Drawing the Desert – a historical short story

Ernst Schmatlock cursed as his plane swept down towards the Egyptian desert. The Luftwaffe had been sure this area was still in Axis hands, that the squadron would make it safely back. But here he was, out of fuel behind Allied lines.

Desert sand dunes

He wrenched at the yoke, pulling up the nose of the plane moments before it hit the ground. Wheels tore through the sand, the Stuka tipped, and for a terrible moment he thought that the whole thing would flip over, trapping him. But then the tail sank back, there was a jolt, and the plane came to rest against a sand dune.

Schmatlock grabbed what supplies he had – a few biscuits, a half-empty canteen of water, his service pistol. He hadn’t been prepared for this. Next time he would do better.

If he lived through this time.

Before he climbed out, he took one last small bundle from the back of the plane. That package of pencils and paper was his lifeline, a connection to the artist he had been before the war. Food and water would keep him alive, but drawing would keep him sane.

Schmatlock had no idea where the nearest people were, or any source of water. All he knew was that friendly troops lay somewhere to the west, and so that was the way he walked.

Sand sucked at his boots, making every step a strain. By nightfall he was exhausted, his food and water used up. As the blazing heat of the day gave way to the bitter chill of a cloudless night, he took a few minutes to draw the desert, to tame it with his art. Then he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When he woke, the sun was well up and he could feel his face starting to burn. He took off his jacket, draped it over his head, and followed his shadow west.

By the middle of the day, his strength was fading. The dry heat sucked the water straight out of his body, leaving him with a parched throat and a spinning head. When he stopped to rest, he drew wine bottles and waterfalls, but they only threw his thirst into starker relief.

Somewhere along the line, he started losing things. A pair of binoculars. The empty water bottle. Even his pistol, abandoned during a delirious, desperate attempt to lighten his load. But he clung tight to the pencils and paper. Those he needed. Those were part of him.

He was on the verge of giving up when he saw movement between the dunes ahead. He staggered up a slope and looked down at a town below.

At last, somewhere he could find water! A chance to survive and to make it home.

A truck was driving into the town, a long dust cloud snaking out behind it. A British truck, driven by British soldiers.

Schmatlock cursed his luck. If the British spotted him in that town, he would be sent straight to a prison camp. But he was so thirsty, so exhausted, what choice did he have?

A sound made him look back. A camel was approaching with a man on its back, laden with saddle bags. The man looked like a local.

Better to risk exposing himself now than to face the British unprepared. Schmatlock waved and called out a greeting.

The camel rider approached. He looked down and said something Schmatlock couldn’t understand.

“Thirsty.” Schmatlock pointed at his mouth. “Water, please.”

Perhaps the rider understood, or perhaps he just saw Schmatlock’s desperate state. Regardless, he threw him a water skin and Schmatlock gulped the contents gratefully down. His guts gurgled at the sudden change, but he felt some sense returning, his mind emerging from the fog of dehydration.

He handed the water skin back, then tugged at the edge of the rider’s robes.

“I need these,” Schmatlock said.

The rider drew his leg back and frowned.

“Please.” Schmatlock pointed at the robes, then at himself. “Please, I need different clothes.”

Again, the rider said something, then he laughed. He pointed at Schmatlock, then over the ridge, and finally plucked at the hem of his robes.

“Yes, exactly!” Schmatlock said. “I can’t go there looking like this. Will you help?”

The man rubbed his thumb and forefingers together.

“You want paying.” Schmatlock sighed. “Of course. But I don’t have any money.”

He opened each of his pockets, turning them inside out or holding them open for the rider to see. The only thing that came out was the bundle of papers and pencils.

The rider frowned, shrugged, then pulled a worn robe and a headscarf from his saddle bags. He held up the clothes, then pointed at Schmatlock’s papers and pencils.

“You want these?” Schmatlock stared at the proffered bundle of cloth, then at his precious art supplies, the one thing he had clung to all this way.

The rider said something, then made as if to put the robes back in the bag.

“No, wait!” Reluctantly, Schmatlock held out his art supplies. True, he could sneak on past the town now he had had a drink. But what were the odds of finding somewhere else out here?

Better to go a little crazy staying alive than to let the desert take him.

