“When my eldest son and I read together, or after watching a particularly exciting film or TV programme, he usually asks his favourite question:
“Is that real, dad?”
More often than not, the answer is no – the thrilling story sprung from the imagination of a brilliant author somewhere. He knew that really, but is always slightly disappointed when I confirm it. Often, I explain how the author used real facts and situations to inspire a wonderful story. Occasionally, my shocking response is “yes, it’s all true”.
World War I, which began 100 years ago, is one subject where the facts can seem almost unbelievable. In 1914, mile-long queues formed in Hyde Park, London as hundreds of thousands of young men volunteered to “take part in the great scrap”, as one British soldier wrote at the time. By the time the war ended millions had died in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium, empires were destroyed or fatally weakened, and people were starving in the cities of central Europe.
The best fiction can recreate the lives and emotions of this great calamity for modern readers. The words of poets can evoke the sights, sounds and the terror of the trenches. As a writer of non-fiction for children, I try to combine story, information and powerful images to bring World War I to life for young readers.
World War I was not the first conflict to be photographed, but the thousands of images have extraordinary visual impact. Readers can see instantly the anxiety in the faces of soldiers boarding trains to the front or the exhaustion of stretcher-bearers struggling through the mud and destruction of no-man’s land. The images may have been captured a century ago in conditions that we can barely imagine, but the faces looking out of the faded photos are recognizably ordinary people like us, living in extraordinary times.
In my book World War I Unclassified, I was able to include remarkable official and personal documents from the UK’s National Archives. Propaganda posters and official war diaries tell the official story of the war, but they can also highlight unknown or forgotten details. A long list of rules for working with TNT shows the danger and health effects suffered by women who worked in munitions factories, their skin and hair turning yellow as they were slowly poisoned by the work.
The most powerful documents for me are the personal stories, told in letters and postcards. These bring to life the experiences of the people who fought in the war, ranging from cheery postcards hiding the grim reality of life on the frontline to the court martial of Eric Poole, a shell-shocked British officer who was executed for cowardice in 1916.
World War I destroyed the European order of the 19th century, with the loss of millions of lives. It also played a major role in creating the world we live in today, from government control of our daily lives to career opportunities and votes for women. These dramatic historical changes are played out in the experiences of the individuals who lived and died at the time. It is telling those individual stories, as well as explaining the terrible events of the war, that make this subject ”real” to me.”
Nick Hunter has written more than 50 books for young people, specialising in writing about history and social studies. Before becoming an author, Nick worked in children’s publishing for many years. He lives in Oxford, UK with his wife and two sons.
You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickjhunter
This guest post was provided by Nick Hunter. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.