Last week I caught up with the screen adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, in a year when it seems you’re never too far away from one tale of Great War woe or other.
The film’s definitely worth watching, commendably taking on a recommended children’s novel with the non-patronising approach you’d expect from something connected with this treasured author.
As with Morpurgo’s 1982 success War Horse, this 2003 novel didn’t just cover the horrors at the Front, but the impact back home too, not least the way life in rural England was about to change immeasurably.
That theme was also tackled early this year by Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, examining how it must have been for those getting tickets home, and how the conflict never really ended for its survivors.
In a year of major commemorations 100 years on, it’s increasingly difficult to uncover fresh perspectives. However, War Girls, the latest short story collection by Andersen Press, somehow manages that.
Private Peaceful was rightly gritty, as befits the subject matter, pulling no punches and leaving you – no plot-spoilers here – angry at the politics and established practises of the day.
What’s more, John Lynch’s portrayal of menacing Sgt Hanley left me better able to cope with the grilling I got from the drill sergeant at the official launch of War Girls at Fulwood Barracks, Preston.
It was all taken in good part, the Lancashire Infantry Museum’s (old) boys in khaki giving something of the flavour of those dark times to an uncomfortable audience of literati – academics, authors, bloggers, booksellers, librarians and publishers.
Most didn’t know what to put down first – their complimentary drinks or paperbacks – amid gruffly-barked instructions as to how to stand straight and to attention.
The historic barracks was an apt setting for the launch of a collection pitched at ages 12 and over, not least as the authors themselves have brought history to life in their contributed tales.
Its nine stories all explore how the First World War changed and shaped the lives of women forever, drawing on a diverse range of subject matter. But in the same way that this collection’s not just for girls, it’s not chiefly about war either.
War merely acts as the vehicle transporting us through this landscape of immense change, as we moved so much closer to the world we now know.
Four of the authors were there on the night – Theresa Breslin, Melvin Burgess, Berlie Doherty and Anne Fine. And as the collection’s editor Charlie Sheppard – the driving force behind the book – pointed out, that quartet have several Carnegie Medals between them.
Five more authors contribute – Adele Geras, Mary Hooper, Rowena House, Sally Nicholls and Matt Wyman – and having just finished the end result, I can confirm it’s a winning project.
The launch involved the authors present introducing their contributions and answering questions from the pews in the barracks’ chapel, with BBC Radio Lancashire’s John Gillmore acting as host.
And each proved articulate in shedding light on their inspirations, their research and the positives they took from getting involved.
Theresa Breslin’s Shadow and Light tells the story of budding artist turned ambulance driver Merle Stevenson, and offers a perfect opening.
Theresa’s fictional heroine is fully determined to do her bit for the war effort, inspired by the work of Dr Elsie Inglis.
She overcomes prejudice, preconceived ideas and service limitations along the way, not least from her suitor, Captain Taylor.
It’s a theme that runs throughout War Girls, its authors (and editor) determined not to slip into cliché.
This could easily have been a book tackling VADs, munitions workers and not much else. But it avoids that route, duly living up to the promise of Garry Walton’s striking cover design.
Actually, Dr Inglis’ story was very real, this Scottish doctor and suffragist studying and practising medicine at home before setting up all-female relief hospitals, leading teams in France, Serbia and Russia until cancer claimed her at the age of 53 in 1917.
Theresa, best known for the award-winning Remembrance – another Great War-set publishing success aimed at young adults – cites wartime artist and Inglis volunteer Norah Neilson Grey as influential too, her paintings now hanging in the Imperial War Museum and Helensburgh library.
And the result is a fine tribute to both women, bringing their stories to prominence for new generations, as is the case with much of the subject matter here.
Matt Whyman certainly thought outside the box for Ghost Story, focusing on a fictional female sniper with nothing else left to lose.
The sorry episode of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles has been told many times, but few have attempted to get to grips with the Turkish side of the conflict.
Matt subtly manages that though, through his depiction of a grieving wife and mother, in the company of Timur, a young conscript who has just lost his comrade.
The result offers a personalised example of how this emerging nation looked to ward off foreign invasion, while examining its female lead’s reason for taking up the bullet.
Mary Hooper’s Storm in a Teacup is a tale from the home front, told by a young girl working at a busy Lyons’ Corner House in central London, close to the War Office.
Harriet is just doing her bit in a time when suspicions fell on so many – innocent and guilty – for not adhering to the greater War effort.
Again, why all the ingredients are there for a hackneyed spy caper, Mary aims to steer clear of the more obvious path.
And that’s another area where this collection works well, with just about the right measure of suspense to keep the younger readers hooked on the subject matter.
