“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.”
Wilfred Owens – Dulce Et Decorum Est
I felt drawn to Sebastian Faulks Birdsong, a novel based mostly in the First World War, with very descriptive, evocative and moving passages that I felt connected to, as my great grandfather had fought and been captured during this conflict.
As I developed a distillation of the central story elements of Birdsong, the romance between Stephen Wraysford and Isabel and the experience of frontline combat in WW1, I first tried to abstract the initial pre-war sequence, reducing the location of the area around Amiens to simple bucolic shapes and colours, a boat punting along the river in summer, verdant greens and an azure sky, seguing into a parliament of birds to represent the political forces marshalling themselves in the background, that would eventually ruin this idyll and those who inhabit it.
The first third of the novel concerns itself with the burgeoning romance between a young Englishman and the wife of a French industrialist, against the background of emerging social and political unrest in pre-war France. It is painted in the novel as reminiscent of Monet paintings, summer greens and blues, dappled summer sunlight, still and tranquil waters – in stark contrast to the mud and catastrophe approaching.
The remainder of the novel follows Stephen and his experiences in the frontline of the trenches from 1916 onwards, encompassing many aspects of the atrocious nature of the situation millions found themselves. To get a better idea of how the story would be structured, I read the chapters concerning the Battle at Ypres (circa pp 227 Birdsong). I also re-watched the 2012 TV series, selected scenes from Kubricks 1957 film Paths Of Glory, Saving Private Ryan. Further reading on the subject of WW1 was done with Lyn MacDonalds collection of first-hand accounts, gathered from veterans, 1915 – The Death Of Innocence. I also consulted Pat Mills Charlies War.
The documentary World War 1 In Colour also provided valuable visual insight into the conflict, its timeline, causes and a possible aesthetic jumping off point.