne Perry has written novels set in the post-war period.

Lest you think these books are contributing to the TBR takeover of our house, you should know they’re all on the “historical resources” shelf, which is what I call all the history books I own.  As a lifelong history geek, I own many.  They don’t count as TBR under my definition, which I’ve formulated by extending the idea that the writer is a god in the story universe to mean the writer is also a god in her personal library.  Feel free to borrow that if it works for you.  *g*

We wouldn’t have all the fabulous romance heroes who just happen to be U. S. Marines if not for the Battle of Belleau Wood.  It’s not as famous a clash as the Somme, Ypres, Saint-Mihiel, or Verdun but played a vital role in the war.  I bought Miracle at Belleau Wood because it was so intriguing.  I’ve  used it to do research for my classes but not actually sat down and read it.

Before WWI, the Marine Corps was in danger of abolition, seen as unnecessary when the U. S. already had an army and a navy.  Belleau Wood, a former hunting ground not much bigger than New York’s Central Park but a mere 30 miles from Paris, changed that.

The jacket copy says a contingent of 200 Marines “held off the leading edge of Crown Prince Rupprecht’s entire army” for almost a month while taking casualties at a rate of 40 percent.  It quotes an American general as saying the Marines didn’t win the war but stopped an advance that “would have been the beginning of the end” for the Allies.  This battle earned the Marines the nickname of Devil Dogs, which they still use, from their German adversaries.

They also earned, of  course, the future of the Corps.  Every reader who loves military romances has to be glad of that.

One book on the war I have actually read in its entirety and highly recommend is Tolkien and the Great War:  The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth.  (I received a free copy of this book some years ago because I reviewed it.)  As one might expect, the book focuses on the experiences of Tolkien and his prep school friends on the Western front, and it’s a story marked by grievous loss.

One of these friends, Robert Gilson, died leading his men across No Man’s Land, as the area between the opposing armies’ trenches was known, on the first morning of the Somme offensive.  By sunset, Britain had lost 20,000 men with twice that many wounded.  The next day cost her 30,000 lives.  They must have left an excruciating vacuum in cities and towns across England.

The book is not all carnage and pain, though.  It also spends a fair amount of time on Tolkien’s courtship of his wife, Edith, and traces interesting parallels between Tolkien’s wartime experiences and the war that would change Middle Earth forever.

One of the curious facts Garth included was that the Germans dug deep bunkers off their trenches, nicely engineered and sturdy, far superior to the British fortifications.  Tolkien would’ve seen these when the British reached what had been German territory.  Garth also recounts the tale, familiar from other biographies, that Middle Earth was born while Tolkien was grading examination papers and wrote in the margin of one, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” which became the first line of The Hobbit and spawned a hugely successful movie saga, not to mention millions of books sales.

Hmm.  I’d like to write something that spawned a hugely successful movie saga and millions of books sales.  Not to mention action figures.  And Burger King toys.  Would you?

Anyway, when we visited the Imperial War Museum in London some years ago, there was a big exhibit on WWI.  It included a simulation of a trench. I wanted to see it, but knowing there would be realistic smells put me off.  I’d  had enough olfactory realism at the Jorvik Viking Center and the Bosworth Battlefield museum, so I passed.  Still, I’m curious about that exhibit and sort of wish I’d held my breath and gone through it.

The mystery I read, Maisie Dobbs, was a gift from a friend who loves the series  It’s about a young woman setting up her own private inquiry agency in 1929  London.  Maisie had been a nurse, or VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) on the Western Front.  The first case she handles draws her into another involving veterans of the war.  As with any war, some of the deepest injuries didn’t show, but these men were vulnerable to exploitation.  Maisie rescues a group of them from a horrible situation.

The book’s structure is odd in that we  have the first case, then a very long flashback of Maisie’s upbringing and her wartime romance with a young doctor, a wonderful, dashing, romantic figure … who isn’t currently in her life, and then the case mentioned above.  At the end of the book, we learn what happened to the doctor, Simon Lynch, and it’s sad.

I’m not normally one for sad books, but the theme of survivors dealing with wartime experiences, of heroes unable to cope with the world–as Frodo couldn’t cope with the peaceful life of the Shire–resonated with me, and Maisie’s success at building a life for herself sort of compensated for the sadness.  That wouldn’t ordinarily satisfy me, but something about this story made me okay with it.

WWI also touches on my personal history.  My grandfather on my father’s side married three times, as far as we know.  A son from his first marriage died in the American Expeditionary Force in WWI.  My grandfather died when my father was very small, so I don’t even know this half-uncle’s name.  I wish I did.

What about you?  Did you have relatives fight in World War I?  Have you read much about this period?  Do you define some books as TBR and others as not, or are they all part of the bookish invasion of your home?  Do you have a favorite war movie or military romance hero?

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  • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

    A great uncle lost an eye in WWI, I was taught at a very young age not to stare at people with disabilities. I vaguely remember sitting on his lap and being given wintergreen candy. I had an uncle that was killed in WWII, I really don’t remember him.

    • Dianna, looks like you caught the rooster today!