The Marshalling of Angelique’s Geese, inspired by a documentary on the work of virologist Professor John Oxford, sees newly-published Rowena House take us well away from what we might expect from a First World War story.
We follow a disillusioned French farmer’s daughter on a journey, accompanied by her Uncle Gustav, looking to make the most of a dire situation in which she finds herself forced to sell her prized poultry.
Angelique decides to take her beloved charges in person to General Foch and secure the best possible price. Yet amid all the danger is an unseen enemy – the deadly virus that led to a global pandemic accounting for at least 50 million deaths by 1919.
Rowena doesn’t spell it all out though, offering an admirable depiction of working class European life.
Melvin Burgess’ Mother and Mrs Everington – on the surface at least – concentrates on a more commonly-told side of the conflict, of middle-class England doing its duty.
There are few surprises in young Effie’s patriotic approach to this ‘glorious’ adventure, or even in her reaction to peers knitting scarves for the brave boys in France.
It’s a story oft-told, most recently in the BBC’s The Crimson Field. However, Melvin turns things round through a vivid, somewhat graphic description of Effie’s subsequent nursing experiences at her forward clearing station.
In time, Effie gets to understands what her brother Robbie faced in the trenches, learning that equality is about more than just raising the bar to male levels.
Furthermore, Melvin’s tale should lead readers to the writings that inspired it, Helen Zenna Smith’s semi-biographical account of her war service.
I had some catching up to do with Berlie Doherty, who I previously knew best for her evocative picture book, Snowy, the story of a young girl, her houseboat and the barge-horse of the title. But Berlie’s also an accomplished novelist, playwright and poet, and Sky Dancer is a by-product of her research into a play about a Great War flying ace.
While Melvin’s Effie works the canvas tents tending the wounded, Berlie’s Kate does too – but through the healing power of music, as part of a travelling company of entertainers giving concert parties just behind the lines.
A love story runs through – of the amateur singer and her missing airman – but the strength is in her portraits of the performers and the important job they carried out to see the soldiers through.
Like Theresa’s tale, there’s a real story incorporated, with the actress Lena Ashwell responsible for putting on such tours.
Those who have met Anne Fine are aware of her no-nonsense approach to public speaking, her skill with the pen regularly replicated in front of a live audience.
Her attendance at Fulwood Barracks certainly helped ensure the event’s success, not least as she vented her feelings on organised religion in explaining her contribution, Piercing the Veil.
There’s a focus on the hypocrisy of dog-collar dogma in Anne’s study of the growth of spiritualism in this dark era, a time when grieving parents and widows wanted answers.
It’s not just a rant though, her tale examining the true nature of hope, with vicar’s daughter Alice at least willing to listen to other ideas.
There’s a do-gooding cleric’s daughter side to Alice, but her character neatly illustrates the transition in thinking from one generation to another in this period.
We stay with that spiritualist feel with Adele Geras’ The Green Behind the Glass, the author flirting with a ghost story alongside a study of those left at home while our servicemen fought overseas.
In this case we follow younger sibling Sarah, who was secretly seeing her older sister’s fiancé before he was posted overseas, yet is unable to publicly grieve his loss when that almost-inevitable telegram arrives.
The result serves as a reminder of all those who loved and lost during this harrowing period, amid changing social attitudes and expectations.
As Adele puts it, “The First World War has become a byword for violence and slaughter. But I was not interested in describing the mud and blood of the fields of Flanders, so much as the effect of the War on the girls and women left behind”.
That takes us neatly on to the final story, and as Theresa’s tale put us on the right road, Sally Nicholls’ Going Spare takes us to journey’s end in a fitting manner.
This time the story’s set in the late 1970s, as a 14-year-old gets to know her elderly neighbour, the misunderstood Miss Frobisher, subsequently learning something of her service and post-War years.
It’s a fine way to close the collection, drawing on the great advances made in that period, many of them fought for by the ‘spare women’ who didn’t marry and retreat to the traditional family unit, taking the suffrage movement on.
Through Miss Frobisher, we see how the world changed, with the door opened to so many opportunities, in many cases leading to the modern set-up we tend to take for granted.
And that’s where this collection works best, helping younger readers better understand the social importance of this devastating period in our history.
Teachers would do well to put this collection on their reading lists and help make this conflict all the more relevant to the next generations, and librarians and booksellers can help that process.
Great War stories need not just be about battle-lines and heroic or futile deeds. We can also learn a lot about the human spirit.
While the 1914-18 commemorations should honour all those who laid down their lives in this cataclysmic cause, it was about far more. And it wasn’t just those in the trenches who gave their all.
* War Girls (Andersen Press) is priced £6.99 in paperback, and also available in ebook format.
* With thanks to event organiser Jake Hope and all at Andersen Press
* And for the writewyattuk verdict on Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, head here.