In Flanders’ Fields.
By Norman Jorgensen.
Illustrated by Brian Harrison-Lever
Published by Sandcastle Books - Fremantle Arts Centre Press
In Flanders’ Fields, set in the trenches of World War One, tells the story of a young, homesick Anzac soldier who, on Christmas morning, faces almost certain death in a seemingly hopeless attempt to rescue a robin caught in the wire of no man’s land. Although the story takes place in only a few minutes of a long and brutal war, the fighting has paused and no violence is seen. The whole focus of the book is on the similarity of the soldiers on both sides of the fence and the absolute futility of war.
From the author :
The story was inspired by a single scene in an old black and white silent film I saw many years ago. It was the first version of Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front made by Lewis Milestone in 1929 and Remarque’s sympathetic and realistic treatment of the common soldier, together with the filmmaker’s atmospheric, stark photography has haunted me ever since.
I wrote the initial draft and called it A Soldier’s Christmas and I used the device of the robin as a symbol of simplicity in an overwhelmingly huge and tragic background. I set the story at Christmas to add emphasis to the homesickness that the soldiers would all have been feeling.
Visiting Belgium on holiday a few years later I attempted to locate the graves of three relations, (to whom the book is dedicated) which was when the enormity of the tragedy of war hit me. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers of all nationalities lay buried in Flanders mud. The sheer waste of so many young lives touched me so much that, on my return to Australia I immediately reworked the story and sent it for publication.
My grandmother, to whom the book is also dedicated, was still alive when I returned from Flanders and when I told her I had found her uncle, James Bowen’s grave at the Menin Road Cemetery, she clearly remembered him from eighty five years earlier, “Uncle Jim, oh, he went away to the war…and never came back.”
For the sake of popularity I could have set the story in the more widely known Gallipoli but felt that I owed it to my ancestors who had actually died at the Western Front to use the Flanders battlefields. More Australians were killed in a few days on the Western Front than in the whole Gallipoli campaign but a lot less is known about those terrible battles.
Making the decision on the final page of the book proved to be most difficult. Opinions differed on how to end the story. After many changes, however, we returned to the original idea of endless rows of crosses and countless red poppies. Using the first verse of the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, by Lt Col. John McCrae of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps, who died in France in 1918, seemed the most appropriate way to conclude the story.
From the Illustrator:
Researching photographs through my magnifying glass I was touched by the way these poor young fellows, in the most appalling conditions, bedraggled, cold and soaked to the skin, uniforms unrecognisable, festooned and weighed down with equipment, up to their knees in slime, could still be bothered to tilt their steel helmets at a jaunty angle and raise a smile for the cameraman.
The cover drawing was my first completed illustration by which time the hero’s character and personality had taken on the persona of my nineteen year old son, Tom. Over several months of concentrated research and actual work on the drawings, I became totally absorbed by the appalling conditions of the Western Front and the happenings "In Flanders Fields". Having to turn off the desk lights and close the door on it all each night, feeling at times that I was leaving my son in there, was difficult. It was necessary on some nights to open the door to his room just to reassure myself that he was sitting happily working at his computer.
For years I had hoarded a couple of reams of an extra tough French watercolour paper that allowed for multiple dunkings and washing’s back. I initially decided to limit my palette to Sepia, Pane’s Grey, and diluted black ink, with the robin’s red chest feathers being the only bright colour through the book. As the work progressed a touch of watery Vermilion and Cadmium Yellow was included in the fire tins as a concession to Christmas for the poor homesick youngsters. As morning breaks and the daylight strengthens I added a little Cerulean Blue to the sky and the morning light.
My procedure was to draw the figures lightly in ink using a technical drawing pen, then line in the background of the trenches and sandbags. Next was to colour wash with sepia, then finally with the Payne’s Grey. Once dry I would soak the paper in a bath of cold water washing back the colour to achieve an "aqua tint" quality. The sheet was then hung out to dry on a rack over the bath. Ink texturing and detailing was next, before final colour was added, then final wash back.
With the battlefield landscapes, the vertical line technique and textures was a result of hours of work with a mapping pen, diluted inks and watercolour, with pale water colour washes brushed over, before washing back again. Once the subtle washed out effect was achieved the robin’s bright red feathers were the final touch.
The following contacts may be useful for research into Australia’s involvement in various conflicts, especially World War I.
The Australian War Memorial http://www.awm.gov.au/
Commonwealth War Graves Commission http://www.cwgc.org/
In Flanders Fields Museum Ypres, Belgium website www.inflandersfields.be
Local branch of the RSL http://www.rsl.org/
The Literature Base, February 2002 (Article: Literature to Commemorate Anzac Day)
The story is deliberately set in the present tense. What reason would the author have had for doing this?
Why has the illustrator used mainly brown and grey in the pictures? What impact does the robin have and does the colouring change the mood of the story?
A white silk scarf was sent to the soldier. What does that convey about the ideas people at home held of the conditions in the trenches? Consider the current conflicts in which Australian soldiers are involved. What Christmas gift would you send a soldier?
How does the book show that we are all the same under the skin, whether a young Australian soldier or his German counterpart?
The main character in the story remains anonymous. Why do you think the author did not give him a name?
Study Notes/ Activities “