Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

writing

Yesterday morning I found myself wrapped in that cosy feeling when one feels at one with their surroundings.  West End Cemetery Park greeted me with a warm spirited hug as I, in turn, embraced Heritage Day.

Mingling with family and friends (some living and some not), I found myself walking along the wind damaged Strand after Cyclone Althea;  I revisited my dream of owning a Triumph Stag (the only car to ever stop me in my tracks); and my mind trailed off to the distant Scottish highlands on the haunting notes of bagpipes. Whilst on my time travels, I also stumbled upon a stall for aspiring writers, manned by a local Writers’ Group.

Of course, I couldn’t let the chance pass me by.  I had to stop and chat to like minded people whose souls, like my own, are immersed in the world of the written word; whose worlds slip in and out of reality at the touch of a pen, (or computer keyboard for the more tech-savvy among us). The advertising material mentioned access to critiques and publishing possibilities, all things that I will need in the future.  The works of group members were for sale and varied from fantasy to Historical fiction to family stories.  I felt sure that my chosen genre of family history would fit into the criteria somehow.  After-all, we are all writers, right?

I chatted with the three people manning the stall, trying to establish a connection.

“What style of writing are you interested in?” They asked.

“Family History,” I replied. “I’m writing about my Great Grandfather.”

“You might be better joining the Family History Association,” was their suggestion.

I have nothing against a Family History Association, and after visiting their stall, I do intend to join.  However, I love writing and thought that associating with like minded people would be inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, these people were really lovely and indeed tried to help and I think I will eventually join.  However, I came away mulling over the importance of writing about our family history.  Is family history writing considered by some to be a dry list of names, dates and facts?

Through the various courses I have attended on the subject of writing family history, I have learned the basics on how to write about the past in a fresh and interesting way.  I have found myself on some amazing journeys, following the works of other family historians, watching their stories bloom and flourish from mere seeds of dry facts into wonderful engaging tales.  First and foremost, we write to preserve our family stories for future generations.  Publication and success on the worldwide literary market would be great, however, for the most part our readers will be our families.  That makes our stories the most precious of all.

However, I still believe that writers of all kinds can learn so much from each other. A story still needs an underlying theme about a universal truth in order to capture the reader’s interest.  In hindsight, perhaps I should have described my current project to the Writer’s Group as “a story about a man who endeavoured, against all odds, to be true to himself.”  Then again, Great Grandfather’s spirit might not have been feeling sociable yesterday.

So for now, I will join the Family History Association to assist my research into my Great Grandfather’s story.  They have an amazing access to sites and materials. Then, when I eventually embark on an earth shattering Memoir or a smash hit novel, I might be ready to join a writers’ group, who will help pave my literary path with gold and put my name up on the Everest of Literary Greats.  There is no harm in dreaming is there?

 

 

23rd April 1916

 

 

Battle_of_Katia_map_(Gullett_p_83)

 

Before dawn on 23rd April 1916, as thick sea fog moved inland from the Bay of Tina, a 5000 strong army, under the command of German General Kress Von Kressenstein, was being mobilized.  Taking advantage of the fog, they launched simultaneous attacks on British posts east of the Suez Canal, including Oghratina, Bir Katia and Bir-El-Dueidar,  The latter, which was attacked by 700 camelmen, was the only survivor.  Out of a stronghold of 120 Royal Scots Fusiliers and 36 Bikanir Camel Corps, 23 men were lost.¹

William felt his aching head pumping against the swell of his rolled great coat.  His mind was dense and foggy, barely able to absorb the details of the day’s events as they were revealed around the campfire. His headaches had become more frequent of late.  Whether they were caused from the sun or lack of water, he didn’t know.  For now, he needed to wrap himself in a warm cocoon of darkness and quiet, although he knew that peace in his world was a luxury.  At any moment, the wall of safety could come crashing down, with a sudden outburst of rifle shots, as it did that morning.

