Wonder Woman in WWI

I didn’t jump at John’s suggestion that we go to the new Wonder Woman movie, I didn’t know anything about it and he didn’t either, but I reluctantly agreed. A woman superhero sounded a lot better than most every other movie out there. Had I known that the setting was WWI, I would have been chomping at the bit and leading him to see it.

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised all the way round with the movie. Yes, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is drop-dead gorgeous and wears a cheesy outfit, but come on, she’s the Queen of the Amazons. I liked her character though, and Gadot did a  great job making the Amazon Queen naive/tough/caring all at the same time. It took me a minute to recognize her love interest, Chris Pine (the new young Captain Kirk), but his character was also well done. I have to like the characters (and the actors playing them), or I generally don’t like the movie.

But on to the WWI stuff. Overall, I thought they did a good job with that as well. The focus on the chemistry and the poison gas was a nice touch. It really was one of the legacies of WWI and continues today, both against people (as in recent gas attacks against civilians in Syria) and the continual assault against insects and plants (as in pesticides) which started in a big way after WWI. World War I was often called the chemist’s war which I wrote about in a previous blog. And although at first the movie portrayed the Germans as the really bad “guys” in the war, I think they rectified some of that in the end.

Now, some people may have been confused by the American Indian named Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) who shows up as a supporting character in the movie. American Indians did fight with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in WWI (as well as in Canadian forces) although not as many served during WWI as in WWII. The original code talkers started during WWI.

I have another theory of how Chief came to be there. In 1914, a Wild West show was touring Europe. The Wild West shows were really popular both in the U.S. and Europe starting in the late 1800s with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. The Indians in the shows were American Indians from a number of different tribes. When the war broke out, this particular Wild West show was trapped in Berlin and not allowed to leave. The Iroquois Nation declared war on Germany because of both the ill treatment of their stranded members in the Wild West show and because of the drafting of Iroquois men into the U.S. Army. I thought I read somewhere that since the Iroquois never had a truce with Germany, they were technically still at war, but I couldn’t find that “fact” again, so it could be an alt-fact.

Anyway, the Chief made perfect sense to me, although once I suspended disbelief in an Amazon Queen fighting in the trenches on the Western Front during WWI with god powers, it was really really easy to believe in an American Indian being there as well.

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A Letter from Home

grilsonwagoncropped

Esther and her sisters around 1918.

About four months ago, I finished my novel manuscript entitled A Letter from Home that follows Harry, an American soldier, and Helen, a Salvation Army volunteer, in their search for humanity and God within the ongoing destruction of World War I. John and my friend, Tamra Higgins, read it and gave me some feedback. I worked on the novel some more and then sent out query letters to literary agents who expressed interest in historical novels on their website. So far, the silence has been deafening. Actually, I did get one reply that seemed like she at least read the letter. She said it didn’t grab her. Oh, well. Hard to know how to read that. Trying to find an agent or publisher is an interesting process and so far, it seems as challenging as everyone says. A crap shoot, as my dad would say. Today, I worked on another query letter and a synopsis to send to another agency.

Here’s the beginning of Chapter 1. The reader is introduced to the trenches and Harry.

August 25, 1918

The front-line trench stretched thirty feet before it cut left, a sharp turn that made it look like it ended. It didn’t. Along with communication and reserve trenches, it kept going, zig-zagging through France and Belgium, with the German trench system on the other side of No Man’s Land even more complicated. Tree-branch braces and woven sticks shored up collapsing walls. Sand bags lined the rim, and rough uneven planks called duckboards ran along the bottom. A step was built into the side of the wall that faced the enemy lines, the fire step, and sometimes men stood on it to shoot at the enemy. Mostly, they used it for sitting or lounging or napping. The barbed wire entanglement in front of this section of trench, a mish mash of a thousand yards of wire with razor-sharp barbs every two inches, extended about fifteen feet into No Man’s Land. The entanglement protected the troops from enemy patrols, but it also made it difficult for their own nightly forays. During the day, enemy snipers, machine gunners, and shells kept the men on both sides hunkered down in their holes.