    • Helen says:


      Well done it is a while since he has visited you

      Have Fun

      • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

        It has been quite a while Helen and you know I don’t have Tam Tams here ladies so he is going to be in a bad mood.
        I will take him to work with me and the ladies will give him snacks. I am certainly not leaving him home alone with my son, I would be lucky to have a house left!

        • Cassondra says:

          Smart move Dianna. Never leave that bird alone or with somebody who might be lured into trusting him. Maybe we should start sending a Gladiator along with him…hmmmm..

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Dianna, congrats on the bird! Don’t let him run you ragged.

      As someone who wore a very conspicuous back brace for scoliosis in junior high and high school and so had to deal not only with stares but with rude, nosy questions, I so appreciate your tact about disabilities.

      I wish I knew more about my father’s family history. His father must’ve been in his sixties when he married my grandmother, who died during the American reinvasion of the Phillippines in WWII.

      I envy your having known the great-uncle who was in WWI. Even if he didn’t talk about the war, he’d been part of a critical historical event. The men on my mother’s side, the relatives who lived near us, were too old for the army by the time of that war.

      • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

        He was very old and didn’t say much of anything other than to feed me candy and pet my hair. I would want to go out and play and mother would be saying no, and he would keep nodding his head saying yes, go. In my young mind he was super cool because he could overrule my mother.

  • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

    Oops, looks like I got the GR, he will have to go to work with me.
    A movie that I like to watch is Pearl Harbour, the romance in that movie will tear your heart out.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      I never saw Pearl Harbor. I’ll have to check it out.

      • Jeanne Adams says:

        Nancy, if you do watch Pearl Harbor, make sure you do it with an eye to the romance, and just go “lalalalala” over the history. It’s terrifically inaccurate and Hollywood-ized. Grins. That said, some of the camera shots are stupendous!

        • Cassondra says:

          Oh, Dianna, I’m glad you told me this. I can’t watch that kind of film. The whole “tear your heart out” element…I know I’m missing some fantastic stuff, but I would just never get over it. That stuff grabs me and won’t let go.

          I’m weak, I know.

          • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

            Cassondra, my girlfriend and I cried our eyes out, the men of course laughed at us and yes Jeanne, the historical errors were loudly proclaimed by both men. Though most of my fav historical authors are very true to historical points in romances not all are and perhaps I have become a little blind to such things. If they are not overly blatant I let it slide and keep on reading, the same with movies.

        • Nancy Northcott says:

          Jeanne, thanks for the warning on the history. That kind of thing tends to really stick a burr under my saddle, but if the romance is gripping enough, I can probably get past it.

  • Fedora says:

    I don’t believe I have relatives who fought in WWI, and haven’t had the chance to read much set in this era–thanks for the many excellent suggestions, Nancy!

    I consider books I actually own a part of the TBR , but not ones recommended to me that I haven’t yet acquired 😉

    Congrats on the GR, Dianna! Hope he’s a help at work and not a hazard 😉

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Fedora, that definition of TBR works for me, too! *g*

      I think for most Americans, WWI is so distant and we were in it for such a short time that it isn’t a big part of our history. I don’t think there’s a lot of American fiction set in this era.

      Elswyth Thane wrote a series of historical romances (with more history than current historicals include) following a Williamsburg family from the American Revolution to WWII. Our local library had some of them when I was growing up, and I tracked down others at book sales. The WWI volume is Kissing Kin. The series comes back into print from time to time, or at least some of them do, but I think they’re currently out. Thanks to the internet, they’re a lot easier to track down than they once were.

      • Jeanne Adams says:

        Well, learn something new every day! I didn’t know Elswith Thane wrote anything about WWI. I’d read Yankee Stranger and several of the others, but not Kissing Kin. :>

        • Nancy Northcott says:

          Dawn’s Early Light, about the American Revolution, is really good, too. I suspect only the ones that were more popular are ever brought back into print. I had to look to find the others.

          It’s too bad so many of the books I treasure mean nothing to the boy. There’s no chance he’ll ever want most of them.

  • Nancy, what a fascinating column. World War I casts a terrifically long shadow in Australia, much longer, I suspect than the one cast in America. For a start, we were in it from 1914. As part of the Empire, if England was at war, so were we. Our national day, Anzac Day, actually commemorates the Gallipoli landings in Turkey in April, 1915. A complete bloodbath and military disaster but there’s something in the Aussie character that appreciates grace in the worst of circumstances and that’s certainly true about the Aussie soldiers at Gallipoli. Australia actually had the highest per capita rate of enlistment (it wasn’t a conscription war) and the highest rate per capita of casualties. I have a very close connection to a veteran – my mother’s uncle lost a leg in the trenches in France and came back to Brisbane to become a brilliant cabinet maker and this house is full of his handmade furniture. Always love the threads of family history reaching back to him.

    I LOVE the Maisie Dobbs stories. I actually think they get better after the first one. You’ll really enjoy them – the war continues to cast its shadow. They’re brilliantly written!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Anna, what a wonderful thing to have all that furniture made by a relative. Did you ever know this man?

