It is pure coincidence that my recent historical fiction release is a tale whose tapestry is woven through both these subjects. My grandfather, Bill, served in The Great War, his service taking him to Egypt and Palestine with his beloved warhorse attached to the Queen’s Own Worcestershire Yeomanry, a ‘PALS’ regiment not considered real soldiers by the regular army and intended for home service and coastal defence. In the event, the yeomanry regiments saw service in Gallipoli, in the Sinai Desert, and in the Holy Land. I knew nothing of his war, only his love of his horse and his promise to marry his sweetheart if he survived to return home. Bill is third from the right, back row.
These two threads, his horse and his sweetheart, form the thrust of my tale, and his promise underpins it from beginning to end. While he endured the hardships and brutality of war in a foreign land, his sweetheart, Florrie, fought the hardships of rationing and poverty and the brutality of her drunken and violent widowed father, bringing up six of her eight siblings in a back-street terrace in Kettering – the house where I spent the first year of my life. My heart bled for her. She endured life in silence and without complaint.
The education of girls wasn’t considered important in 1914, indeed Florrie began work in the Kettering Co-Operative corset factory in 1903, aged eleven, and even in 1933, my mother began work in the same factory aged only thirteen. It wasn’t until 1918 that women over the age of thirty were granted the vote, and only then if they had certain property rights. Florrie wouldn’t have been entitled to vote until much later. I don’t consider myself a feminist – men and women are different and have different strengths, and it’s pointless to ignore that, but my research during the writing of The Dandelion Clock, and before that, the For Their Country’s Good series set in 1840-1850s’ England and Van Diemen’s Land, made me uncomfortably aware of the iniquities of ‘laws made by men for men’, where the suffragette movement came from, and how it gained momentum. It made me admire those women who stood tall for women’s rights. I have an understanding of feminism that I didn’t have before writing these novels. One of the centenaries my books celebrate this year is one hundred years of Women’s Suffrage.
Which brings me back to the other, more obvious and celebrated centenary: one hundred years since the end of The Great War – November 1918-2018. Again, my understanding of World War One was sketchy to the point where I told myself I couldn’t write The Dandelion Clock – what did I know about a war that ended a hundred years ago? I’d heard of The Somme and Passchendaele and even Gallipoli, but, hell, I didn’t even know where Gallipoli was. My fans told me I could do it, so encouraged by their faith in me, I bought reference books and began reading – boy, what an eye-opener. I was fortunate to find excellent regimental histories of the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars and the Queen’s Own Worcestershire Yeomanry, regiments to which my grandfather was attached, as well as personal diaries from a serving medical officer in the Worcesters. These form the factual basis of the war years, the warp if you like, through which the weft of my tale is woven.
I had no idea that men and mules froze to death in Gallipoli, that men drowned in the trenches, that they died of heat exhaustion, dysentery, malaria, and dehydration in the deserts of Egypt and the Holy Land. I knew nothing of sand flies, or Khamsim winds that scoured and scorched, or of the constant lack and over-riding need for water. Or of the near starvation of man and horse or the inadequacies of high command. I suffered with them. I marched across open salt flats with no cover under enemy fire without faltering. I watched men drop at my side and marched on. My mouth and throat parched. My belly ached with hunger and my heart broke. I held a friend in my arms while he died and shot an injured horse I’d grown to love. Like I say, my heart broke.
Of the six hundred original Worcestershire Yeomen who left England in 1915, only twenty-seven men and three officers survived to return home. Their regiment suffered the greatest number of casualties of any regiment in any war. Their courage earnt the respect of the regular army and those who fought alongside them.
Nine million servicemen lost their lives in The Great War. The total number of casualties was forty million, twenty million of which were deaths. Eight million horses, mules and donkeys also lost their lives – shot, bombed, gassed, frozen, starved and from disease and lack of water. It wasn’t until I reached the point in my story where I needed to find a way for Bill to bring his beloved horse, Copper, home that I discovered the horrendous end of many of these brave horses. They were abandoned, sold to locals in Cairo for hard labour, or slaughtered for horse meat. If my heart had already broken writing this tale, it surely broke again.
Churchill heard of their plight and put on extra horse transports to bring home as many as he could, but many were left behind to become emaciated and overworked. In 1930, Dorothy Brooke who founded http://www.theBrooke.org determined to find these old warhorses and bought 5000 of them, though many, now aged, had to be destroyed such was their condition. The Brooke still rescues horses, mules, and donkeys in some of the poorest parts of the world.
We can do nothing now for the men and horses of World War One, but to honour their courage and their memory, royalties from pre-orders and sales of The Dandelion Clock will be donated to www.thebrooke.org Every horse remembered #everyhorse and http://soldierscharity.org A hand up, not a hand-out which supports soldiers and their families in their darkest hours.
Please, support these charities by purchasing The Dandelion Clock at http://mybook.to/DandelionClock. It will open your eyes to what our grandparents and great-grandparents endured both at home and abroad, and it’s only £1.99p/$2.99.