Private Harry Peterson bit on the end of his pencil and stared at the woven branches of the trench. An unwanted memory of the sapling cage he had made as a boy for a baby raccoon wormed its way into his thoughts. He tugged on his helmet strap and yanked on the scratchy service-coat collar that half choked him trying to rid his mind of the image of the helpless creature that a few days later lay dead in the corner of its cage. His oldest sister, Esther, said it died of fright, poor thing, and that it wasn’t right to keep an animal like that caged up. Harry bit down hard on the end of his pencil, breaking a piece off and rolling it around in his mouth. No. It wasn’t right.

Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness

coverI just received my author copy of the horror/dark fantasy anthology Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness (Firbolg Publishing, edited by Dr. Alex Scully). My short  story “No Man’s Land” is included, a dark fantasy/horror story set in both modern day France and the trenches of WWI in 1918. Of course! I am fortunate to be in such good company. There are also stories by D.H. Lawrence, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included in the book as well as stories by great contemporary writers. I can’t wait to cozy up to the book tonight and start reading.

Here’s the theme of the anthology (from the back cover):

What happens when one wants so badly that all else, including sanity and self, is consumed by the bonfires of desire? What happens when one achieves the dream only to discover the nightmares lurking behind the illusions? Firbolg Publishing’s fifth anthology, Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness, explores the old adage of “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

No Man’s Land

Argonne Forest, north of the village of Avocourt, France. I'm standing in an eroded WWI trench. Large trees and a lush undergrowth have reclaimed what less than 100 years earlier was a bombed out muddy mess.

Argonne Forest, north of the village of Avocourt, France. I’m standing in an eroded WWI trench. Large trees and a lush undergrowth have reclaimed what less than 100 years earlier was a bombed out muddy mess.

I just found out yesterday that another of my dark fantasy/horror WWI stories, “No Man’s Land,” has been accepted for publication within a new anthology entitled Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes into Darkness due for release next summer/fall. This story was inspired by our 2012 trip to the fruit growing region of France which is also where the Western Front of WWI was located. This area has many WWI museums, memorials (one in every village, town and city), monuments, cemeteries, and battlefield remains.

At the time we took the picture, John and I had just walked along a logging road in the Argonne Forest, past partially filled in shell holes, to an old trench that cut back into the woods. I figured this was the trench (or at least, like the trench) where my great uncle Harry had crouched before the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The men of his regiment huddled there listening to a six-hour artillery barrage directed at the German lines and with a fair amount of enemy shells also directed at them. Rainy and cold with clay sticking to their boots, clothes, and gear, they waited for H-hour, and at 5:30 a.m. on September 26, 1918, they went “over the top” advancing into No Man’s Land toward the German lines.

Of course, I wanted to explore the old trench, but John hesitated. That was unlike him. Usually he was the one who wanted to explore, but he followed behind me as I climbed over trees, logs, and brambles, all newly grown since 1918. I heard him trip on a root and then stumble on another, but I kept going. The trench was filled with plant debris, the sides were slumped and worn, and it was no longer rectangular and boxlike, but it still seemed easy to maneuver, or so I thought. But after about a couple hundred feet of zigging and zagging, I turned to see John’s legs caught up in brambles, and his face pale with a strange look in his eyes.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he said, and before waiting for an answer, he turned back the way we’d come.

When we were back on the logging road, he confessed to feeling uneasy, like something was pulling him down. Each step seemed to get harder than the last. I don’t know what it was, but something was definitely going on in that trench, and not time nor trees nor weather had washed it clean.

And that’s where my story begins – a husband and wife exploring France’s abandoned WWI trenches. I think it turned out to be a pretty darn good story, but that’s because I’m lucky to have two loyal first readers, my husband, John, and my good friend and writing buddy for almost fifteen years, Tamra Higgins, who both give me great feedback.