He took a single sheet from the bundle – his sketch of the desert at night, a reminder of what he had been through. Then he handed the rest to the rider and took the robes in return.

The man said something and his camel started walking, heading over the dunes and away. Schmatlock pulled the robes on over his uniform, hiding him from the sun and from scrutiny. As he stepped over the ridge and down towards the town, his fingers tightened around his one remaining piece of paper.

He hadn’t given his art up for nothing. He would find a way home.

***

This story is a prequel of sorts to my latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”. If you want to find out what happens to Schmatlock next, you can find that comic in newsagents or on Comixology.

And if you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Out Today – Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”, is out today! You can buy it electronically through Comixology, or get a paper copy through newsagents in the UK.

Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando Comics story, “Stealing Stukas”, is out this week. It’s a story of action and adventure set during World War Two. What’s most remarkable, given the story it tells, is that it’s inspired by true events.

Stumbling Into Inspiration

I’ve always had a soft spot for second-hand book shops. The smell of old paper. The unexpected books you stumble over. The certainty that you’re getting a bargain.

When I was writing for War History Online, I kept an eye out for second-hand books I could use as sources. Among them was Freedom’s Battle Volume 2: The War in the Air. This is a collection of first-hand accounts of the RAF’s role in the Second World War, edited by Gavin Lyall. It’s not a recent book, nor one that digs deep into historical cause and effect, but it’s full of interesting anecdotes about real experiences.

Bowman and Rozier’s Desert Adventure

Among the remarkable stories in Freedom’s Battle is one involving Wing Commander Bowman and Squadron Leader Rozier of the RAF, recorded by Squadron Leader George W Houghton.

Three Stukas in flight
Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J16050 / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In September 1941, Allied troops in North Africa found several crashed Stukas. These dive bombers were a widely feared weapon central to German Blitzkrieg tactics. The crashed planes indicated that a squadron had run out of fuel and been forced to land. Retrieving one of these Stukas intact would be a coup for the Allies.

Bowman and Rozier were given permission to hunt for the planes. They searched by land and air, with the help of a South African armoured car unit and some Italian prisoners.

After several days, they found one of the Stukas and got it working, only for it to crash land. The two men were stuck in the desert without supplies. It took a long trek and help from another South African unit to get them safely home.

Not to be defeated, they retrieved a technician, fuel, and spare parts, returned to the Stuka, and got it working again. At last, they flew the captured plane back to base.

Adapting History to Story

Bowman and Rozier’s adventure was intriguing, and I could see that it had potential for a war comic. But rather than stick with the real story, I took its basic parts and turned it into something else, with different protagonists and incidents that never really happened.

Why?

To tell a better story.

The real events had a lot of novelty, but not enough to fill a full-length issue of Commando. It’s a cool war story, but it’s not a complete narrative. Houghton’s account says almost nothing about Bowman and Rozier as people, so I couldn’t accurately portray them as characters. They faced some difficulties, but not the escalating challenges that make for a complete World War Two comic book. On top of all this, there was no antagonist.

Instead of misrepresenting real people for the sake of a story, I decided to create a new story inspired by them. Captain Thompson and Squadron Leader Westwell are fictional creations who I could shape as I needed. Ernst Schmatlock, a German pilot, takes the place of the Italian POWs, and in the process provides an antagonist. The nameless South Africans of the real account are now led by Lieutenant van der Walt and given more prominence. Bad situations are made far worse than they were, moments of tension and trouble more dramatic. Imagined personal conflicts add to the real challenge of retrieving a broken plane from the desert.

The Challenge of Historical Fiction

There is no perfect way to fictionalise a real historical story. In “1066“, I stuck with reality but added an extra character. There, the real story is important and well-known. The whole point was to tie into it.

For this story, I don’t think I could accurately depict the real people involved, who may still have living relatives. Nor could I tell the story I wanted while sticking to the truth. So I wrote my own version.

Even when we make up historical stories, it’s important to remember the reality behind them. Two RAF officers achieved something remarkable, far from home and in difficult circumstances. Thanks to Gavin Lyall, Bowman and Rozier’s names are still remembered. And thanks to a trip to a charity shop, they’ve found a new place, as the inspiration for a comic book.

Out Now – Splashdown in the Pacific

You know what’s good? Pictures. You know what’s even better? Words. You know what’s best of all? Shoving them together to make comics.