      I have a book on Gallipoli but haven’t read it. Wasn’t there a movie about it with Mel Gibson?

      I do think the short duration of America’s involvement in the war explains the comparatively minimal attention to it here. The Korean War gets similar treatment and is even known as “The Forgotten War.”

      So Maisie Dobbs is something else we both like! How cool. I do plan to read the next book.

      Too bad there are no Plantagenets in it, though. *g*

      • Jeanne Adams says:

        Oooh, furniture! How cool that he made it all. Do you have any?

        I saw Gallipoli and it was brilliantly made and acted, but abysmally sad. (To me)

        Anna and Nancy, I think WWI is kind of “forgotten” here for us given the short duration of our involvement. Korea’s actually better known because of the long-running TV show MASH, but WWI just fades further and further into the mists.

        • Cassondra says:

          Anna and Jeanne, I also have furniture made by my grandfather. It’s why my cats are declawed on the front. I hate doing that to them, but I love the cats, and I can’t allow the stuff made by his hands to get shredded. I just can’t.

          • Nancy Northcott says:

            Cassondra, even though I’m a dog person and allergic to cats, I’m not a fan of declawing, either. I agree with you on the decision, though. You’re lucky to have that furniture!

        • Nancy Northcott says:

          Jeanne, I think your comparison to Korea is very apt. Also, neither WWI nor the Korean War was fought on or anywhere near American soil, so I wonder if that makes a difference, too.

  • Speaking of Vera Brittain, there was a wonderful BBC adaptation of Testament of Youth way back in the early 80s. SOOOO sad but brilliantly done. Don’t know if it’s still available on DVD but well worth getting out.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      I’ll bear the DVD adaptation in mind. I’m afraid if I see it first, though, I won’t ever read the book.

  • Helen says:


    I had a great Uncle who was killed in WW1 and he is buried at the big place in France starting with an S I can never remember the name of the place and how to spell it and we have a letter from his Captain saying how sorry he was the Charles was killed and what a brave man he was.

    I love watching the old time war movies there is one I can’t remember the name about 4 brothers that go to war on the same ship and are all killed heart breaking and The Green Berets so many to name and I too love Pearl Harbour.

    I must admit to not reading any books on the war but I am sure they would be very interesting

    Have Fun

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Helen, I’m sure you treasure that letter. There’s a heart-rending book, Final Salute, that follows the Marine Corps casualty notification officers as they interact with the families of fallen Marines. In the distant days of WWI, it wasn’t so easy to send someone with such news.

      The Green Berets is one of John Wayne’s best movies, I think. That and Big Jake, which is not a war film.

      I think I know the movie you mean about the four brothers. Is James Cagney in it? Is it something about Sullivans?

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Oh, wow, how cool that you have that letter!

      The movie I think you mean is The Fighting Sullivans (1944) Great movie, but sad, as they do all die. *Sniffle!*

      I liked The Green Berets too. :>

  • Nancy – I may have to bookmark your blog as historical research reading 🙂 I believe my paternal grandfather was in WW1. He never spoke of it to us kids, and he had alzheimers about the time that I learned to be interested. I don’t know much about my grandfather except a standing concern among the adults that he might run out of the house naked.

    It does seem like there’s a resurgenance of interest in WWI. I hope you’ve been watching Downton Abbey where the grand manor home has been turned into a rehabilitation home for WWI soldiers. WWI was brutal. What a shame it wasn’t a war to end all wars.

    • Donna, I suspect some of the resurgence of interest is because the 100 years anniversary is coming up in 2014 (2017 for you guys). People love those centenaries!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Donna, I can see how the running out naked thing might be a concern. It’s too bad your grandfather was never able to speak about the war. My grandmother had age-related dementia by the time I was old enough to be interested in her experiences growing up in the 1890s. I would bet a lot of family history is lost this way.

      My parents wrote down their experiences in World War II, but there were other things my father mentioned to me as we were stuck in a massive rush hour traffic jam after we saw Saving Private Ryan together that I thought I’d remember, foolishly did not write down, and now find are hazy. Anyone who could clarify that for me is gone now.

  • Mary Preston says:

    My Grandfather was in the Australian Light-horse in WWI. He was very young. In WWII he was in the Air Force. Not so young. I don’t have any photographs from him in uniform from WWI. I do for WWII.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Mary, if your father fought in both world wars, he must have been very young, as you say, during the first one. We have some family pictures from that era (not related to the war), and they’re not very good. We have a few from WWII including one of the Houses of Parliament I think my uncle must’ve taken when he was stationed in England.

      War would be tough enough. Taking an animal into would, I think, be very difficult. That’s the main reason I won’t go see Warhorse.

      There’s a bit in Maisie Dobbs about the conscription of horses in England during the war, as in Warhorse.

  • blodeuedd says:

    I have to read a few of those books, I have been interested in this period ever since I read the WWI poets. Hauntingly sad poems that shows the cold, the mud and the horror.

    As for the war, nope none in my family fought there since we belonged to Russia and broke free and fought our own civil war during this time

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Blodeuedd, I don’t imagine Russians in the midst of their own revolution, as you say, had much time to care about what was going on in Belgium and France. I’ve read some of the war poets, and they are very sad. I think it was Wilfred Owen who was killed just a week before the Armistice.

