Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Originals by William Hay

As you've probably guessed by now, I like historical fiction. While attending college I could never decide whether to major in History or English. I still haven't figured that one out.

Usually I tend to go for titles centered around the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the late 1800's or early 1900's because I love the settling of the American West and the pioneering era. But after reading some of the posts about William Hay's book, The Originals, I'm seriously considering making it a part of my home library. Here, William will share more about his book and then you'll get to read an excerpt.

The Originals is the story of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry from the eyes of William Dawson, a Canadian-born, and Boer War veteran, drawn back to the colours at the outset of the First World War. He enlists with the newly formed Patricias at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa beside many other veterans of the King’s service, leaving the lives they had started in Canada behind, answering Great Britain’s call to arms once again.

The regiments’ creation was the culmination of one man’s patriotic fervor at the outset of hostilities of that tragic conflict. The man was Hamilton Gault, a Boer War veteran--as were many of the Patricias--and a wealthy business man from Ireland. He made his home in Montreal, Canada, and remained a devoted imperialist. He obtained permission from the Canadian Government and the British War Office to raise the regiment after he fronted one hundred thousand dollars of his own funds for the venture; a substantial sum of money in 1914.

For Canadians, the PPCLI became a visual representation of the remaining ties of Imperialism, slowly fading in recent generations, but for the Imperial Armies, they were much more. They were experienced, battle hardened soldiers. Rare jewels among the sea of raw civilians flooding the recruiting offices.

The PPCLI was the first Canadian and Colonial battalion in the field of battle. Her veterans find it to be a war unlike any other, before and since. The static nature of the Great War is in it’s infancy during the winter of 1915. Trenches at their most primitive, a war of movement expected to recommence at any time. As the members of the Patricias gradually disappear from the ranks during the first winter of World War One, the static warfare remains unchanged, with no end in sight.

Their reputation of fortitude is put to the test in hastily constructed defenses at Bellewaerde Lake on May 8th 1915. There, the Patricias set a standard for all Canadian and Colonial troops to follow, a standard set in the sweat and blood of The Originals.

Although the story is about actual events, this is not a history book. In writing this novel, my goal was to reach beyond the scope of what happened during that first winter in Flanders and describe what it was like to be there. The main character of the story is fictional, but with few exceptions, what and who he encounters are real. The portrayals of the battles are based on research. The interpretation of character is my own.

Read an excerpt from The Originals:

The Patricias separated into their companies and moved forward in single file. The rain had changed into sleet, smacking onto their faces. Flares lofted about the sky, lighting up acres of water saturated fields, devoid of any vegetation. It was more a region full of bogs than the pasture it once was.

With each step, Dawson didn’t know if the ground would be firm or some mud-filled hollow. Occasionally he sunk up to his ankles. It required both hands to haul his leg out. Assistance from his mates was often necessary to pull clear. Muck accumulated on his boots. Water rolled down his spine. His hands were numb from being in water soaked gloves. The wind chill was freezing his exposed ears which he attempted to protect by laying his head against his collar. The line of men floundered through the sludge one step at a time. Dawson decided they’d be all night getting to the front line.

They came to a stop.

Dawson waited. Disoriented. Expecting the line to continue on, but they just stood there, in the open. There were no landmarks or signs. He was a blind as the next man and nervously fidgeted about trying to keep from sinking too deeply in the sludge. Dawson knew the right move while at the front was to lie on the ground, but no one else had dropped into the mire. He remained standing too, hoping they’d keep mov’in soon.

The rifle cracks, the occasional ‘tat-tat-tat’ of machine guns, the unmistakable pop or singing of bullets passing dangerously close, caused the men much consternation while they waited in the darkness. The shelling hadn’t ceased either, but thankfully was concentrated behind them, along the roads in the skeleton city of Vierstraat.
The line started moving.

The distinctive sound of water could be heard ahead. Lights reflected on the surface of some large accumulation right in the middle of their path. Dawson expected their guides would surely steer them around this mammoth puddle in the middle of the field. Soon he discovered it wasn’t a puddle after all. It was a river, and they had to cross it.

