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Fallen Skies

A Novel
By Philippa Gregory

Behind the Book

Historical Background on FALLEN SKIES

By Philippa Gregory



Fallen Skies is set in the period just after the first world war. I did the research for the history of the war by spending time in the Imperial War Museum in London where they had a tremendous reconstruction of the trenches and free access to their archive material. I particularly read accounts of atrocities of the first world war which occurred (as these things inevitably will) with savagery and cruelty on both sides against soldiers and civilians.

The accounts of atrocities were very much suppressed at the time, and some of the complaints against British and Allied troops were only ever published in German and did not raise much concern or interest in England. However, the pamphlets are there to be read.

I went to the battlefields of Europe and was deeply moved by the playing of the last post at Ypres, which the fire service continues to do at sunset every day. It is a powerful experience to see the traffic at the town gate stop and the bugler stand up and play for a few moments. It is a powerful lament for the lost men on both sides.

I don't think it is possible to understand the magnitude of the war until you see those enormous graveyards which stretch as far as the eye can see and are lined by long walls inscribed with the names of the soldiers who died but whose bodies were never found. You visit one graveyard which takes an hour to walk around, and in the next village there is another. The numbers of graves alone is staggering.

I also could not have understood the landscape without visiting the flat plains of northern France. The water table is so close to the land surface that every ditch is filled with water and you realise how quickly the trenches would have become waterlogged, how every shellhole would have become a little pond.

I could not have understood the reality of trench warfare without visiting the little museums scattered around the area, each with their collection of horrific photographs and battered pieces of memorabilia. One of the most striking moments was when I went to the hill called Sanctuary Wood where soldiers who had lost their battalions re-formed. They found no shelter. The front trenches of both sides are so close that the opposing soldiers could have seen each other. The bombardment was so intense that the shellholes still interlock on the ground now, left as they were. When I saw the trenches so close, and the shellholes overlapping I realised that there was nowhere safe for these men, there was no sanctuary in Sanctuary Wood.

The First World War and mental health.
Since the work of Pat Barker and other writers, people are far more aware now of the pioneering work of the early 20th century doctors into the impact of terrible stress and trauma on serving soldiers. Men like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen suffered very painfully as a result of the sights and sounds of the first world war and these sorts of difficulties were recognised only slowly in the years after the war.

Charlie's problem of impotence following an injury was not uncommon. There were a lot of injuries to the legs or lower back endured by men who were diving head first into the relative safety of the trench and were hit by bullets. Also, a lot of men received injuries to the lower part of their bodies from shells exploding at ground level and mines.

Stephen Winters' existing problems of jealousy and fearfulness were compounded by his experience at the front, and it is very likely that he would not have been diagnosed. Very many men came home in a very different state from how they had been and often only their wives and their families knew the changes that had taken place. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier, is very poignant about this situation, and although DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover was regarded as a novel about illicit love between Constance Chatterley and her gamekeeper, the foundation of the story is the terrible injury done to her husband in the war.

Coventry was a surprise character for me in the book. In my initial outline I did not anticipate that he would become such an important character to me personally and in the novel. His courage and steadiness and loyalty to Stephen till death I found very moving. His affliction, of mutism as a result of trauma was particularly typical of enlisted men. Doctors at the time and later have speculated that working men who did not have the education or the culture to discuss their problems were driven into absolute silence as a response to the horrors they had experienced.

Music Hall
I had a wonderful time researching the music hall sections of the novel. Of course there is much written material and biographies, but I also spent a season with the company who did the Christmas Pantomime at the Kings Theatre, Southsea. The old actors who were playing the dames in this production of Cinderella had been working when music hall still dominated popular entertainment, and they had wonderful memories that they shared with me.

The routine of putting a show together, the glamour and the hard graft were unchanged and the actors gave me a real insight into the theatre and the world that Lily loved.

And finally… the cars!
I went to Beaulieu motor museum and with the help of the curator picked out the car that I thought Lily would have chosen. Generously, he let me sit behind the wheel, get a sense of the vehicle and gave me a copy of the driver's manual. It is a tiny piece of detail but it made a great difference to me in being able to imagine Lily learning to drive and made her scenes with Coventry the driver become so much more powerful.