  • My maternal great grandfather served in the British Army’s ambulance corps. During his “off duty”, he created a beautiful wall decoration of swans pounded from an artillery shell. The pounding probably relieved his stress.

    I think Downton Abbey has also reminded of WWI.

    Happy Australia Day to the authors down under. It’s heritage is something that is shared with Hawaii (with Captain Cook sailing around the Pacific, claiming new territory for Britain).

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Kim, what a cool story about the swans! Does your family still have them?

      I didn’t realize this was Australia Day. I echo your good wishes to the banditas and buddies Down Under.

  • Hello Nancy!

    I have a few books on WWI and I’ve read a few of them. I’ve always wondered about the effectiveness of trench warfare and charging across open space toward the enemy. It’s not a far reach from the lines of soldiers shooting at each other in an open field during the Civil War. Aviation in WWII had a huge impact on how the war was fought.

    I love reading war time on the homefront and how people from all walks of life adapted for a common cause. I’m more familiar with WWII, partly because of my family’s experience during the Japanese occupation.

    Mrs. Miniver, The Land Girls, Empire of the Sun, The Longest Day, The Best Years of Our Lives are some of the movies that come to mind.

    I’m a Downton Abbey addict and marveling at the difference in the evacuation procedures in 1914 to present day. Thank God we have dust off teams who are able to evac the wounded and have them in a surgical hospital within minutes.

    Congrats on the GR, Dianna!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Jennifer, from what I’ve read, trench warfare was simply horrific. At least during the Civil War, there was cover on some of the battlefields (though not all–I’m sure Pickett’s men would’ve loved some cover as they charged uphill over open ground, toward a fortified position, at Gettysburg). No Man’s Land was totally bare because of the shelling.

      Living conditions in the trenches were awful, too, terrible sanitation, the ubiquitous rats, people on top of each other, the risk of mustard gas. Miracle at Belleau Wood has pictures in it of soldiers modeling different styles of gas masks.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Forgot to say I’ve seen Mrs. Miniver and thought Greer Garson was fabulous. Did you know she was married to the actor who played her son in that film?

  • Nancy, what a great post for us fellow history geeks!

    My maternal grandfather, known as Grandpa Sherm to me and my siblings, served in WWI in France. I wish I’d had the forethought to talk to him about it when I was a teen. I think he would have had a great deal to tell me about it. I do know that after his return he was very interested in finally settling down and married my grandmother in 1919.

    One of my favorite authors as a teen was Grace Livingston Hill. She was a Christian romance writer who set many of her books during the period of 1900 and 1940. It was one of my first glimpses into this time period as a young woman.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Thanks, Suz. It’s too bad you never got to ask your grandfather about his experiences. My grandmother’s second husband was alive into the 1970s, but I didn’t know until recently. She married him after my dad left home, so he and my father weren’t close, but I wish I could’ve asked that man about her, had a chance to see her from the perspective of a man who loved her and not just that of a son.

    • Cassondra says:

      Suz, Grace Livingston Hill was my favorite author when I was a young girl. Of course, my mom censored my reading so carefully, it was only the “Christian” component of the books which allowed them through the gate. Any other romance was off-limits.

  • Mozette says:

    My Grandpa was supposed to be WWII but when his regiment was to go out, somebody – they didn’t know who – came down with Meningitis. So, instead of gundging up the whole works by testing them all (and putting back their time out there), they put his regiment into the army hospital and treated them all for it to be on the safe side and sent out another regiment in their place.
    Three months later – after they cured the bug – and the regiments came back, they were all honourably discharged and sent home. Grandma was so pleased and asked about how it was ‘out there in-country’, but Grandpa had to tell her he didn’t get to go. She was disappointed then, but laughed about it later on in years, seeing the funny side of it.
    Grandpa passed away in 1997 from Dementia. He stuck around with us for a couple of years kind of winding down… as some oldies do. It was sad to see him do this; and really upsetting as he was a great person. He taught me to play pool, named all lizards and garden spider ‘Fred’ and often said: ‘Ya blood’s worth bottlin'” if you did something cool and worthy to him. Grandpa taught me a lot and I miss him greatly.

    My Pop – on the other side of the family – however, fought in Egypt as a Signalling Officer. He smoked a lot and they were given as many smoked as they could puff back then; and he was often in hospital with pneumonia. One time, he was supposed to be on a Hospital Ship that took off from Brisbane with three other guys who were in hospital with him; and they were the only three survivors from their regiment – all because they had been sick with pneumonia when the ship was bombed and gone down without a survivor on board.
    Pop died aged 87 from Emphasemia, pneumonia and Bronchitis. He was on a ventilator and had a senitivity to light and sound… so he was in a darkened room when he took his last breath; but wasn’t alone. Pop taught me a lot about veggies and how to grow them… and he also helped me give up smoking in the most original way… he coughed up in the sink in his bathroom one day and I saw what was in his lungs…. I won’t describe it, but it reminded me a lot of what fresh bitumen looks like…. but it’s pitch black.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Mozette, your grandfathers sound wonderful! That’s a great story about the meningitis outbreak.

