In a special edition of Time Travellers, acclaimed author Stewart Binns talks about the motivation behind his new novel, Shadow of War. This new release is the first part in a remarkable fictional account of the First World War, showing the impact the War had on many different communities throughout Britain.
Shadow of War, the first of my new Great War series, is a long way from my quartet set in the distant past of the Anglo-Norman Middle-Ages but it is a journey I felt compelled to make. There are several reasons, not the least of which is that 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the war and the next five years may well be the last occasion when the conflict is at the forefront of national consciousness.
But I also had other reasons. I have read a fairly wide range of material about the war, but the almost countless tomes in the enormous library of the conflict, both fiction and non-fiction, contain numerous flaws and have created as many myths as they have offered truths. The Great War is too often sentimentalised, sensationalised, or over-simplified.
Also, although it is understandable that books for British readers emphasise the stories of the men and women from our shores, the accounts and roles of the other participant nations are marginalised or ignored.
For example, Britain did not save France from collapse at the beginning of the war, Belgium did not capitulate and the Allies did not ‘win the war’; Germany lost it, and probably did so as early as the end of 1914.
Similarly, the front-line infantrymen were not always in the trenches. ‘Going over the top’ happened rarely; for many it never happened at all. Although for long periods the lives of servicemen were intolerable, there was also hilarity, revelry and even debauchery.
The generals were not, with only a few exceptions, either idiots or cowards and the vast majority of officers were not ‘chinless wonders’ unable to lead and lacking the respect of their men. Of course, there was stupidity, brutality and cowardice, but, in overwhelming numbers, men from all ranks did their best and fought bravely. Most importantly, most of them came home, unharmed. Although the death-toll was colossal and tragic, many more would die in the Second World War.
Nevertheless, the Great War represented a ‘loss of innocence’ and was indeed the end of an epoch. Significantly for future generations, the Britain of the early summer of 1914 was so fundamentally fractured by the dramatic events that followed, that it was changed forever. Although many of the effects were not fully felt until post-1945, their causes were rooted in the years 1914-18.
So, having got that history lecture off my chest, what I have tried to do in Shadow of War is in three parts:
1. I have tried to dispel a few myths by creating a fictionalised account of accurately researched real events and, in the main, actual characters. I have tried to follow the war across a wide spectrum, so as to put the drama into a true-to-life context. I have taken enormous liberties with my fictional characters, for that is my trade; but few with history, for that is my passion.
2. By choosing characters and locations that represent a cross-section of Edwardian Britain, I have tried to illustrate the remarkable dynamics of social, political and economic transformation that were at work during the long years of the war. Shadow of War covers only 1914, but I have tried to begin the historical threads that will be followed in the future books of the quintet. Hopefully, by 1918, these threads will weave an illustrative tapestry of a country irrevocably changed by the war.
I also wanted to make a personal journey and pay a private homage. My grandfather, John-Tommy Binns, was a gunner in the Royal Artillery and an Accrington Pal. He survived the Great War, but never talked about it. He was also a professional cricketer for two years and never talked about that either. In researching this book, I discovered that he won the Military Medal in 1917, for, acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire. He never mentioned a word about it. I was very fond of him.
He died when I was 9 years old, but only years later did I discover that he was something of a local legend. I am immensely proud that John-Tommy was my grandfather. He was typical of so many people of his generation and is only a thinly disguised character in Shadow of War.
Finally, I was soldier for three years. My regiment, a part of British Special Forces, is now held in awe by many for its derring-do escapades. However, as all ex-soldiers will tell you, soldiering is almost never glamorous, frequently tedious and occasionally awful. My experiences as a soldier, the good, the bad and the ugly, are all reflected in Shadow of War.
The Shadow of War is the first part in a remarkable fictional account of The First World War, showing the impact that the War had on many different communities throughout Britain.
The Shadow of War is set in 1914, and through the eyes of men and women of different social classes, retells the sequence of events which would lead Britain into the biggest conflict the World has known: From the Lancastrian mill workers, to the Scottish Laird; from the Welsh farming community, to the First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill – Stewart Binns crafts an extraordinary picture of life in the early 20th Century, and how the whole social order of Britain is torn apart by the Great War.
Stewart's brilliant new series has all the hallmarks of some of the greatest accounts of this period of history - echoing the epic narratives of Ken Follett, or the poignancy of Sebastian Faulks.
Stewart Binns began his professional life as an academic. He then pursued several adventures including that of a schoolteacher, specialising in history, before becoming an award-winning documentary-maker and latterly an author. His television credits include the ‘In-Colour’ genre of historical documentaries, notably the BAFTA and Grierson winner, Britain at War in Colour and the Peabody winner, The Second World War in Colour. His previous novels Conquest, Crusade, Anarchy and Lionheart – The Making of England quartet ‒ were published to great acclaim.
The views and opinions expressed in Time Travellers are those of the interviewee concerned and do not necessarily reflect those held by Historvius.