Which is my way of saying that I have a new comic out – an issue of Commando titled Splashdown in the Pacific, it’s the story of an American reconnaissance pilot who’s enjoying the quiet of the early Pacific campaign until he meets an Australian officer with a taste for adventure. When they set out on a mission to look for the Japanese fleet, things go downhill fast. There’s a dogfight, a shark attack, a jungle trek, and more.

This story was originally inspired by a photo Commando shared on their Twitter feed, showing the crew escaping from a plane that had been shot down over the ocean. That got me thinking about what that crew might encounter and especially what could make the situation worse. Pretty much everything that crossed my mind is thrown in here, from the aforementioned sharks to Japanese patrols and deadly snakes.

The early stages of the Pacific war were a tense time. After Pearl Harbor and the Japanese seizure of European colonies in the Pacific, it was clear that they were going to head south for an invasion of Australia. The Allies knew that they were coming, but not when and where.

There, as elsewhere in the war, aerial reconnaissance was vital. As Ralph Bennett explains in his book Behind the Battle, there had been a mad scramble to rebuild military intelligence services internationally due to their neglect between the wars. Aerial reconnaissance was a vital part of this work, especially in the wide expanse of the Pacific. A story about two guys taking photos wouldn’t be very exciting, but by putting them in peril, I’ve found a way to make the action centre on them.

As is often the case in war stories, the conflict doesn’t just come from facing the enemy. Being on the same side can trap people together and exacerbate their differences, creating huge tensions. It’s why Richard Sharpe is constantly arguing with the officers on his own side. Stories get dull if everybody’s working well together.

Which is where Mike Anderson comes in. Mike is one of the characters I’ve most enjoyed writing over the past year, and not just because I had fun throwing in Australian dialect. He’s confident, entertaining, and outspoken, which comes across as annoying and abrasive to someone who’s stressed out and just wants a chance to think. Can you see where this is going?

Like most Commando comics, Splashdown in the Pacific is a pulpy action adventure. But like all the best pulp adventures, it’s not the sharks and the snakes and the crashes that make it – it’s the characters and how they relate.

***

If you like Splashdown in the Pacific then you might also enjoy my collection of history and alternate history stories…

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

***

The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Closing In On The Details

When you’re evoking a different world, whether it’s a fiction or the past, details matter. Details make it surprising. Details make it real.

I’ve been reading a book called Freedom’s Battle, Volume 2. It’s a collection of first-hand accounts of the air war in World War Two, mostly from the British point of view. As you can guess from the title, it’s not the most balanced perspective on the war, perhaps not surprising for a book that came out in the 1960s, when the memory of that conflict was still raw for many people. But for all its faults, this is a fascinating book.

There are so many details I could never have imagined for myself. The reality of what it’s like to be in a plane as it’s shredded by gunfire. The horrors of being adrift on the Atlantic without supplies following a crash. The crude songs to keep spirits up. The articles written by airmen, spoofing life in service. What it’s like trying to spot enemy aircraft at night.

Secondary sources, those history books analysing what happened and why, are great for a broad perspective and to understand cause and effect. But to understand what events feel like, to get a sense of the reality of lived experience, nothing beats firsthand accounts. All those strange, unimaginable little details make the world come alive.

The Power Plant Paradox – a flash scifi story

By the light of a small torch, Claudine set her explosives against the base of the generator. She glanced around but there was no sign of the power plant’s guards, only Philippe staring vacantly at the machines.

She shook her head and pulled out a fuse. If they relied on Philippe, then France would be occupied by the Nazis forever. But the British agents who supplied their explosives expected to talk to a man, and so…

A light flickered and she looked up in alarm. A man in denim trousers and a t-shirt stood beside her, behind him a bearded figure wearing chainmail and carrying an axe. The one in the t-shirt touched her shoulder, there was a flash, and the world spun away.

Suddenly, it was daylight. The three of them were in a jungle clearing, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the calls of birds. Claudine dropped her fuse and leapt to her feet.

“What the hell?” she asked, staring at the two men.

“Hi.” The one in the t-shirt waved a hand. “My name’s Joel. I’m from the future. This is Durwin. I borrowed him from Kent in 1064.”

Durwin’s mouth hung open as he watched a pair of parrots fly past.

