On the 28th May, this year’s Children’s Book Awards are being held. Always a fantastic occasion, this year’s short list is full of wonderful titles, each one voted for by children. This coveted prize was won in 2004 by Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful’ which is being re-issued this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. In this post, Michael Morpurgo shares where his inspiration for the story came from.
After War Horse in 1982, I really thought I was done with the First World War. I did not want to spend any more time in the trenches, among the suffering and the dying.
But a few years later, whether I liked it or not, The Butterfly Lion simply led me back to those times, into that dreadful war. After those two books, all my instincts were never to go there again. And indeed, for a while, my writing did take me elsewhere. But circumstance brought me back to Belgium, back to Ypres, which I had often visited for research purposes.
I had been invited to a conference at the In Flanders Fields Museum in the old Cloth Hall in Ypres with the other Michael, my friend Michael Foreman.
Writers and illustrators came from all over the world to talk about writing about war for young people. After the conference was over, Michael Foreman and I decided to spend some time visiting the In Flanders Field Museum. We were in for a shock. This museum pulled no punches. As we walked in, there was an in depth introduction to the causes and preparations fort he First World War in all the countries concerned. This was very different from other war museums. This was the story of the war as seen from all sides, not simply from a British or British Empire perspective. In that sense, it was unsettling, because both Michael and I were used to only the British take on the war. But it was enlightening too, just as a museum should be.
As we moved deeper into the museum, the thunder of war came ever closer and the world about us grew darker. Then we were plunged into the fury and chaos of battle, into the horrors of trench warfare, into the pity, into the slaughter and the suffering, on all sides.
Separated now in the darkness, Michael and I each heard the poetry of Wilfred Owen and John McCrae, heard the songs of the men marching off to war, the bands playing, and then read the letters home, from soldiers, nurses, understood how it had been for local families to be caught up in the fighting, to have their land and homes laid waste about them. All around us were the uniforms, the weapons, the photographs and paintings, the sound of shelling and machine gun fire, the songs, the poems. It was a vision of hell. We emerged, speechless, an hour or so later, near the exit. Tears would not let us speak. I stayed to look at the last few exhibits as Michael left, saying we’d meet in the square.
There was a rather insignificant-looking letter in a frame on the wall, I noticed. I have no idea why I stopped to read it – perhaps I was still composing myself before meeting up with Michael again, I don’t know. It was a small, typed letter, just a few lines. It read something like this:
Dear Mrs ——,
I regret to have to inform you that your son, Private
——, was shot at dawn for cowardice on the morning
June —— 1916.
It was signed by a lieutenant. Above the letter in the same frame, was the envelope.
The envelope, I could see, had been ripped open, the tear jagged. It was that tear, as well as the cruel brevity of the letter that I found so hard to take. I could visualize so clearly this mother standing on the front step of her terraced house, in Salford, I think it was, dreading a letter like this, knowing the news such letters might bring, then plucking up the courage to rip the envelope open. In those few words her life and the life of her family were shattered, the loss, the grieving, the shame overwhelming her.
I had met at this conference Piet Chielens, the director of the museum, who was, I knew, one of the world’s great experts on the First World War. I asked him more about this letter and it was he who told me there had been about 300 British soldiers executed in the First World War for cowardice or desertion, two for falling asleep on sentry duty. He showed me transcripts of some of their trials, some lasting less than half an hour. Half an hour for a man’s life. I read accounts of the executions, some in open country up against a hedge, some in the courtyard of prisons, some in farmyards.
The firing squad was sometimes made up of soldiers from their own company, pals, comrades in arms forced to shoot one of their own. I visited the graves of one or two of these unfortunate men – “worthless”, one of them had been called at his court martial. Further research convinced me that these proceedings had often been no more than mock trials. Many soldiers on trial had clearly been suffering from shell shock, some had already been treated in hospital for it. Many were not even legally represented.
I think it was this injustice that made up my mind. I would write the story of one of these men, tell his tale from cradle to grave, so that he was not simply a name on a gravestone, but a child, a boy, a young man. I would set my story in a place I know well, in my home village of Iddesleigh, from where many men had left their farms and marched off to that war, yes, the same village where Joey and Albert had grown up together in War Horse. My soldier would live with his family, in the cottage where I live, with his brothers, his mother and his forester father. Like the millions who went to war, his life at home would be centred round family, school, friends, community, the farms and the countryside, an ordinary enough life, before the war took him away and destroyed him.
The name of Private Peaceful I found by accident in the Bedford Cemetery near Ypres. It seemed at once the right family name for him. He became, as I was creating him, as I was writing him, my Unknown Soldier. He has now become that, I am pleased to say, for many others too.
Adapated from Such Stuff : a storymaker’s inspiration by Clare, Mark and Michael Morpurgo (Walker Books)
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo is out in June, HarperCollins Children’s Books. Such Stuff by Michael Morpurgo is out in July, Walker Books
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.