      My grandmother was mostly not with us in the years before her death, and that was very painful for my grandfather. I couldn’t remember her from when she was better, so it wasn’t as hard for me, just strange. It’s always difficult to see someone you love suffer.

      My grandfather (on my mom’s side) died of a stroke during surgery, so while it was a shock, we didn’t have to watch–and he didn’t have to endure–a slow deterioration.

  • CateS says:

    My dad served in the US Navy during WWII. A couple of years ago, my hubby & I were in Mobile, AL and visited the battleship,USS Alabama. It was July and I now know why all those wartime photos of sailors showed such thin, muscular guys.. Hot does not begin to describe the interior parts of that ship. There were airconditioned parts of the tour that provided some relief… obviously added post-war..

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Cate, both my parents were in the Navy during WWII. My dad spent most of it in a POW camp, but my mom was stationed stateside. They didn’t meet until after the war, when they were both stationed at the naval hospital in Memphis.

      I’ve alway wanted to tour an aircraft carrier, but no one else in my family is up for it, alas. I think I may be able to talk the dh into it, though, next time we’re where one is moored. That’s a great point about the heat. Must’ve been miserable in the South Pacific.

      I did get the dh onto the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston, and I have hopes for H.M.S. Victory the next time we get to England, though that doesn’t look to be soon.

  • eilis flynn says:

    You’ve finally given me a solid reason to see Wings, Nancy! It’s always been one of those things that I’ve put in the category of “One of these days.” It was an exciting time and the 1920s an exciting decade, coming to an abrupt end with the Great Crash, my particular interest. Thanks for the great post, and wonderful reading and research suggestions!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Eilis, I didn’t know you were interested in the Crash of ’29. It was always the last topic in my 1920s class.

      I really do think you’ll like Wings, especially if you can rent one of the new DVD versions. I’m eager to see that myself. I was interested to see that an actor with a bit role, a pilot Jack and Dave meet in training, was none other than Gary Cooper, who was just starting out. There’s also product placement, believe it or not, a closeup of a candy bar!

  • Gail Nichols says:

    My husband had a grandfather who fought in WW1. We have a huge picture of him in military dress hanging in our dining room. I can’t think of any movie heroes of that era but I love “Upstairs,Downstairs” & “Downton Abbey” they both had story lines for that period.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Gail, another Downton Abbey fan! I never saw Upstairs, Downstairs, either, but I think it’s probably available to rent.

      I envy you that picture. We have no photos of my father’s father and only a couple of his mother.

  • Nancy Northcott says:

    Several of you have mentioned Downton Abbey. I was totally unaware of it until recently. Now I don’t want to start watching because I feel as though I missed too much. I need to watch last season on DVD before I start the current one.

    Or do I? What do you think?

  • Janga says:

    What an interesting post, Nancy. I’m a big Maisie Dobbs fan, and I frequently wish that the post-WWI period that has become popular in mysteries and YA would carry over to romance fiction as well.

    Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) is the book about WWI that I know best. I think it has been required reading for graduate students in American literature studies almost since its publication. Fussell, a veteran of WWII, looks at literary treatments of the war, especially those of Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves, but the book is far more than literary criticism. Last year, Time named it #4 on their list of “All-TIME 100 Best Non-fiction Books.”

    Fussell argues that WWI as the first modern war has shaped the way we view war ever since and that, on a larger basis, it changed the world view of Western culture. It is a fascinating book.

    On a related topic, reading about the Hello Girls, the women who responded to General Pershing’s call for bilingual women telephone operators, is the only time I seriously think about writing historical romance. Theirs is such a compelling story, and the only treatment of it in romance fiction that I know about is Merline Lovelace’s The Hello Girl which weaves the history into a contemporary romance.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Janga, glad you liked it!

      The Fussell book sounds intriguing. I’ll see if the dh can get it from the university library, though that means I’ll have to read it soon, not let it sit. That may be a good thing.

      I didn’t know about the Hello girls. How cool! Thanks for the recommendations.

      The main thing I’d heard about Pershing, which may or may not be true, was that he said, upon disembarking in France with the AEF, “Lafayette, we are here.”

    • Janga, I was about to call the dh when it occurred to me that the title of the Fussell book seemed very familiar. I went to the WWI shelf, which I looked at last night, and sure enough, there was the book! So I can read it at my leisure.

  • Nancy Northcott says:

    A wonderful movie about the post-war era is The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain. It stars Hugh Grant, in one of his lesser known roles. He plays a surveyor who comes to this little town in Wales to measure their mountain, which is their main claim to fame.

    To everyone’s dismay, the mountain, named in the distant days long before surveyors could go measure such things, is too short to meet the definition of a mountain.

    The town’s residents are aghast, and they hatch a plan to keep Hugh Grant and his boss in town while the citizens cart dirt up the hill and pile it up so that the hill becomes tall enough to be the mountain they always considered it.