“Take me back,” Claudine demanded. “I have a mission.”

“It’s OK,” Joel said. He looked down at a gadget in his hand and started playing with its dials. “I just need you for a few hours for my art installation. Once I’m done, I’ll take you back to the moment I borrowed you from. You won’t even remember any of this.”

“My country has been occupied by the Nazis.” Claudine grabbed Joel by the scruff of his neck. “I don’t have time for your damned art project.”

“It’s OK.” Joel smiled and put on a calming voice, like he was trying to sooth a toddler. “I couldn’t have picked you out of the time stream if your actions mattered. All the records show that Philippe Blanc destroys the power plant at Grandville.”

“The only thing that pretty boy could destroy is a baguette. Now take me back!”

“I just need to pick up one more-”

Durwin tapped Joel on the shoulder and said something Claudine couldn’t understand.

“Seriously,” Joel said, looking back and forth between them. “Neither of you matters to history. This is your chance to contribute to the world of art.”

“To hell with art.”

Claudine snatched the device out of Joel’s hands. It had clearly been adapted, with electronic components spilling out of its original casing. Joel stared at her aghast.

“Give that back.” He grabbed the device but Claudine wouldn’t let go. They tussled over it while Durwin’s protests grew in volume. Joel twisted, jerked, and wrenched the device from Claudine’s grip, leaving her with a handful of loose components.

“Oh fu-” Joel began, staring in horror at the dangling wires.

The world seemed to ripple around them. One minute they were standing in the jungle, the next on a snowy mountainside overlooking a herd of mammoths. More ripples and they were in a city of glass and chrome, a sandstone fortress, a cluster of tents in a desert oasis. Claudine’s stomach churned. Durwin stared, mouth hanging open again.

“Shit shit shit.” Joel worked frantically at the device, twisting wires together, clipping components onto each other, prodding at buttons. At last the world went still, leaving them on a hillside at night, listening to the rumble of traffic on a multi-lane road below.

Claudine wanted to scream for a dozen different reasons. Instead, she held her wonder and her frustration inside, as she always had to.

“Send me home,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Fine.” Joel rolled his eyes. “But you could have been part of something special.”

“I already am.”

Durwin spoke, the sounds low and guttural.

“Yes yes, you’re part of something special too,” Joel said, patting the baffled looking warrior on his shoulder.

Joel pulled a card from his pocket, slid it into the side of the device, and turned a dial. Suddenly they were back in the factory, right where Claudine had been planting her bomb.

She glanced around. Still no guards or soldiers. Down the machine hall, Philippe was frowning as he pushed too many wires into his bomb.

“Happy now?” Joel whispered.

“Piss of now,” Claudine replied. “I have work to do.”

“Your loss,” Joel said. “Not that you’ll remember.”

The world rippled and Joel and Durwin were gone.

Claudine looked down at the bomb she had been planting. Why was she standing up? And why hadn’t she put the fuse in yet? Time was of the essence. If the Nazis caught them it would mean disaster.

She opened her hand, revealing a fistful of electrical components she didn’t recognise. No fuse.

Well, she would just have to improvise. With a few of these wires, her watch, and the batteries from the torch, she could make something work. There was still time before the guards came round again. Just enough time.

* * *

Over on Twitter, I often talk about what I’m writing today. Sometimes this leads to weird combinations that leave you wondering what sort of story they’d make, and sometimes friends challenge me to write that story. Which is how I ended up with a time travel story involving a Saxon warrior, a 20th-century saboteur, and a jungle trek (alright, I left out most of the trekking, but I think this still counts). I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with friends and maybe sign up to my mailing list to receive weekly bursts of fiction.

Some Upcoming History Films

I love historical films. I blame my dad for that. He raised me on a diet of westerns and World War Two movies, in between the sci-fi. It’s part of why I do what I do today, including writing scripts for Commando comics and articles for War History Online.

But there’s a bit of a problem with historical film-making. A lot of the time, it covers stories people already know well. Like superhero remakes, those stories are safer box office options, as the studios know that people will be interested. It’s great that we had a movie about Dunkirk, but that’s an incident that’s already gone down in legend. What about the important stories we forget?

That’s why I’m excited about a couple of upcoming films.