Now for the history lesson. No Man’s Land was the land in between the enemy trench systems. I think this aerial view of the trenches (and No Man’s Land) near Artois, France, 1917 gives an idea of it. But the other photo gives one the feel of it. (Click on each photo for a bigger and better view).

 

No Man's Land

No Man's Land was the land in between two enemy trench systems. This is a very cool aerial view of the trenches (and No Man's Land) near Artois, France, 1917. British on left, German on right and bottom.

No Man’s Land near Artois, France, 1917. British trench system on left, German on right and bottom.

Kneeling in the Silver Light

"Kneeling in the Silver Light," my latest WWI encaustic collage.

“Kneeling in the Silver Light,” my latest WWI encaustic painting.

I’m excited to announce the forthcoming anthology, Kneeling in the Silver Light: Stories from the Great War (Dean M. Drinkel, Ed.) of which my short story “Unknown Soldier” is to be included. The date of publication will be early September. This is a horror/dark fantasy anthology commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. It should prove to be a great read.

As I’ve been slogging through the trenches of WWI France for the last several years, writing and rewriting a novel, which now looks like it will become two novels, I’ve created many characters and watched them grow over the years. “Unknown Soldier” was developed from a chapter in my book and deals with Paul, an African American Service of Supply soldier, and his squad on burial detail during the first Allied Offensive in which the Americans took part (July 1918). Burial detail was a gruesome job especially when the dead were days old, which makes it a great starting point for a horror/dark story.

I used my “Unknown Soldier” story and the title of the anthology Kneeling in the Silver Light as the creative impetus and theme of my latest WWI encaustic (hot bees wax, resin and pigment) piece. The blue eyes accentuated in the painting are an important component of the story.

The full table of contents for Kneeling in the Silver Light includes the following.

  • Introduction by Dean M Drinkel
  • The Dead by Rupert Brooke
  • The Scent Of Roses by Christopher Fowler
  • On the Side of the Angels by Mary Pletsch
  • Fernackerpan by Peter Mark May
  • Unknown Soldier by Nancy Hayden
  • The Blinds by Thomas Strømsholt
  • The Iron Shovel by Amberle L. Husbands
  • Where The White Long Roadway Lies by Mike Chinn
  • The Wire by Stephanie Ellis
  • Yugen by David Thomas
  • The Wolves Of Vimy by David Jón Fuller
  • The Silk Angel by Christine Morgan
  • Dig by Daniel I. Russell
  • The Secret of Blackwater Island by Rima Devereaux
  • After The Harvest by Bryn Fortey
  • A Very Strange Tunnelling Company by Paul Woodward
  • Casualties by Anthony Hanks
  • Truce by Shaun A.J. Hamilton
  • Morningstar by Emile-Louis Tomas Jouvet
  • Somme-Nambula by Allen Ashley
  • The Treasure by Rupert Brooke

 

Coffee Break on the Western Front, 1918

WWI poster.

WWI poster.

This short story of mine originally appeared in Something’s Brewing, an anthology with the theme of coffee edited by A.J. Huffman and April Salzano. Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014.

Private Harry Johnson waited in a long line of soldiers for coffee and a doughnut just made by the Salvation Army volunteers. The line snaked around bombed out buildings and under trees. Even though they were miles from the front, they still needed to keep under cover. Harry wiped the sweat from his neck, pushed the strap of his gas mask satchel into a new position, and breathed in the occasional whiff of coffee and fried dough. He had a doughnut three weeks back, and it was the best thing he’d tasted since coming to France four months ago. Worth the wait. Getting a smile from one of the doughnut gals wouldn’t hurt either.

Harry’s unit had just come off an eight-day stretch in the frontline trenches. He’d pulled guard duty, gone on night patrols into no man’s land, dug latrines, cleaned his rifle and gas mask, kicked and swatted at rats climbing over him while he slept, scrambled into dugouts when Jerry sent over an occasional whiz bang or shrapnel shell, and cleaned up the mess afterward, although it seemed like he spent most of his time thinking about his next meal of slumgullion and cold coffee carried by runners to the frontline, and daydreaming about his mother’s table filled with pies, sweet breads, and cookies. He always had a sweet tooth.

