World War I Love Stories is a collection of stories about the experiences of fourteen couples during the Great War. Some are well-known figures, like the young Ernest Hemingway who was besotted with a nurse in Italy, while others are not famous but have an interesting and memorable story to tell. I tried to pick couples from different areas, with a variety of experiences, and my goal was to bring these people to life: to get inside their personalities and try to understand what made the relationships work while at the same time describing what it was like for them to live through that horrific war.
When did your interest in history begin?
At my school, history was taught as endless lists to memorise - dates of battles, the terms of acts of Parliament, that kind of thing - and I'd never have got interested if history hadn't been a passion of my mum's. She always had a biography or a historical novel on the go and I'd sit with her on Sunday evenings watching the latest historical drama on TV. As a teenager, I started reading history books for myself and at a time when all my friends had crushes on pop stars, I must confess I had a bit of a thing about Charles II.
Please tell us about gathering all the letters journals and photographs to make the book.
This job would have been so much harder if I hadn't been able to use the Internet to source several of the original stories and help track down ancestors of the couples. Some were easier to find than others and it was always exciting to open my emails in the morning and find a response from someone in Canada I'd been trying to contact for ages. In most cases, I was dealing with grandchildren, or great-nieces and nephews, so their knowledge of their ancestors' relationships was sketchy but together we pinned down dates and places and worked out the links by using letters and journals they had kept. The relatives supplied lots of the wonderful photographs and my indomitable picture researcher Katie Greenwood did the rest.
Why are love stories generally overlooked when it comes to the World War?
War historians tend to chart the sequence of causes, the military build-up, the strategies and errors that led to the war's eventual outcome. But when you read soldiers' letters home, they're about the food, the friendships, the discomfort of trench foot, the itch of lice, and the terrible ache of missing loved ones. I'm interested in the human experience rather than the actions of generals, and although many of the stories in my book have sad endings, the strength of the love described is uplifting and universal. It transcends the ugliness and brutality of the conflict.
Why did the War defy convention when it came to love?
The prevailing morality often changes in wartime because men and women are thrust together in unusual circumstances. Look at the VADs (volunteer nurses) in the Great War: they'd been born in Queen Victoria's reign when any decent young lady would be strictly chaperoned in the presence of a man who was not a family member, then suddenly in the war hospitals they were giving bed baths to strangers! A young unmarried man sent to the trenches who didn't want to die a virgin might pay to sleep with a French innkeeper's daughter even if he'd never have considered paying for sex in peacetime. Courtships tend to be much shorter in wartime because the man might be called to the front at any time. There's a real sense of seizing the moment and changed priorities when you are staring death in the face.
Which is your favourite love story?
I like them all, but the story of Hugh and Jessie Mann really got under my skin. It's partly because I suspect we may be distantly related (my paternal great-grandmother was a Mann from the same part of Glasgow as Hugh, but I haven't been able to nail down the exact link yet). His letters to Jessie are playful and witty, with jokes that are still funny today. His personality comes through strongly and I know I'd have liked him. I won't give away the ending but there are lots of edge-of-the-seat moments when things could have turned out quite differently.
What surprised you most while doing your research for the book?
I'm astonished there wasn't a higher desertion rate in that war. Soldiers lived in appalling, inhuman conditions in the trenches and were sent up to the front line in what they often knew to be suicide missions, yet the vast majority just did their duty. And although many suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (they called it shellshock), the majority who survived came home, went back to their old jobs and got on with their lives, burying the memories deep down and never talking about them. Even in their letters from the front, there's a stiff-upper-lip forced cheerfulness. They'll mention that their friend Doug "hopped it" (i.e. he died) then in the next line they'll talk about having bully beef for dinner. It's a real lesson in the resilience of the human spirit.
What is next for you?
I have a book of World War Two Love Stories coming out next month. They're quite different from the Great War ones, because armies were stationed overseas for months and years on end so there's a lot of intermingling of populations (all those GI's chatting up girls) and a lot more extra-marital sex! I write both historical fiction and non-fiction and I'm currently working on a new novel, which will be published in summer 2015. It's set during the Crimean War, sixty years before the Great War, back in the days when officers could still take their wives along to war with them. It's quite extraordinary - and horrifying - what those women went through but in my research I've found that their concerns were very similar to those of women in the First and Second World Wars. In the end, it's all about love.