How and why I wrote Boys of Blood and Bone: an insight for my kind readers!
I wrote my novel, Boys of Blood and Bone, for the best of reasons: I felt that the part Australian troops played in the war on the Western Front, 1916-1918, was not nearly well-known enough to many Australians, and I also wanted to write in memory of my grandfather, A. J. Metzenthen, who served as a Signaller with the 4th. Machine Gun Battalion in France, in the First World War.
To write anything, you need energy and desire. A good idea, a story you passionately believe in, gives you both. I was, and still am, fascinated by the campaign fought by Australian troops who travelled twenty thousand kilometres to France, a country most would never have visited (or even thought about), if it wasn’t for the war. This was a volunteer army, consisting of approximately three hundred and thirty thousand young Australian men from all over the nation who felt obliged to fight the Germans, pretty much for national pride, and on behalf of England. For this service, they were paid six shillings a day, and ran a one-in-five risk of getting killed.
Many of these men were away from Australia for up to five years. And many, about sixty thousand in total, never made it home. On a percentage basis, Australian troops suffered the worst losses of any army fighting in the Great War; often this was because they were used as shock troops, or held front line positions for longer, or were given the responsibility of leading Allied forces into battles. All this they did with great valour.
I also drew on the love I had for my grandpa, and the respect for the men who went (not always that willingly, but they went anyway) to fight. I wanted to tell something of their great stories, because what they endured was so gruelling it scarred nearly every one of them physically or mentally, for the rest of their lives.
I wanted, in writing Boys of Blood and Bone, to bring one speck of reality back from the Western Front, in an effort to tell readers of the horror, bravery, humour, noise, agony, life, death, victories, defeats, mateship, love and unequalled experiences of this modern war fought in such primitive ways by so many men (and nursed through it by many brave women).
I wanted to write of the bombardments of hundreds of thousand shells that you might have had to endure for days and nights, as you stood in a trench perhaps a hundred metres from the enemy, your friends being blown to pieces around you. I wanted to write of the fear of what it might have been like to “go over the top,’ and advance towards the German lines through a blur of machinegun fire. I wanted to write about the noise that drove men mad, the million men lost in the three month battle of Passchendaele (also knows as the battle of Ypres/Menin Road), the look of the land blasted back to a moonscape of mud where men drowned in shell craters, and tens of thousands of bodies were never recovered.
I wanted to write all this, and more, because I wanted my grandpa to know how much I admired him, and his mates, for what they achieved and endured, and how they conducted themselves. The photographs of the Australians taken in the First World War amazing; giving insight into the Diggers who fought, and died, not one of them left now to tell us what it was truly like. So, I know, in my writing, I cannot ever match the experience of the Australians who did fight, but as a writer writing for the right reason – that is, to do my best to tell the truth – I hope I managed to present an aspect of their experiences on their behalf.
I also hope that I might have earned a nod of approval, and perhaps a few words, like, ‘well, sport, it wasn’t quite that like, but at least you had a &$#@! go.’ And boy, I did have a go at trying to get Boys of Blood and Bone as right as I could.
I travelled to the north of France, where many of the Western Front battles were fought. I read just about every book written by an Australian about the Great War and the Diggers. I read diaries of Australian troops, researched at the War Memorial, listened to interviews, held old medals and badges, walked along Avenues of Honour, and tried to draw power from the memories of the faces in the photographs behind me as I sat at my table working.
I then wrote a novel about the war that never quite got there, which I could now call ‘practice’, I guess. Then I wrote another a few years later, being Boys of Blood and Bone, and that seemed to work a whole lot better. By using two narrative voices, those of Henry and Andy, I wanted to get across the idea that people have not changed so much, although Australia, and the world has.
I wanted to present a picture of Australia and Australians in 1916, and something of what our country is now. Of course, it was a doomed exercise! You can walk where the Diggers walked and fought; but they have gone on before you, and cannot be called back. Yes, they’ve left a lot of what you need for your writing, but you’ll never re-create what they went through (thank goodness) – but that is not to say you cannot tell a story about them. We can, to an extent, write for them, and about them, and try to understand or explain their experiences. In their honour, in their memory, in the pursuit of truth, we can do this with a clear conscience.