    It’s a wonderful movie, very funny, but with notes of poignancy. One of the characters is a shell-shocked veteran, beautifully played by Ian Hart (better known as Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

    One of the most famous detectives in modern mystery fiction also suffered from shell shock, though much less severe. Lord Peter Wimsey served on the Western Front and suffered a nervous disorder as a result–though it doesn’t seem to impede his detecting much. I do love Lord Peter. If only Sayers had written more adventures for him.

  • Cassondra says:

    Nancy, what a terrific blog! I have never seen Wings, but I know Steve would love it, so I’ll have to make the effort to get that.

    Although I’m a little afraid it might make me cry, and you will owe me big time if it does. *grin*

    My grandfather (mother’s side) who I blog about a lot here, was in WW1. My father fought in WW2. My oldest brother was at Vietnam. So there’s a lot of military history in my family. I have a friend doing my genealogy for me, and as I’ve been helping her, I believe I’ve found an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. I haven’t come across anybody from the Revolutionary War yet. As it goes back further, those records are very difficult to find. I learned, though, that I could actually GET my father’s and my grandfather’s military records. I’m going to try to do that.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Cassondra, I do think you would like Wings, but I have to say it may well make you cry.

      What a cool genealogical quest! One of my cousins has mapped out my mom’s family extensively, picking up where his dad left off, but we know very little about my dad’s family.

  • Jeanne Adams says:

    What a great post, Nancy! This era is so forgotten, isn’t it? And yet, so pivital in the history of literally every country on map. The changes in this war affected even the “uninvolved” countries of China, Russia and so on. Everyone had to adapt, not only to aerial warfare, but gasses and new bombs and so on. Unbelievably devastating on the human side as well, but an equalizer of social status in many countries as well. There just were not enough men to marry in the “upper class” and so many second and third sons who became the peer. Then there was the situation that many estates had where they couldn’t even function because all their men-folk had gone to war, been lost, and the heir was one of the more distant branches. It’s really a period ripe for exploitation on the romance side, but seldom written about.

    Mercdes Lackey has used the period in two of her recent Elemental Mage series books and included a romance, and Elswyth Thane, as you mentioned. One of my favorite authors, and Anna C’s too, is Eva Ibbotsen and her Countess Below Stairs. She uses the backdrop of the men returning from war, the VADs and the social changes in that book to great effect, so I’ve always been inclined to think it woudl be a great period in which to set romances. Wish the publishers agreed with me! Hahaha!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Jeanne, I also wish romance would open up to this period. I suspect it’s seen as too “old” to be modern, what with the long skirts, and too modern to be historical.

      I keep saying I need to read that Ibbotsen. You and Anna C. have mentioned it before, and it sounds great.

  • Jeanne Adams says:

    Forgot to say that my Grand-dad was the wrong age to fight in WWI, but the DH’s great uncle ran away from home, joined the circus (seriously), then, when war broke out, lied about his age and joined up. The only way his family knew what happened to him was that he listed his real mother, and her real name, as his next of kin. When he was killed in St. Thierry, she was notified. She was also a Gold Star Mother, and went on the trips the US gov’t arranged for bereaved mothers to take to France and see their sons graves. We have photos of the Gold Star plaque and several other things from this era. Very sad, and yet, very cool

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Yes, very cool. And very sad. I think a lot of guys lied to get into uniform.

      In the beginning of Captain America, Steve Rogers is trying desperately to enlist but can’t, not because of age but because of physique. The desire to serve was strong during both WWI and WWII. On, and did you catch that heartthrob of the Lair, Richard Armitage, in a bit role in CA?

      • Jeanne Adams says:

        I did! I did! He is so yummy, even as a bad guy. Grins.

        I love both the “wimpy but brave” Steve Rogers and the Capt. America Steve Rogers. But talk about making you cry! That movie’s ending…. *Sniffllllllleeee!*

        Also, if you’ve not seen the trailer for the Woman in Black, starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, you should. He looks SO like a young Richard Armitage! I was startled, in fact, by the resemblance.

    • Cassondra says:

      Jeanne, I’ve never heard of a Gold Star Mother. Is that just the designation for a mom who went over there to see the graves? Or is it some organization she joined?

      Nancy, you may know this, I’m sure, so if Jeanne isn’t back on, I’ll pester you to find out about it.

      • Nancy Northcott says:

        Cassondra, I wasn’t sure and so resorted to Google. A gold star mother in the traditional sense was one who had lost a child in the service. Blue star mothers had a child serving.

        There’s now an organization for these mothers, and I found this info on their website:

  • Jeanne Adams says:

    Y’know, I was just reading the other day that the last American WWI veteran, Frank Buckles, died this time last year. He was born in 1901, so he was very, very young when he joined up. Hmmm….wonder if he did like the great uncle and lied about his age?

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      I saw that, too, Jeanne. It’s not just people passing but history. I saw George Lucas on TV talking about his new film Red Tails, which tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Lucas said many of the airmen worked with him when he started this project but now only a handful survive.

