On November 11, 1918, world leaders signed the armistice ending World War I and its four years of gruesome conflict. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the armistice, Anna Lee Huber shares a look behind the latest installment of her delightful Verity Kent historical mystery series, Treacherous Is the Night.
My fascination with World War I began because it seemed to be the war that always got skimmed over in History class. Not on purpose, I’m sure, but when the school year was winding down, and our class had only just begun to crack our books open to the 20th century, the First World War tended to get reduced to a blip in time in order to get to the Second. It was like fast-forwarding to the end of a movie, ignoring the plot twists that had gotten the characters to that point in the first place.
But I wanted to know about the people. I wanted to understand how the war had affected the hundreds of thousands of people who had fought and died and struggled through the first modern worldwide conflict. It seemed to me they deserved more than to have their lives reduced to such sparse facts as the assassination of an archduke and a short description of trench warfare in a Western Civilization class.
The truth is, it’s all too easy to reduce an era in history to just a set of numbers and dates and a few names and places. To ignore the humanity of millions of individuals. But when I look at history, I see people. I see their hopes and dreams. I see their struggles and losses. Sometimes they triumph, sometimes they fail, but always there is the wishing, the wanting, the striving.
But World War I crushed so much of that. It extinguished the hope, or reduced it to a bare flicker. It left its survivors wandering and lost, searching and sometimes failing to find something to give their lives meaning. Or at least to distract them from the pain for just a little while. It’s no wonder they’re called the Lost Generation, and not just because of the unimaginable number of casualties stolen from their ranks.
I began writing my Verity Kent series to try to better understand this generation, to explore who they were and what it would have been like to live through such a horrendous conflict. To have survived, and yet not know how to move on and rebuild their lives, or even dare to hope again. But rather than a soldier, I wanted to do so from the perspective a woman, one who had witnessed both sides. A woman who had become a young war bride just days before her beloved husband left to fight on the Western Front, leaving her to sit anxiously at home waiting for him. But also a woman who had decided to do her bit, unwittingly finding a position in military intelligence—one of the few agencies that would hire a married woman—and discovering she was good at it. A woman who could move about London as one of the thousands of wives carrying on while their husbands fought, but also found herself undertaking increasingly dangerous missions at home, near the front and even within the German-occupied territories.
I wanted to grapple with what it was like for the thousands of women employed in various capacities by the British intelligence agencies to serve their country in secret, and then when the war was over to be demobilized and told to never speak of it again. To be so tremendously useful and then suddenly not. Not to mention the impact this had on their relationships with their families, friends and spouses. What was it like to be reunited with a man you had been largely separated from for four long years, a man who had been through the hellish experience of trench warfare? How did such a marriage survive when they’d both been forbidden to speak of their years of service, to share what had become such an essential part of who they were?
On the centennial of the armistice for World War I, which will take place on November 11th at 11 a.m.—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—I’ll be thinking of all those men and women. I’ll be thinking of those who died, of those who served, of those whose contributions and sacrifices were barely acknowledged. But most of all I’ll be thinking of those who survived, but whose lives were irreparably impacted—the returning soldiers, the wives and fiancés, the children. I hope you’ll join me in observing two minutes of silence to honor all those lives, as well as our veterans.