Dawson wondered if matters could possibly get any worse. Without one word of complaint, the Patricias slung their rifles, well clogged with mud at this point, and waded into the slow moving water. Any part of Dawson’s body which, by some miracle, remained dry, became soaked.

Water seeped into his deteriorating boots. A preverbal water fall began to enter down his collar and into his pants. The water was freezing. There were sounds of men sucking air in through their teeth. Discipline over powered the natural urge to shout as they wallowed their way across the icy stream in silence.

The opposite bank was a sight, its dirt walls now slick and mucky. With his rifle still slung, Dawson dug the toes of his boots into the slope and formed his hands into the shape of small spades. Weighing twice as much as he had when they arrived at Vierstraat eight hours ago, with a water soaked wool uniform, now covered by layers of mud, Dawson struggled to climb.

He lay still for a moment catching his breath and removed his forge hat. The sleet landing on his head felt like small needles.

“We’re almost their lads.” Niven’s comforting voice reached Dawson’s ears from somewhere in the darkness.

“We’re under observation now.” Jones added quietly. Dawson was unable to see him. “Take to the ground if we get flared, or Jerry’ll pink one of you.”
The line moved on.

Dawson held his rifle tightly, now looking more like a chunk of mud then a weapon of war. He followed closely behind his mates.

Flares rose up. In a moment they’d be lit up like daytime.

Dawson flopped to the ground. Mud seeped around his ears and collar. The natural reaction was to jump back onto his feet. Such a move would mean certain death. He lay still. Watching the shadows move about the muddy landscape as the flare slowly floated down and away. They rose again and continued their seemingly endless journey to the front line.

Another flare lofted up.

Like a drill movement on the parade square, Dawson and his mates dropped onto the ground as one. The mud continued to amass around his webbing, water bottle and haversack. The flare dropped from sight and like corpses rising from their graves, the Patricias rose out of the muck and continued forward. Each time he stood, Dawson felt he’d gained ten pounds.

A machine gun suddenly opened up on them. Into the muck they dove again.
Bullets whizzed past and spattered beside them. Dawson sunk as deep as he dared, searching for any protection. The Germans were positioned well on high ground some hundred yards away and fired blindly, pouring rounds over their heads.

More flares brightened their front and exposed their location to enemy machine gunners. Mud and water splashed Dawson’s face when rounds sprayed in front of him. Dawson knew he and his mates couldn’t stay where they were and live.

In the flares fading light, Dawson saw a ditch ahead of them. It wasn’t deep, but enough to afford some protection. Another machine gun joined in on the attack. Without being ordered, the Patricias took the initiative and began to drag themselves to the meager cover. Foot by foot Dawson pulled himself along, no easy task with the extra weight he’d amassing during the crossing.

The field gradually turned dark, with the extinguishment of the last flare. They jumped up and struggled the last fifteen yards to the ditch. He could hear grunts and heavy breathing around him from the other Patricias.

Flares shot up again. The ditch was directly in front of him. Five yards away. Barely visible.

He strove harder to make the distance. His legs burned with fatigue. Then the flares reached their maximum height and illuminated the field again, exposing the Patricias. Dawson threw himself down the slope of the ditch. Bullets sprayed behind him as he landed head first in knee-deep water at the bottom. Patricias splashed into the ditch beside him, right down the line. For the moment they were safe.

Bellinger tried to catch his breath. “I can’t see a bloody thing oot ‘ere.”

“Did we lose anyone corporal?” Niven, equally breathless piled into the water logged trench. “Is everyone here?”

“I don’t know sir.” Bellinger said.

“Lieutenant.” Jones dragged himself through the muddy water. “How many did we lose?”

“I don’t know sir. We’re just trying to establish that.”

“Get yourself off to our left flank and have the company sound off.”

“Yes sir.” Niven disappeared in the blackness.

“Has anyone seen McKinery?” Jones asked about their company commander.

“I last saw’im at Vierstraat sir.” Christie advised.

“All right then, take up a position as best you can. If anyone see’s McKinery tell him I’m headed to the left flank.”

“Sir?” Dawson whispered to Jones as he began to flounder away. “Where’s the front line?”

“Where? You’re in it.”

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