I wrote this novel on a scale of the individual, because in a war that killed tens of millions of people, perhaps it is only through the eyes of one person can we gain some understanding of the massive level of such a thing. I utilised diary entries because I found the reading of Australian soldiers’ diaries a direct link to the minds and hearts of these men; they did love a short sentence, and simple words, they did utilise under-statement like no one else, and were almost invariably, modest, honest men.
In my quest to bring as much authenticity to Boys of Blood and Bone as I could, I visited some of the many battlefields in the north of France where Australians, as well as men from all over the world fought, and died – but in the fields of France, even with old shell casings piled in the corners, and war cemeteries in clear view, it felt to me the men had marched on. The war is indeed finished and only memories linger; now you must imagine what happened, if you seek to present part of their story.
There are beautiful Allied cemeteries to visit in France, yet one cemetery that I remember vividly was for German casualties. It was in a dell, I guess you could call it; a shaded, silent, damp depression over the back of a hill, the metal crosses bent, the grass rank, the neglect obvious. This is understandable, of course, as it was an invader’s graveyard in the homeland of the victor – but I would not be much of a writer, or a human, if I could not consider the lives of the men who were also sent to fight on the orders of their government.
So, it was also an aim to write of tragedy on a mass scale, and this is why I guess Andy Lansell, my main character, died, because there was a sixty four percent chance that if you fought in the First World War for Australia, you would get wounded or you would die. Of the approximately sixty thousand Australian dead of this war, only two soldier’s bodies were brought home for burial, one now interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the War Memorial in Canberra. It is well worth visiting, to stand in silence, and reflect upon one of the most notable, and perhaps saddest, chapters of Australian history.
I was lucky enough (and old enough) to talk to men who did fight in this war. All have gone now, but to a man and to the day, they still heard the echoes of their service, endured dreams of the fighting, and held fiercely the memories of mates lost. My grandpa would not talk of the battles, but he did say, ‘geez, you know, I had some great mates.’ And another old soldier I met, Eric, whose wartime job was to drive an ammunition wagon to the front line, said, ‘well, yeah there was the fighting…but I can tell you, boy, I had some beautiful horses.’
It seemed to me these men spent a lifetime trying to forget the war, and a lifetime preserving the memories of their mates. This is why it was reasonable, I felt, for me to tell a little of their story. The title, Boys of Blood and Bone, I chose because this is exactly what they were; boys made of blood and bone who threw themselves against the war machine created by the German industrial revolution, as did the German soldiers fling themselves against ours.
It was your body, just about bare, against exploding shells that left a crater as a big as a house, against machineguns firing four hundred rounds a minute, against mustard gas, bayonets, hand grenades, seas of barbed wire, and rolling fire. And it was your blood, your life – the only life you have – that you put on the line for six shillings a day, in a country you knew nothing about, for an England who saw you as nothing more than cannon fodder for their war. There was nothing fair or reasonable about the episode; it was, in reality, a trip to the other side of the world to live, or die, in a hell on earth.
So, I wish you well as you struggle with my (long) book. I also urge you to read other books about the Diggers, but I especially urge you to look at the photographs of the Australians who fought on the Western front, because you will see a depth there that writing can never quite match.
In writing, integrity matters. You must bring yourself to the table, and write what you truly think. You must write and re-write. You must listen to silence and the sound of the wind, look into the shadows and the night sky, stand on the ground and swim in the sea, use your head and use your heart – and if you do all this, and your writing doesn’t quite reach the heights you hoped for – no matter, you’ve done your best, and that is all you can do. And you will do better next time.
At the end of the writing day, I have never reached the heights I hoped for when I sat down in the morning. This is the nature of the thing, I guess, as the choice of words and ways to write them are infinite. Still, if you use your head and heart in equal measure, write clearly with the idea of being understood, and draw on stories you care about, your work will stand up.
Kindest wishes and good luck, David Metzenthen.
P.S I can recommend Patsy Adam-Smith’s wonderful book, The Anzacs, (publisher Nelson) if you would like to find out more about the role Australia took in the First World War, 1915 – 1918.