Children's Book of the Month: WWI Scottish Tales of Adventure
Author: Allan Burnett | Age Category: 8-11
Acclaimed children’s author Allan Burnett turns his attention to the First World War in a book of explosively exciting and emotionally charged tales of bravery and adventure. Featuring the true exploits of soldiers, spies, pilots, sailors and many others, these stories, all based on interviews with these heroes themselves or their descendants, offer a unique, personal insight into the First World War that no conventional history book can ever hope to match.
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What is your favourite adventure story?
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Extended Q&A with author Allan Burnett
Did you enjoy the research that you did for this book?
Something happened to me while I was deep inside an archive full of barely legible hand-written diaries, which were stacked high upon my desk like sandbags in the walls of a battle trench. I finally learned the true meaning of the saying that writing is "90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration". In other words, I enjoyed it immensely, but I was mightily relieved when the job was done.
Why did you start writing this book?
A big question: here's a big answer.
An enormous amount of books, articles and documentaries have been produced about WWI. Yet, I knew there were still a lot of great war stories that had not yet really been told for young readers, and, as with my WWII book, I wanted to make a contribution towards getting more of them out there.
I wanted to write a history book that puts readers in the shoes of both men and women, young and old, on the front lines. Battle should not just be considered a 'guy thing', and my writing is probably distinctly un-macho when compared with many other authors of war stories for boys, but on the other hand war is a great topic to get young men and boys reading and writing. With both genders in mind, I wanted to find compelling human dramas where the technologies and grand military strategies of war can be understood in a way that is hopefully easy and appealing for readers with different tastes and interests.
I wanted to write a history book that puts readers in the shoes of both men and women, young and old, on the front lines
There was also a desire to locate a more rounded portrait of the war than either of the two extremes we have heard in the century since it happened - a tally-ho, macho version that emphasises the greatness of blood sacrifice while thumping 'the Hun' and defending the unquestionably Great British Empire; and on the other hand, the version that rightly emphasises the barbarity, bigotry and futility of the war, but nevertheless risks leading us away from the action, and away from a clear understanding of why reasonable, peace-loving people were willing to go and fight in the first place even after the doubts and dread had begun to set in.
This book is personal, too, since a number of my ancestors fought in the war and I visited some of the war's most famous places when I was a boy.
Then there is the national dimension. Some people might question the decision to explore WWI from a Scottish perspective. But this to me is just as valid as exploring it from any other angle, and indeed this book is really about expanding our understanding of the impact of the war on Britain as a whole, rather than keeping the focus on England as most books on the subject written in the UK understandably tend to do.
There have been a couple of major books on Scotland and WWI for adults in recent years, and there are some excellent texts already in print and online for young readers on the Scottish dimension to WWI. But I knew there was a lot more to be said on this topic, so part of my motivation was to open the subject up further with new stories and new perspectives.
In this war Scotland lost more than 100,000 men in the space of four years and, as I discuss in the book, the impact on the country was huge. As readers of the book will discover, this small nation produced several key individuals (men and women) who made a decisive and far-reaching impact on the war and its legacy. Using the evidence, I have tried to locate the links between such people and the experiences of 'ordinary' individuals - the 'you and me' of history - who found themselves caught up in great events.
In this war Scotland lost more than 100,000 men in the space of four years and the impact on the country was huge
Whether in the Scottish regiments, in creation of the Scottish Women's Military Hospitals, or the Scottish National War Memorial, or in the demonstration of a certain Presbyterian dryness of humour in adversity, a sense of making a distinctive Scottish contribution seemed to be a source of profound meaning and comfort, of reflection and sometimes self-criticism. After all, this was a time when the grand certainties of Victorian and Edwardian British life, an age of seemingly limitless progress upon which the sun would never set, were being literally bombed to pieces.
The stories I found convey excitement, a lust for the fight and a determination to secure victory. But there is also a creeping sense of the turmoil and dread that began to take hold of everything between 1914 and 1918, like a house of cards that collapses and then just keeps on collapsing down to infinite depths. It's clear that life, for those that survive, will never be the same again.
The British Empire, which had made so many Scottish towns and cities prosper, and for which the Scots in these stories loyally fought, was engaged in a titanic fight to the death with the world's other great empires. In such apocalyptic circumstances, a few comforting verses of 'The Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond' sung by quivering Aberdeenshire voices on their way to the front cannot be sensibly dismissed as twee or incongruent.
In fact, in order to try to make sure the stories never got bogged down, I left out a great deal of 'Scottish' moments - for instance, a resting soldier contemplating the poetry of Robert Burns while his mind processes the killing of one set of soldiers by another and the 'crump, crump' sound of exploding shells can be heard in the near distance.
In writing this book it was also important to me not to get bogged down in the trenches of the Western Front, telling essentially the same story over and over, which can be a danger when exploring WW1. That's why each of the stories in the book are different, taking place on land, at sea and in the air, and featuring men and women as central characters coping with battle on the various front lines on both the Western and Eastern fronts.
What else have you written?
My other books include World War II: Scottish Tales of Adventure along with Invented in Scotland and the 'And All That' series of historical biographies including Mary, Queen of Scots And All That and Robert The Bruce And All That.