I knew as soon as I saw my great-uncle's name inscribed at the very top of one of the long lists of the missing on the Menin Gate in Ieper that I wanted to write a novel about the impact of the First World War both on those who fought in it and those they left behind at home in England. In Pale Battalions is the result of that impulse and is naturally enough dedicated to my great-uncle, Frederick Goddard of the Hampshire regiment.
He would have known Ieper by its French name, Ypres, and would doubtless have referred to it as Wipers. He and many like him – unimaginably many – marched through the Menin Gate on their way to the Front and never marched back again in that conflict of very nearly a century ago. The Second Battle of Ypres, in which he died in April 1915, saw the first use of mustard gas, and was a notably dreadful and largely futile action spread over several weeks of seldom remitting carnage.
But In Pale Battalions is not a story confined to the Western Front or even the years of wartime. It reaches out to touch the present – or at any rate the present when I wrote the book in 1986/87, now itself a quarter of a century ago. Time is one of the characters in this story. And not all of the human characters who confront time's ironies and revenges are as honourable as my great-uncle Fred. There was another great-uncle I also never met, who responded to his call-up papers in 1916 by vanishing, reappearing only in unreliable family legend as a figure glimpsed in Piccadilly a few years after the war, looking 'prosperous' and in the company of 'a floozy in a fur-coat.' He too could be said to have inspired me to write this book.
The story opens not at the Menin Gate, but at the huge Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. The war cemeteries of Flanders, as many of you will know, are deeply moving and highly evocative places. Perhaps something has been lost by the modern (perfectly understandable) custom of shipping those who die in war home for burial or cremation. Never again will those who die together in conflict be laid to rest together. For that reason alone such sites as Thiepval will surely grow, not diminish, in resonance and meaning.
In Pale Battalions is a murder mystery set against the melancholy backdrop of the Great War. Beyond that, though, it is a love story, which may be why it is a favourite among many of my readers. Perhaps there is a lesson in that. Perhaps love really does conquer all – even war.