Ripple Effects of History in Characters

OnceMoreUntoTheBreachThe protagonist in ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH is a simple man of quiet depth. Like most who made it home from the front, Rhys lives in the shell shocked shadow of the First World War and has a keen insight on the second. In order to understand the nature and motivation of this taciturn Welsh sheep farmer, who is in turns poetic and lethal, I had to know the events that had shaped him.

All of history is connected, a series of chain reactions and ripple effects. To have an accurate grasp of the Second World War, one has to first understand that it was an extension of the first, the war to end all wars. To that end, when I set pen to paper to write a WWII story, I knew that I wanted the protagonist to be a veteran of WWI and to be an embodiment of that link between the wars, that drastic shift in worldview, and that lost generation.

By the end of WWI, my protagonist was part of what was considered one of the British Army’s elite units. But in July of 1916, Rhys was merely a boy who was part of the ill-trained and poorly-led 38th Welsh Division, scrabbling to gain control of the German-held woods north of the River Somme to pave the way for the assault on Bazentin Ridge.

This is a flashback scene in which Rhys recalls his part in the July 10th attack in the battle for Mametz Wood.

Machine guns spit bullets in a ferocious line that ripped bloody seams across men’s torsos and cut them down like a scythe swept across a crop. I was uncertain which was louder:  the guns or the screams.

I crawled on, pulling myself with my elbows, propelling myself with my knees, scrambling through the hot holes left by shells and dragging myself over the sprawled and shredded bodies. Arthur crept after me, and I could hear the ragged sawing of his breath.

I was almost at the tree line when the soldier burst from the cover of the woods and raced toward me with a roar. His rifle was held like a spear, the sun gleaming off the blade at the end. I scrambled to my knees and swung my rifle up to meet him. His bayonet glanced over my shoulder, but his forward momentum drove him straight into mine. After the brief resistance of uniform and flesh, the bayonet sank into his belly with the ease of a sharpened shovel piercing through wet soil.

The soldier grunted, a soft, animal-like noise, and leaned frozen above me. The butt of my rifle dug into my stomach, and I braced it there as I staggered to my feet. The German appeared even younger than I, and he stared at me, eyes a pale, blank blue. Blood spilled from the corner of his mouth and dripped down his chin.

He leaned more heavily into my bayonet as I gained my feet, and I braced my hand against his shoulder. His eyes closed, and I wrenched the blade from his abdomen, then moved aside and let him fall.

I stepped over his legs and met the next soldier with a roar of my own exploding from my chest.

painting
Christopher Williams (1873-1934), The Welsh Division at Mametz Wood, 1916 © National Museum of Wales

 

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