1917 places near and far

Anzac Day, 2017.

I’m remembering the fallen.

Remembering the airmen in the skies over the Battle of Arras in April 1917, whose life expectancy was only 17.5 hours.

Yes. Hours.

The Red Baron and the German hunting packs dominated the air war on the Western Front. The new RE8 two-seaters were being brought into the Front Lines.

On the Eastern Front, Russia was falling apart, following the February Revolutions.

The war hung in the balance. Again.

I’m remembering being in Ypres, and standing under the Menin Gate, waiting to lay a wreath to honour my great-grandfather.

So today I’m remembering places – places I visited, touched by the war, places I tried to capture in 1917. And some places I borrowed as sites for my fictional family.

This is Bailleul in Flanders, the site of the airfield (I think) where 3 Squadron AFC was based. This is where Alex and Charlie end up in 1917.

There are so many airmen buried in the cemetery right next door. (There are so many cemeteries, large and small, in Flanders and across northern France. All are immaculately maintained.)

A few miles away as the RE8 flies, the town of Ypres was reduced to rubble by shelling during the war.

Source: Australian War Memorial

Those few walls you can see were all that remained of the medieval Cloth Hall.

But after the war, it was rebuilt, and today it houses the brilliant In Flanders Fields museum.

But 1917 is not only set in Flanders, of course.

It’s also set near my home, in Melbourne, in the suburb where my great-grandfather lived before he left to serve in the Medical Corps in Flanders.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that Maggie and the family live next to the railway station, in a station manager’s house. Here’s one just like the house they might have lived in – near Moreland Station in Melbourne.

Railway house. Source: Pictures Victoria/Coburg Historical Society

And the station – which still stands – looked like this. So you can imagine little Bertie running wild around this very impressive-looking Victorian edifice, while his father tries to appear dignified.

Source: Pictures Vic/Moreland Libraries

It still looks a lot like it did then. Even the signal box in which I imagined Bertie playing is still there, although it’s not in use any more. But there’s a lovely park now on both sides of the lines. (The Government is about to remove the level crossing – I hope they don’t also remove the heritage station or signal box.)

One place in the book that’s very close to my heart is Station Pier in Port Melbourne. That’s where so many families waved off the men and women going to war, not knowing they’d never see them again. And then later in the year it was the scene of strife during the General Strike, and Dame Nellie Melba’s inglorious concert.

(My grandfather worked on the wharf, and he used to take us there to look at the ships, when I was little.)

Source: Victorian ANZAC Centenary

And what about Maggie’s life on the farm? Well, here’s Main Street in Mordialloc (around 1910), which is now a very busy spot indeed.

Source: Kingston Libraries/Kingston Collection

And this is the place I had in my mind for the orchards and farms around Box Hill where Maggie and Lizzie work: Schwerkolt’s Cottage, Mitcham,  just a few doors from where I grew up. In fact, it gets a mention in the book, and the room where Maggie and Mrs Bennett chat is exactly a room at Schwerkolt’s – and they were one of the German families affected by the war. (I spent a lot of time as a kid exploring the bush and old orchards around the cottage. It has since been restored and houses the local museum.)

Source: J.T. Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

And I realise as I write this how often I include places close to my heart in my books. Venice. Paris. London. Station Pier. (It’s like one of those tea towels – “New York. Paris. Mitcham.”)

So here’s one more place that I love. Oxford. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to discover, last time I stayed there, that the airmen had trained there during the war. Hoorah! I thought. I can put it in the book. And so I did.

All those spires. Excellent navigation aids.

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