The coffee smell and freedom to stretch and stand up straight lifted Harry’s spirits. He’d been down ever since Lloyd, a soldier in his unit, was killed by a sniper three days ago. Lloyd had stood up on the fire step to take a peek into no man’s land one minute, and the next, he was lying on the duckboards, his nose gone, face bloody, and his watery blue eyes staring up at Harry. Lloyd had been a skinny, pimply-faced kid, not more than seventeen who never should have been allowed to join. “What kind of army would send a silly school boy like that into the fight?” Harry’s friend, John, had said after the burial unit took Lloyd away. And that stuck with Harry; it just didn’t make sense. At boot camp, Harry was excited about his big adventure. That’s what he called going to France to fight the Germans, but he wasn’t excited anymore.

Mouth watering from the good smells, Harry moved closer to the doughnut table. He wiped out the dust in his tin cup and tapped his fingers on it in rhythm to Hinky Dinky Parlez-Vous, making up a few verses in his head as he did. Nothing he’d repeat to his family, but something he’d share with his squad later.

A dozen men ahead, John waved his doughnut at Harry. Harry waved back, wishing he was up there with John. Just a few more men though. Harry readied his cup and watched the black liquid pour into a soldier’s cup a few places in front of him. Then the man’s shoulders slumped, and Harry overheard words that made his stomach tighten. The man walked off, head hung down. Harry moved up, cup in hand, hearing the same words repeated to the others but not believing.

“We’re all out of doughnuts,” the Salvation Army sister said again when it was Harry’s turn.

“Out of doughnuts!” Harry’s voice cracked as he spoke. “You don’t have just one more hiding back there? Back in the kitchen maybe? Just a broken piece? One little small bite?”

The girl smiled although her eyes had a sad look.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We ran out of flour. We even made the doughnuts smaller so they’d last longer. We’ll get a shipment of flour in another week.”

“A week?” Harry said which was echoed by the men behind him. Word about the missing doughnuts had filtered back.

“A week?”

“I still have plenty of coffee,” she said, lifting the big metal pot with two hands. “We just made another batch.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess.”

Harry put out his cup, and the young woman poured out the steamy brew. He moved off, kicked at a stone in his path, and breathed in the bitter aroma. Careful not to burn his lips on the metal rim, he took a tiny sip. It was strong and hot and warmed him inside. He felt a little better. He took another sip and glanced up.

John blocked his way, a smile on his homely face, and a chunk of doughnut in his outstretched hand.

 

 

World War I Triptych

World War I Triptych

Encaustic and paper on barn board

Excerpt from “Somewhere in France”

Shouts and sudden movements woke Harry in the middle of a dream about little Alice trying to put doll clothes on one of the chickens. He quickly rolled off the step, all thoughts of home gone. A deep whirring sound sent him and the card players scuttling toward the hole in the trench wall. An ear-splitting explosion was instantaneously followed with rock and earth falling on Harry’s back and clunking his helmet. Men yelled and pushed from behind while the smell and sting of chordite and burnt earth filled his nostrils. Harry stumbled through the hole and then fell hard on the dugout floor when someone landed on his back. The gas mask satchel dug into his side, piercing him. His hands and chin hurt. His face lay pressed against the loose rock and soil in the dugout, which caused his helmet to dig sharply into the back of his neck. He tried squirming further into the hole, but the soldier lying on his legs trapped him.

A high shriek of a shrapnel shell and the answering shrieks of earth and men caused a flurry of commotion. Harry belly-crawled forward and heard another whirring sound. The ground shook and shuddered. Pressed in from all sides by other men, he lay face down against the wall of the dugout, listening to the sound of his pounding heart.