The circle of faces, that joined William around the soft orange fire, all sagged from varying degrees of exhaustion.  Eyes stared blankly into the lethargic flames, barely reacting to the story of the day’s events as they unfolded.

“We can thank our Sentry’s poor wee terrier that any of us survived,” ² A young Scottish man recalled, shaking his head whilst staring into the fire.

Some men drew slowly from burning cigarettes, savouring the moment before illuminating the night sky with white streams of smoke.  One man stoked the dying flames with pieces of palm fronds.  But no one spoke or interrupted the young man who told the tale.

“The little chap barked furiously and jumped up onto the parapet, trying to shield his mate as the enemy loomed out of the thick fog.” He continued in his clipped Scottish accent.

“He saved his master.  That is for sure. The wee dog’s barking and growling awoke him from his sleep, then…..”

The storyteller paused and closed his eyes.

“Then, he was dead,” He finally said.

“What happened to the poor little begger?”  An Australian trooper asked.

“He was bashed with the butt of a rifle.”

The voice of the storyteller droned on as William laid back with his eyes shut, too tired to react.  His head was still thumping and his mind racing around and around with details of the day.  He wished he could shut it down. But the memories of those poor dead men that were buried that afternoon kept playing like a tragic newsreel.

Then, out of the fog, Cis and the boys appeared, smiling and waving as his train pulled away from Minehan Siding. That day feels like  a lifetime ago! Cis you are so strong.  You’re a survivor. But I do so worry about you. Was it fair of me to leave you for a war that seems to be going nowhere? 

The buzz of planes³ overhead seized the moment and all eyes looked skyward. They weren’t the enemy, but any disturbance at 8.30pm on a quiet desert night was unnerving.  What’s next?  As if the collective worries of those men were answered, the faint boom of guns echoed out of the darkness.

 

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Katia
  2. The Desert Column, by Ion Idriess – Page 76
  3. The Desert Column, by Ion Idriess – Page 75

 

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Becoming acquainted with our ancestors can be fraught with difficulties.  Without letters or diaries, where do we start?  Often, if you are researching a Grandparent or Great Grandparent, there are bound to be living relatives who knew your ancestor personally.  Of course, researching previous generations can be more difficult.

In the case of my Great Grandparents, I have managed to interview several living Grandchildren.  Interestingly, each of them began the conversation with, “I don’t think I can really help you.”  Regarding my Great Grandfather, they all assumed I wanted information about his military activities during the Great War.  In fact, I was hungry for any piece of information they could offer me, and it turned out they were more helpful than they imagined.

One of the aforementioned conversations was conducted over an hour and at the end of the phone call I had transcribed two A4 pages of notes. I noted titbits of conversations that took place 60 to 70 years ago; I discovered my Great Grandmother’s favourite jam; I was educated in family Christmas traditions; I listened intently as I was transported to the front room of my Great Grandparents’ house on the day my Great Grandfather died; and I learnt much about his character.  In another conversation, I discovered that Grandma was proud of her knitting abilities, as she only learnt the craft in her thirties.  Also, I discovered that she placed no importance on Christmas gifts, however, she always gave her Grandchildren money on their birthdays.

Over the years I have managed to place more pieces of the puzzle into place by grabbing fleeting comments.  One elderly friend of the family who grew up with my Grandfather remembered my Great Grandfather with fondness.  “Captain Lyons was always very polite, and thanked us kids when we opened the gate for him to drive his sulky through.” He recalled.

I have also grabbed from fleeting conversations with relatives that my Great Grandfather loved dancing, he played the tin whistle, he taught his nieces to ride their bicycles, and that he had problems with his eyes as a result of the Great War.  I questioned my Father regarding the latter comment and he confirmed that it could have been true as his Grandfather always wore sunglasses with wrap around sides.

