Wednesday, 25 May 2022

WWI special : by Joe Lamb author of The God of All Small Boys


Can you imagine life without TV?

With no computers, or mobile phones and instant messaging?

What about the internet? Or even the radio?

These things have all become so ordinary to us, that it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before they were invented. But the truth is, most of them have not been around for very long at all. As I write this, the first Samsung Galaxies ever made are only 12 years old!

Even in my own lifetime, colour television did not exist until I was 6 years old, and I remember my friends and I being chased off by annoyed neighbours; as we peered through their windows and into their living rooms, trying to catch a glimpse of the strange boxes which threw bright and vivid colour onto the walls, making it look as if there was a rainbow indoors!

Today, it seems that the internet is so huge you can find out almost anything, about almost any subject, and have immediate notifications about breaking news. But a little over 100 years ago, the only way for news to be known was either by a very slow mail service, or by newsreels shown in cinemas – and even they were never quite up to date.

This is the world—our own world—where The God of All Small Boys is set, during the last years of World War 1.

Can you imagine how awful it must have been, for children (such as James, in the book) whose fathers were sent off to countries they barely knew the names of, while they fought in a war they didn’t quite understand?

The remarkable thing is, that some of those same children grew up to be your parents’ Grans and Grandads! So, who knows—maybe your mums and dads have stories of their own, all about your very own Great Grandparents!

In the same way, The God of All Small Boys is based around a lot of things which did actually happen; in a time when the world was quite a different place from the one that it is now.

Dundee, Land o’ Jute
In the early 1900s, and Dundee in particular, the UK was a world powerhouse for something called Jute! (Dundee itself is still known as the centre for “Jute, Jam and Journalism” – despite the fact that neither Jute nor Jam are made there anymore.)

The God of All Small Boys is set mainly in a part of Dundee called Lochee, which was almost a city within the city.

Camperdown Mill, Lochee in the early 1900s:
The tower (Called Cox’s Stack) still exists to this day

James is taken from his well-off home in Broughty Ferry and sent to live with his Aunt, Uncle and their five children. It’s an entirely different world for him as Lochee is crammed with what were known as Tenement Blocks, where large families lived in only a few rooms.

James is shocked to learn that he will be sleeping in the same bed as his 3 male cousins.

World War 1 1914-1918

World War 1 was a terrible time in World History.

These days, all experts agree it was a war that should never have been fought, and the military tactics were such that men simply lined up and walked towards the guns of their enemy, shooting as they went.

Over all casualties for the war were around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded, and of the 20 million who died, more than half were civilians and not soldiers engaged in battle.

In the book, James’ Father, an officer in Dundee’s “Black Watch” battalion, is sent over to Europe and is involved in the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged for for around three and a half months from 31st Jul 1917 to 10th Nov 1917 and during which around half a million soldiers died or were seriously wounded.

“Black Watch”— 4th Battalion – “Dundee’s Own”

Just reading about the battle, the amount of time it took, and the casualties involved, is hard going, and when the soldiers who made it through came home very few ever spoke of their time during the war, preferring to try and forget all about it.

For those left back at home, as mentioned above, there was no way of knowing what was happening in the war and their days were spent in limbo, ignorant to what was happening to those off fighting the war for weeks or months at a time.

The Men in Black

For many, the only message they ever received was in the form of a letter or a telegraph, often by Men in Black, riding motorbikes, called Despatch Riders, who travelled with satchels full of these messages, telling worried relatives of the deaths of their fathers, sons, uncles and grandfathers.

The family of Ben, one of the boys who James eventually is befriended by, receives such a letter after his father is killed in battle.

Army form B 104 – 82 – used to notify families of the death of a relative

As the war progressed battles like The Somme and Passchendaele saw many such letters and telegrams being sent – and Dundee was hit particularly badly. On the same day that Ben’s family were informed of his father’s death, dozens more were delivered to houses in Lochee and a special commemoration service was held in St Mary’s church, another building which still stands today. The whole community is joined in grief, and after the services the bells of all the surrounding churches sounded. For once, the giant mill closed down, leaving an unusual quiet all across Lochee.

The Mill worked almost around the clock, bringing employment to the surrounding areas, and in fact making it grow, with immigrants from Ireland heading over for work. Lochee had so many Irish immigrants that it gained the nickname of “Little Tipperary”, and they started their own football team called Dundee Hibernian.

To work in the mill meant that your family would at least gain some income, but one of the best paid jobs in the entire place was that of a specialist weaver. These women were seen as something special and were paid more than normal workers. Alice, another of James’ cousins, starts working in the mill and, by the oddest of accidents, ends up being trained to be a weaver.

James has to go through his own journey during his time in Lochee, from initially being hated by Billy, his cousin, to gaining respect for standing up to a bully and eventually becoming great friends with Billy and his pals… and noticing a girl named Tenny Robbins…

In a terrible accident, one of his friends is killed, and after his funeral service a Man In Black returns to Lochee, with what looks like a satchel of letters and telegrams.

And he stops outside James’ Aunt’s house.

War. What is it good for?

The God of All Small Boys is full of items, movies and events from 1917, and researching them was very time consuming, not only because the details of some things were hard to find, but also because the subject is so fascinating, that life just a little more than 100 years ago, was so different in many ways, but exactly the same in many others.

It is a time that should never be forgotten, if not only to remind us of how futile and pointless wars are.

One Day from the Battle of Passchendaele.
Mud filled shell craters littered a vast plain of mud and unexploded shells
– with enemy soldiers always ready to snipe across no-man’s land.

Writing Challenge(s!)

War is a difficult subject to write about, but those who were left back home had their own problems to deal with. For a writing challenge, I would like you to imagine what it would be like to see a telegram delivered to your, or one of your friend’s houses.

If that subject is too difficult, then imagine it is your first day working in one of the huge Jute mills of the time. There were dozens of jobs to be had, each with their own challenges – and it will lead you to some interesting research should you choose that one!

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