  • Janga says:

    Jeanne’s mention of Ibbotson’s The Countess Below Stairs, a book I love as well, reminded me of this poignant summation in that novel of the effects of WWI on one household:

    More than most great houses, Mersham had given its life’s blood to the Kaiser’s war. Upstairs it had taken Lord George, the heir, who fell at Ypres six months after his father, the sixth earl, succumbed to a second heart attack. Below stairs it had drained away almost every able-bodied man and few of those who left were destined to return. A groom had fallen on the Somme, an under-gardener at Jutland; the hall boy, who had lied about his age, was blown up at Verdun a week before his eighteenth birthday.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Janga, thanks for sharing this. It’s so sad and yet such an accurate microcosm of the changes the war wrought.

  • catslady says:

    All my ancestors came from Sicily but my dad was in WWII and my husband VietNam. It’s not a subject I have read much about but my husband is a big history channel lover so I have watched many things on all wars. I think it would be interesting to read something on it. And as to my tbr pile, it is huge and constantly changes lol.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Catslady, there’s a way lot to read on this period, to be sure!

      I just picked up the second Maisie Dobbs, so I’ll see how much the war’s effects figure in it.

  • Jeanne Adams says:

    Awww, Janga, I always remember that part. *sniffle* And the description of the second son, Rupert, who feels so inadequate to take his brother George’s place, and is described as mentally by the housekeeper upon seeing him return from war this way:

    Now the old woman who had known him since his birth saw in the new lines round his eyes, the skin stretched tight across the cheekbones, the price paid by those who force themselves against their depest nature, to excel in war.

    I just love that.

  • Pissenlit says:

    I love McCrae’s poem. I memorised In Flanders Fields when I was a kid.

    The family would’ve all been in China back then so, not that I know of…though to be fair, I don’t know for sure as I don’t know all of my family. I recently found out that my paternal grandfather was…well, let’s just call it adopted… His adopted family had no sons to carry on the family name and his biological family apparently had some to spare… and an aunt told me that my grandfather was young enough that he couldn’t recall his biological family’s names…just that he had some older brothers.

    I haven’t read or watched as much about WWI as I have WWII. I’ve mostly been turned off of war movies ever since watching Saving Private Ryan. That’s the only movie that’s ever managed to cause me to stop eating my popcorn…and I’m a HUGE popcorn person. I’m currently very much enjoying the CBC 6-part mini-series called Bomb Girls about some women working in a Canadian munitions factory during WWII. Oh and early last year, I bought the beautiful HC edition of Scott Chantler’s Two Generals. I have no words for this graphic novel aside from the fact that I really can’t recommend it enough. The publisher calls it “A beautifully illustrated and poignant graphic memoir that tells the story of World War II from an Everyman’s perspective.” It’s told through the eyes of the author/illustrator’s grandfather and his best friend.

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Wow, Two Generals sounds outstanding. I’ll have to look for it!

    • Pissenlit, that’s a cool story about your grandfather. I wouldn’t be surprised if such informal adoptions were common in rural areas. We don’t know much about my father’s family, either, but that’s mainly because his father moved around so much and died when my father was small.

      Thanks for recommending the graphic novel and the miniseries. They sound great.

      Saving Private Ryan was the last movie my dad and I saw together. He was a hospital corpsman at the Inchon landing in Korea, so none of that was news to him, but I watched the first 20 or 30 minutes of that movie through my eyelashes so I could track it without really seeing it. It’s a rough movie. Of course, so is combat. I’m trying to work my way up to seeing Hurt Locker.

  • Nancy,

    What a wonderful post. I was really touched when I visited England and Scotland to see all the memorials to those who died in the wars. The memories of both WWI and WWII get away from us sometimes in America, but over there you can still see damage–a constant reminder. I was very humbled by it all.

    • Thanks, Gerri. One of the things that has stayed with me from my summer in England as a student was our visit to Coventry Cathedral. We saw the new building, of course, but spent more time in the bombed-out shell of the old one, where bits of stained glass still clung to the window tracery.

  • Nancy Northcott says:

    A silent movie I’m curious about is The Big Parade, starring John Gilbert. It’s about infantrymen. There’s nowhere local I can rent it, and I don’t want to buy it and then find I don’t like it. Anyone know anything about it?

  • EC Spurlock says:

    Nancy, what a wonderful thought-provoking post. I’m a silent film buff but I have never seen Wings. I will have to see if I can find it somewhere.

    I did not have any relatives that served in WWI but its approach did cause the migration of both sets of grandparents to the US as a safer and more prosperous place to raise their families. However my father and his seven brothers, as well as two of my mother’s brothers, served in WWII in several different arenas; particularly my dad, who was in the Navy on a repair ship and was moved around quite a lot. They told us a lot of the funny stories they had while we were growing up, but seldom touched on the horrors they must have faced. After my dad died we found a box full of photos he had saved that were taken while serving in Algiers and the Mediterranean. I wish we had known about them earlier so we could have asked him who all the people were and where they were taken.

    Nancy, have you ever thought about searching on one of the genealogical sites like Ancestry to see if you can find information on your great-uncle? If you know your grandfather’s first wife’s maiden name, try searching on that; she may have had siblings whose descendants can give you more information.

