Author, historian and TV presenter Kate Williams tells us all about her new novel, The Storms of War, the first in a groundbreaking new historical series which begins in the First World War.
The Storms of War is out in paperback, eBook and audio 12th March 2015.
I’ve wanted to write about a family in the Great War since I went on a school trip to the trenches of Flanders, aged ten. I was shocked by how small the trenches were. I struggled to imagine how grown men could have lived and fought there. I thought I’d understand when I was an adult. Even after years of research and writing, I am still amazed by how men fought and survived in those tiny, muddy holes in the ground for years on end.
Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about the human stories of the War. I’m fascinated by the women – like Celia – facing disease and death daily, and the people at home, their possessions destroyed by bombs, waiting for news about their loved ones.
In writing about the War, I’ve had the incredible privilege of reading the letters and diaries of those who were there. There are so many fantastic diaries of the men, the nurses, the drivers and the people at home. Every word they write strikes home – they’re unforgettable.
The De Witt family are fiction, but they are based on the spirit and sentiments of those real people who refused to ever give up.
Arguments about who was responsible for the war still rage and politicians call for each other to resign over it. But I know from talking to people all over the country that what they really want to know is – what was it like? How did it feel to be there?
That is the story that I wanted to tell in The Storms of War. If I’ve achieved that at all, it’s because of the words of those men and women who lived through those dark times, and spoke or
wrote of their experiences.
While writing on Queen Victoria, I became fascinated by the links between Germany and Britain. If she had been male, she would have ruled Britain and Hanover jointly from her accession in 1837. But Hanover forbade female monarchs and her uncle Ernst went off to do the job instead. The two countries were bound together by the tightest of social, cultural and indeed blood bonds – and then expected to simply separate and move on. Wars are still fought on the basis of seemingly easy divisions, between countries, ethnic groups and indeed within families. Such separations rarely go well.
On August 5 1914, a day after the announcement of war, Asquith and the British Government passed the Aliens Restriction Act. Suddenly, thousands of Germans who had lived in the country for years were branded the enemy. They had to register almost immediately (by 17th August) at local registration station, couldn’t live in ‘prohibited’ areas on the South and East Coast and were not allowed to travel more than five miles without a permit. The permit would only be issued for twenty-four hours.
They had to give up their cars, motorcycles or cameras. For years, thousands of Germans had lived happily in Britain. They worked as butchers, barbers, tailors, waiters, music tutors and governesses, surrounded – and welcomed – by the English. They had a reputation for being the best barbers
and waiters; sure hands, people thought (and they were known for working for less than their British equivalents). The top London hotels such as the Ritz and Savoy employed nearly all German waiters. The Prime Minister himself had a German governess in his family. Two members of his cabinet had German chauffeurs (they were swiftly naturalised after the announcement of war).
These Germans had married British women and fathered children – and now they were hated. The press was bursting with stories of the evil of the German race. Spies were everywhere and everyone was expected to report them. Formerly, the press had been wildly occupied by the question
of Irish home rule, suffragettes and working-class strikers. They were all forgotten in the rush to demonise the Germans. Their British wives were extended no mercy for they were seen as having taken on the nationality of their husband. Advertisements were displayed in the press to say that there were no German or Austrian subjects in the ‘employment of the Savoy, Claridges and Berkeley Hotels, the Strand Palace Hotel, the Frederick Hotels, Messrs J. Lyons and Co, and the Palmerston Restaurant’. In August, the Daily Mail suggested ‘if your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport’. The Times published headlines about ‘The Alien Peril’.
Despite the cries of the newspapers, wholesale interning of German citizens was slow to take off –there was nowhere for the government to put them, to start with. Anyone arrested could be released if two British citizens vouched for them. By May 1915, after the terrible sinking of the Lusitania, wholesale internment of men between seventeen and fifty-five began in earnest. Many German women were deported, although those who had children between five and fifteen were exempted. In The Storms of War, Rudolf is taken away but Verena escapes, partly due to her aristocratic background.
These Germans were crammed into various unsuitable places across the country – in London, Olympia and Crystal Palace were commandeered – and camps were swiftly built. Rudolf is in the most notorious: Knockaloe in the Isle of Man.
I was fascinated by this: what were the lives of these people – these twilight people, half English, half German – really like? Many saw Britain as their homeland but now they were hated and excluded.
How did they survive, in their homes and communities, when everybody was on the lookout for spies?
Did their neighbours pretend they ‘weren’t like other Germans’ or just revile them? Even Ralph Vaughan Williams, sitting down in Margate to write notes for the Lark Ascending, was arrested as a spy by a zealous Boy Scout in early 1914. Everyone was under suspicion.
I’ve based this book on the letters and diaries of our wartime ancestors – and it’s been an incredible privilege to read their words. Stoneythorpe is based on Bramshill House (although in my version, it’s a little smaller than the vast original!), a Jacobean house built in the early seventeenth century by Edward de la Zouche, 11th Baron Zouche. It was used as a Red Cross Maternity Hospital in the war and, since 1960, it has been our National Police Training College. It’s currently on the market for £25 million – a price just outside the budget of the pre-war Rudolf de Witt!
Michael and Tom fight with the 7th Suffolk Regiment, formed at Bury St Edmunds and landing at Boulogne in May 1915, fighting at the Battle of Loos, then Pozières in the Somme in 1916 and remaining in France until after the end of the war. Smithson is with the 13th Hampshire Regiment who fought at Gallipoli and then went to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal in 1916, then spent the rest of the war in Mesopotamia, occupying Baghdad in March 1917 and fighting in Jabal Hamrin in October.
The Storms of War is out in paperback, eBook and audio 12th March 2015.
The second novel in Kate’s historical trilogyThe Edge of the Fall is out in hardback, eBook and audio 30th July 2015.