Our guest blogger, Gill Arbuthnott, author of A Secret Diary of The First World War, shares what it was like to write about real Scottish soldiers…
I always buy a poppy in November, but until a couple of years ago, it was a rather impersonal act on my part. Not any more: in September 2016 I started writing a children’s book about the First World War, based on the trench diary of James Marchbank, a boy from Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, who went to war aged 14, in August 1914 and basically grew up on the Western Front. Suddenly, what I read about the war was no longer numbers and statistics, but the stories of real, relatable people. James himself returned safely (though not without being wounded and gassed), arriving home on Christmas Eve 1918, but many of the men with whom he served did not.
Now, when I buy my poppy, I think of them: Felix McNamara, the former postmaster from Dalkeith, who had done his best to look after James in the trenches; of Thomas Donoghue, killed in an air raid in Edinburgh while he was home on leave; of Richard Peacock, owner of a ‘cursed watch’ that seemed to ensure the death of whoever carried it.
Using James’ diary made it much easier for me to involve my readers in the story of the war – here was someone who wasn’t much older than they were, whose own words they could read, whose thoughts they could share – and the book has had an excellent reception (and not just from children). Writing it brought a number of challenges, of course, a big one being how to balance bringing home the reality of the war without making it too depressing a read, so I was careful to include some of the lighter moments I uncovered during my research too.
My favourite is the story of attempts to parachute members of the Belgian resistance behind enemy lines with baskets of carrier pigeons for intelligence-gathering. When the project was hampered by the unwillingness of the ‘brave Belgians’ (as they are always referred to) to jump out of the planes, they were simply redesigned so that the pilot had a large lever, which removed the seat from under the ‘brave Belgian’ at the right moment ‘and the man was let out to parachute gracefully to earth’!!
To my sorrow, I had to omit the story of the ‘trench cow’ supposedly kept in the reserve trenches by one group of soldiers, as I couldn’t find quite enough information to convince me that the story wasn’t apocryphal, but it is true that the German army used nettles to make uniforms and that the British army ration biscuits were so hard that some men carved them into picture frames.
James wrote about his time at war in fascinating detail, whether he is telling us about rat-hunting in a flooded trench, witnessing a dog fight overhead, or eating polenta during the weeks he spent in Italy. I would like to thank his family for allowing me to share his amazing story. I hope he would be pleased that his diary has become a door into history for hundreds of children.
A Secret Diary of the First World War, written by Gill Arbuthnott and illustrated by Darren Gate, is published by Floris Books.
For the chance to win a signed copy of this book and a special poster, children can enter our Remembrance Art Competition.
We’d like children to send us photos of their remembrance art – this can be in any media, a painting, collage, drawing etc. Please send your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictures will feature on our social media and one lucky winner will receive the book and poster. Deadline for entries is midnight on the Friday 15th November. Good luck!