    • I’m glad you liked it, EC. I hope you can find Wings. I think you’ll enjoy it.

      What a great story about your father’s family during the war. My dad told funny stories about his POW experience. Only toward the end of his life did he go into the brutal aspects, and then to the dh more than to me, though of course the dh shared.

      One of my cousins has done some genealogical research on our mutual grandfather, and a friend let me use her Ancestry account. Unfortunately, he had a very common name, and I have no idea what his first wife’s name was. My father said, I think, that his father had lived in the Detroit area as an adult (he came to this country as a child, from England). Marriages 2 and 3 took place in the Phillippines, and many of those records were lost in the war. So I may never know more. If I ever get to that area, I may try a microfilm search of the newspaper at the public library. He was apparently fairly successful, so there may be an obituary that would tell me more. I know the year he died, though not the date.

      On our first trip to England, the dh and I tracked down my grandfather’s birth certificate. There were several men with his name born that year, but I knew he’d been born in Devonshire, and I knew his mother’s maiden name, so we were able to narrow it down that way. We got a copy of his birth certificate for my dad. I have it now.

      On a later trip, we found the farm in Devonshire where he was born, near a church with lots and lots and lots of Northcotts in the graveyard.

  • uxb says:


    What a great post.

    A guy who worked on the ambulance service happened by my work place and remembered that I like old books. He stated he had three big boxes of old books from a guy that had died and gave them to me. Lots of books from around 1850 up to the 1930s and 1940s.

    While going through the boxes of books we found three newspapers. By a strange coincidence, they included headlines regarding my great-uncle, Wand.

    The first paper was from December 7th, 1941, stating that he was “missing” on the USS Arizona. The December 25th newspaper said he was “feared lost” and the last newspaper from December 29th was that he was “killed in action”. How odd to have the newspapers come back to the family after 70 years to include a photo of Wand in uniform.

    The deceased man who the belongs to was a Navy Chaplain and was no relation to us at all.

    As a small child, we would go see my mom’s sister, “Aunt Net”. She was married to Uncle Vernon who had a wooden leg. He lost his leg below the knee from injuries sustained during the Battle of the Bulge when he was struck by fragments from a German 88. On the ship home, his condition worsened and he had to have his leg amputated above the knee.

    He kept an ashtray by his armchair and he would periodically have shrapnel work it’s way to the surface of the skin of his arms and legs He would extract them with tweezers and drop them in the ashtray with the other bits of metal that he had retrieved. He never talked about the war and he died when I was young.

    My dad and both of his brothers were in the service but were too old for Vietnam.

    Thanks again, for such a touching post.

    I will be sure to see “Wings” when I get the chance.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Uxb, thank you. I hope you enjoy Wings.

      What an amazing coincidence about those newspapers (and how cool about the books). That slow change in status must have been torture for your great-uncle’s family.

      The U.S.S. Arizona memorial is on my must-see list if I ever get to Hawaii. I’ll think of Wand if I make it there.

      It seems very unfair that your Uncle Vernon, after undergoing that amputation, had to deal with shrapnel for years after. Of course, many things that happen to soldiers in combat are deeply unfair.

      When I was growing up our family doctor lost two sons in Vietnam. Their names are on the wall, and I wish I’d gotten to see them when RWA was in DC a couple of years ago.

      Glad you liked the post.

  • Deb says:

    Neat post, Nancy! Sorry I’m checking in so late…
    I have a neat story for you….When my mom was about 7, her family was gathered together on Christmas Eve 1943 and her grandpa sat down to play some Christmas songs at the piano. The family sang several songs and then Great-Grandpa played “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, a new song. My mom looked at her young step-uncle and her grandma and they both had tears streaming down their faces because Uncle Ivan was shipping out overseas the day after Christmas. Thankfully, he came home at the end of the war.

    I read a new series this last fall about three brothers who were pilots during WWII. The series is called Wings of Glory by Sarah Sundin and all three were quite good. Sarah has a new series coming out this year about 3 nurses during WWII.

    There are many great movies from and about this time period, but can’t think of any at the moment, specifically.

    • Deb says:

      I know your post was about WWI, but wanted to share that story.

      • Deb says:

        Just thought of a children’s picture book about a little girl whose father goes to fight in the Great War far away and comes home on Christmas Eve. It’s called The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree.

    • Deb, thanks for the book recommendations. They sound great. And WWII or anything else about war or military heroes is fine. You know I’m always interested in whatever people feel inclined to share.

      That’s a touching Christmas story. I hope you’ll share it with us again when the holidays come back around. I’m familiar with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas. ” It’s a heart-wrenching song.

  • Wonderful piece, Nancy! There’s something amazingly poignant about WWI, I think because as you say, in many ways no one had truly comprehended what that war would mean for an entire generation. I’ve heard wonderful things about Maisie Dobbs. Must try those books!

  • Nancy Northcott says:

    Thanks to everyone who stopped by today, either to comment or to lurk.

    I asked the dh to get Downton Abbey at the video rental store, and he reports it’s so popular, there is a waiting list. But I’ll see it eventually.