Over the last 15 years, the collection of memories, stories and anecdotes I have gathered is quite substantial.  Each piece, however small and seemingly insignificant, have helped me create character portraits of my Great Grandparents.  Remember, our lives are the sum of fragments that have moulded our souls.  By gathering those pieces, we can gain a better understanding of our ancestors’ daily lives and the people they were.  The secret is to be patient.  It takes time to find those scattered pieces, but once a picture of your ancestor begins to form, the feelings of satisfaction are immense.

My final piece of advice is to act now, while there are living relatives who can assist you.  Once they are gone, so too are their valuable memories.

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to Bir-El-Dueidar

IMG_0002_NEW_0001

Oasis of Bir-El-Dueidar.  Photo taken by William Lyons in June 1916

William tipped his hat low on his forehead to shade his stinging eyes from the stabbing mid-afternoon sun.  The glare flashing from the sandy floor of the desert was blinding, but he didn’t mind.  At least he was shielded somewhat from the bright yellow mounds marking the path that “C” Squadron followed to the Oasis of Bir-El-Dueidar.

“Poor Beggars,” a voice behind him commented.

 “At least they are no danger to us now.” Another weary voice trailed off down the line.

“Chaps, you can’t afford to relax.  Our job is not over yet.” William hoped no-one could detect the slight wavering of his voice.  He, too, was tired and looked forward to reaching the shade of the oasis, but he daren’t show it.

William rode on, trying to push aside the distraction of conversations.  Although they had chased the enemy out into the desert, his nerves were still alert. Lowering his gaze to shade his eyes, he found himself staring into the eyes of the enemy.  Years of training had moulded his body and mind with the discipline of the job, but at times he felt so human.  Is it wrong to pity the enemy?  Does the sight of death get any easier?  Drawing a deep breath, he guided his horse around the casualties that littered the desert floor, mentally screening out the staring eyes that blindly watched the procession of Light Horsemen.

The waving arms of date palms loomed only 100 yards ahead.  The pushing of horses’ hooves through the soft sand was amplified by the growing hush that spread down the line of horsemen as their horses stepped over and around more bodies that littered the sand.  Turks in yellow uniforms, Arabs in dirty hairy robes and camels, all caught in grotesque moments of death, guided them back into the place where the attack had blazed for five heated hours.

The argument of gunfire that had urged his regiment to gallop down to Dueidar had ceased.  William lifted his water bottle to his dry cracked lips, hoping to revive some of the energy he had spent that day.  With apprehension, he listened to the deathly quiet, wondering what awaited them beneath the covering of palms.  The enemy of more than 600 men had disappeared on their camels into the desert, but what had they left behind?

Entering the protective covering of date palms, William’s eyes took a few seconds to refocus in the softened light. Dismounting, he watered his horse from what remained in his water bottle, before taking in his surroundings.  A group of injured Scottish soldiers strapped with bloodied bandages leaned against a cluster of palm trunks, talking to several troopers he recognized from his own regiment.  Weaving in and out of gaps in the entanglement of men and horses, his eyes kept stumbling over the afternoon’s casualties.

Life and death co-inhabited the small space.  Turkish prisoners shared a patch of sand with the lifeless forms of their deceased.  Horses tensed and fidgeted as they managed to sidestep their own fallen comrades.   However, it was a small gathering in a clearing in the trees that caught William’s attention.

Tethering his horse, William slowly edged toward the group of Scottish Yeomanry, until he could see the row of 19 men laying on the ground, beside the body of a bay horse.   Each man, silenced by a single bullet to the head, was being formally identified by their comrades. 1.

Without thinking, William removed his hat and marked the sign of cross with his shaking hand.  Lowering his head, he tried to blot out the proceedings of the day, anything, to calm his racing mind.  Regaining his composure, he returned his hat on his head and slipped away unnoticed from the sad little group, curious as to what exactly happened that morning.

 ‘But that will have to wait,’ he reminded himself as he strode back to his men. ‘There are horses to be fed and men to be buried.’

 

References:

  1. The Desert Column, by Ion Idriess.  Page 75.