Some early reviews to whet your appetite:
‘A man determined to keep his promises. A novel you will never forget
Rebecca Bryn has a consistent flair for scouring out your heart with her painfully honest accounts of heartbreak, loss and courage in the face of unspeakable horror, as I first discovered when reading Touching the Wire. I therefore should have known I would read much of The Dandelion Clock in tears, held to the insistent narrative by an aching empathy for all the people who came so vividly alive within its pages – only for some of them to become even more memorable by their tragic deaths. So often it was impossible to know what the eventual outcome for Bill and Florrie might be.
My grandfather came back from the front at the end of the First World War a changed man, so I was told. He took to drink and regularly beat his wife when he was drunk – something for which some of his seven children never forgave him. He would never talk about his experiences and unfortunately died of lung disease related to having been gassed in the trenches when he was only 63. I was 8 then, too young to know the questions to ask to unlock his trauma. Reading The Dandelion Clock answered some of those questions and renewed my connection with my grandfather, as well as bringing it home to me that many of those boys sent off to war were the same age as my three grandsons shortly going off to university.
Rebecca Bryn’s descriptions of place and of the appalling conditions suffered are masterful. Let me give you some examples: ‘September, and a crescent moon hung in a Turkish sky and shone on dead men.’ ‘He shivered. The moaning of the wind in the trenches wailed like the tortured souls of dead men.’ ‘Rolling, turf-covered downs bejewelled with wild flowers…’ ‘The sin of war spread out across the world to engulf him.’ There is page after page of descriptions that took my breath away, brought further tears, and made those foreign landscapes utterly real.
But not only is this a novel that focuses on the hardships, loss and love between comrades-in-arms in appalling circumstances. It also speaks of the experiences of the families left behind to wait, often in ignorance, for brothers, sons and sweethearts who might never return. Bill is a man determined to keep his promises – to Lady Alice whose horse, Copper is as precious to him as anyone, and who he is determined to bring back to England at the end of the war; and to the two very different women who capture his heart.
Poor Florrie – the woman he is promised to – suffers the fate typical of so many working class women at that time, locked into unrelenting servitude in a family with a brutish, abusive father, trying to survive and scrape a living while her brothers endure the terrors and wounds to mind and body inflicted by war. My heart felt full of sadness for her, and for the impossibility of her life. Would her relationship with Bill survive?
Towards the end of the novel Bill turns to the last remaining of his comrades and reflects on the experiences of the past four years. “Best not to dwell on it,” he says. “It’ll send you mad.” Rebecca Bryn has been brave enough to dwell on it, and to offer us the opportunity to immerse ourselves for a while on the shameful, pointless ‘sin of war’ as Bill describes it. Read this book because you will rarely read another that moves you in quite the same way. Some books are good. This one is great. The author’s best to date. Totally compelling and unmissable.‘ – Goodreads.
‘It’s only a century since the first world war came to an end. It’s easy to forget that the conduct of warfare was then still heavily dependent upon horses. Cavalry regiments still formed the backbone of the British army.
Bryn’s grandfather served in such a regiment and it is that fact that inspired her to write this epic tale. But she does not limit herself to the rigours faced by serving men. She takes a close look at the lives of those left behind in England. The older generation of men whose labours kept ‘the home fires burning’ and the women of all ages who shouldered the burden of clothing and feeding everyone whilst worrying about the fate of their young male relatives in far flung corners of the world.
Another factor that sets this book apart from many others set in World War I is the way it concentrates on an often forgotten theatre of war. This is important because the events that Bryn relates reverberate a century later. After describing pre-war rural life, with shades of Downton Abbey, the story moves to the period of training that volunteer soldiers underwent. This enables Bryn to introduce us to a romantic triangle as her protagonist, Bill, and a young woman, Martha, with whose family he is billeted, develop a fondness for each other that leaves him agonising about his espousal to his sweetheart, Florrie, in his home town.
The action then moves to the ill-fated expedition to the Dardanelles and, thence, to Egypt and the Holy Land. Through all the minor victories and set-backs that characterised these campaigns we see not only the suffering of the men but that of the horses. Copper, a horse belonging to Lady Alice, the daughter of the ‘big house’, is an important character in this story. Her suffering, and that of the other horses, will break your heart. Bryn has stated that she wept frequently whilst writing such scenes. It is that emotional engagement with the suffering of all her characters – back home in England the relationship between Florrie and her father goes from bad to worse to terrible – that makes Bryn’s writing such a roller coaster ride for the reader.
I’ve read several of Bryn’s books and am an unashamed fan. I had the privilege of access to an early draft of this one and found it to be the best yet. Because she is self-published, this book will not get the sales it so richly deserves. That is a shame because Bryn is, without doubt, one of the best writers of historical fiction writing in English today. In The Dandelion Clock you will not just read about the horrors of war, you will live them in all their stark reality.’ – Goodreads
Thank you for reading.
Interested in the women of Auschwitz? Take a look at http://mybook.to/TouchingtheWire
Fancy being exiled for murder and condemned to a convict ship to Van Diemen’s Land for life? Try http://mybook.to/OnDifferentShores (Book One of For Their Country’s Good)
Or if you like contemporary mystery, there’s http://mybook.to/SilenceoftheStones
Or if fantasy ticks your boxes, this one has been described as epic http://getbook.at/WhereHopeDares