First, there’s Hurricane, the story of Polish pilots flying for the RAF during the Second World War. It’s a reminder that no nation ever stands alone, and therefore important to busting some jingoistic myths. Even without that, I’d want to see the story of men who crossed a continent to keep fighting against the Nazis, who faced prejudice and confusion in a strange land, and who were part of one of history’s greatest conflicts.

The second trailer makes it look a lot better than the first one did, which is a relief. Plus it’s got Iwan Rheon, who was fantastic in Misfits and Game of Thrones.

Then there’s Peterloo, an incredibly timely piece of film-making from Mike Leigh. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre of  1819, in which peaceful protestors were attacked and killed in Manchester.

The Peterloo Massacre has incredible symbolic importance as a reminder of the power of protest and how the powerful treat dissent. It highlights the connections between social, political, and economic factors in reinforcing existing power structures. And sadly most people aren’t aware of it even in the UK. At a time of growing inequality, protest, and political turmoil, it’s a story we could all do with learning again.

Historical films have power. They keep the past alive in our imaginations and so help us understand the present. I can’t wait to see these less familiar stories on the big screen.

When the Nightingales Return – a flash historical story

“The nightingales have stopped singing.” It was the first thing Olga said when she arrived home from the war. Not “Hello.” Not “I’ve missed you.” No tears on seeing her family again. Just the nightingales.

I looked my older sister up and down. If the war had gone on another year, I might have ended up like her. Hair cut short, dressed in a fraying uniform designed for a man.

“The birds flew away during the fighting,” our mother said. “Never came back.”

She didn’t mention the others who never came back. Whole villages that had been burned to the ground. Jewish neighbours dragged off by the Nazis.

“I missed the nightingales,” Olga said.

She said little else for the first few weeks. She helped readily enough with the work around the farm, but it was as if some part of her wasn’t really there. She would stare off into the distance, lost to us. All those times I had imagined her return, it had been nothing like this.

I tried to find the sister I had known. I shared gossip about our remaining neighbours, anecdotes about the dogs, stories where the cat fought animals twice its size. None of it drew a response.

“The nightingales will be back soon,” I said one day, as I saw Olga gazing into the treetops.

“Really?” Her face showed its old brightness for the first time since the war.

“Of course,” I said. “This is their home.”

I had thought that answer would cheer her further, but instead she looked away sadly.

“Home changes.” She tapped her chest. “In here.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. The thought of her face in that moment, of those words and what they might mean, left me sobbing quietly in the dark.

In the days that followed, I became even more determined to lift Olga out of the darkness. I didn’t mention home again, but I talked often about the nightingales’ return. I brought her presents – bunches of flowers, interesting stones, models I whittled from scraps of wood. A collection grew on top of her chest of drawers, a cluttered tribute to my failure. Each one earned me a “Thank you,” but never a smile.

The pain of rejection grew within my heart. Every moment around her was a fresh wound, but I couldn’t stay away. Olga had done so much for us. I had to do this for her. I had to make things better.

“What am I doing wrong?” I finally blurted out one day, as she sadly added another of my gifts to the heap. “What can I do to make you happy?”

“Tatiana, please,” she said. “Stop.”

“No. I won’t stop. I can’t stop. Not while you’re so miserable! What can I do?”

“What can you do?” Anger flared in her eyes. “Can you bring back my friends who died? The men I shot? The thirteen-year-old boy I stabbed to death on the streets of Berlin? Can you wash my soul clean?”

From the next room there came a crash of breaking china, followed by our mother’s sobs.

“I would do anything to mend your wounds,” I said through streaming tears.

“I do not need to be mended. This is who I am.”

That night, I curled up beside my mother in her bed, as I had when I was small, and we cried ourselves to sleep.

The next day, I went to work in the fields beside Olga. I offered no jokes, no anecdotes, no gifts. And over the days that followed, the weight upon my heart slowly lessened. It would not go, but at least now it could be borne.

“Look,” Olga said one day, pointing at the nearby treetops. “The nightingales have returned.”

* * *

 

This story was inspired by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, a historical account of the experiences of female Russian soldiers in the Second World War. You can read more about it here.

If you enjoyed this story, you can get more like it to your inbox every week by signing up to my mailing list.

History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

A Powerful Read

The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

The Author’s Shadow

Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

Another Side of Humanity

This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.