Answers to some questions that were thrown at me in a recent interview about The Suicide Club…..
Where did the idea for The Suicide Club come from?
Ideas have long tails, like comets…. I’ve been fascinated by World War 1 since I was a boy. I remember buying a Victory Medal in a local junk shop. ‘For civilisation’, it read, and the name of a soldier in the Lincolnshire Regiment was engraved round the edge. For me, it represented a little piece of someone’s heroism, endurance, even suffering. Then, as a teenager I read and studied the war poets and the literary memoirs of soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon.
More recently, I’ve been working on a television script about the political battle fought in Downing Street in the summer of 1917 over plans for what became the Battle of Passchendaele – the battle of the mud. When people think of World War 1 they often have an image of the scarred flooded wilderness of Passchendaele, where, over more than three months, British forces struggled to break the German line. Researching the drama, it became clear that British Army intelligence failed to grasp the full situation. The Director of Military Intelligence at GHQ, Brigadier John Charteris, was prepared to hide the true intelligence picture from the politicians – even his own commander in chief, Field Marshal Haig. Charteris encouraged Haig to believe a breakthrough was possible when there was very little evidence to support his wild optimism. I was shocked by that. Thousands of men were sent to their deaths because the battle of Passchendaele was allowed to rumble on for months.
I wanted to write a book about that failure of intelligence – about the importance of telling the truth to authority – to generals and prime ministers.
Why The Suicide Club?
The title of the story came from a few lines in a report complied after the war by a senior intelligence officer at Haig’s HQ in France. Haig’s head of intelligence, Charteris, was so certain the Germans were on the point of breaking, he ordered the formation of a special espionage unit to be stationed with the cavalry. With the big breakthrough, it would charge into open country with the cavalry, then melt into the population. Living under cover behind enemy lines, members of the unit would provide intelligence to advancing British forces.
It is clear from diaries left by members of Charteris’s own Staff that they thought the idea was barmy, and that the agents of the new unit stood absolutely no chance. The agents were of the same mind. Everyone began to call the unit the Suicide Club, after Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of the same name. Its members were being asked to do the impossible…. I’m no great fan of Blackadder history, but the Suicide Club is just the sort of mad idea that might have been created for a comedy script writer. Anyway, it came to represent for me – and for some intelligence officers at Haig’s headquarters at the time – the epitome of the ridiculous optimism that characterised intelligence assessments of the enemy in 1917. Haig was always being told the German army was close to collapse. Haig wanted to hear it and didn’t question Charteris closely enough. HIs plans for the 3rd Ypres campaign were based on this optimistic assumption. The cavalry was going to exploit a break through, British forces would advance more than twenty miles from Ypres to the coast, and the Germans would be defeated by Christmas. Anyone who questioned such thinking or the wisdom of the Suicide Club, risked being labelled a pessimist – a terrible crime at British army headquarters. Worse, they risked being called ‘defeatists’.
Your main protagonist, Innes, is a damaged hero?
Code named ‘Lazarus’, he has come back to life. He was an officer in a Scottish regiment, and during the Somme offensive he was buried by shellfire in a trench. He was fortunate to be dug out an hour later, but it has left scars. He suffers from ‘shell shock’, what the doctors today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. HIs faith in God has been damaged too. There were many more devout Christians a hundred years ago. Faith carried some soldiers through the war, and most soldiers said their prayers under shell fire. Innes asks the questions all soldiers must have asked: where is God?
Innes is damaged in another way too. Spies, double agents, secret policemen are obliged to make many moral compromises. Lies change people. Innes is not a natural spy. He retains a moral centre, but it has changed him. In The Bible, God orders Moses to send spies into the land of Canaan. They are doing God’s work – to do it they must lie and cheat. Does he recognise them when they come back?
You chose to set your story at Field Marshal Haig’s HQ and behind enemy lines, rather than in the trenches?
Yes. A great deal has been written about trenches –the best of it by those who fought – and I wanted to give a view of the larger picture, of the intelligence war and of the arguments over strategy between the politicians and the soldiers. The prime minister didn’t trust his commander-in-chief but he couldn’t get rid of him. Squabbling between the political and military leaders influenced decisions made about the fighting at the Front. Soldiers in a trench could see only a few hundreds of mud and desolation, and knew nothing of the ‘grand plan’.
The GHQ map is important in my story. Politicians and generals fight their battles on the map. It has to be so, but what an illusion. The maps of Passchendaele have hills and rivers and dykes and villages and farms, when by the end there was little more than a quagmire. The map is a symbol of optimism and unreality. It is easy to advance twenty miles across a map.
The symbolism of the map hints at another confusion. What was the battle for? Haig talked of a big breakthrough and of advancing miles and miles, of knocking the enemy out of the war. But other generals talked only of inflicting casualties on the enemy. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Robertson, wanted to wear the Germans down with artillery. It didn’t matter where or how far British forces were able to advance.
I wanted to be fair to Staff at general headquarters. Generals and staff officers did visit the Front and many were killed. A good number of officers only took up staff positions after being wounded in the line. They were judged incapable of front line service but more than capable of staff work. Life at GHQ was nothing like ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ or ‘Blackadder’. Bad decisions were made because field marshals and generals can be as guilty of pride and prejudice as the next man. Whether a battle is fought and for how long can come down to an individual judgement. Haig was an optimist, surrounded by optimists, and by men who were not prepared to challenge his view. Too few were ready to tell him the truth – too few people understood it. Haig was not a military genius, but he had uncommon belief in his own judgement. After a time, political and military leaders can develop a sort of bunker mentality, so confident they are right, they are deaf to reason. In his study of leadership, former Foreign Secretary, David Owen, calls this condition, ‘hubris syndrome’. Haig was a sufferer.
You like to get the facts right? Some authors fight shy of casting historical figures, but there are a number in The Suicide Club…
I feel a great responsibility to the history and the real characters in my drama. The big picture story requires me to cast real people. The Commander in chief of the British Armies in the West was Field Marshal Haig, and it would be ridiculous to give the task to someone else. Should I have fought shy of portraying him in scenes? I don’t think so. My story is set at his headquarters. Walter Scott cast Bonnie Prince Charlie in Waverley, and Tolstoy cast Napoleon and the Tsar in War in Peace…. Hilary Mantel gives us the Tudor panoply in Wolf Hall.
I have imaginary characters too, but I want my stories to be believable – and for me that means getting the history right. Not just brands of cigarettes and whisky, but the thoughts and feelings of the real people involved in the drama I want to reveal and test their characters in the dramatic situations I present in my story. To do that I draw on their diaries and letters and the memories of those who knew them. The story comes first, but in my books it is impossible to separate history and story.