Visiting the World War One battlefields of The Somme & Ypres is a very moving experience. The landscape still bears the scars of the miles upon miles of trenches from which hundreds of thousands of men went “over the top” into no man’s land—and, for many, certain death. I have visited most of the battlefield cemeteries in this region, reading the names on the markers, and stopping often to wonder about those young men who were buried with no name, soldiers unidentified in the aftermath of battle. For them the marker reads, “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.” At the same time, I have read the endless lists of the missing at the Menin Gate in Ypres, at Vimy, and at Thiepval. Where did they fall, these young men who were never found? I knew that one day I would write about the Great War’s missing, but I wasn’t quite sure how I might shape that story and incorporate it into the series featuring Maisie Dobbs.
It was in 2005 that I saw a letter published in the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper that intrigued me. The writer, David Bartlett, is a British man, an expert on the region who is also deeply involved in identifying the remains of British soldiers. He had been called in to help identify the recently discovered remains of a young man who had been serving with a British regiment. Among his possessions was a collection of rather expensive colored pens, and a wallet with the name of a bank embossed into the leather—it was the Central Bank of Santa Barbara. Now, of course, the soldier could have been given the wallet, could have won it playing cards, or obtained it by other means—but there was always the chance that he had been in California before the war. Was he an Englishman who had followed his dream to come to America? Might he have been an American who had, perhaps, lied to enlist in the British army?
I thought long and hard about the young man, and suspected he might have been a cartographer—those pens must have been used for something. He might have been a journalist, or an artist. The story led me to create Michael Clifton, a young American who, in August 1914 goes to the land of his father to fight for the old country in her hour of need. Of course, he expects to be home by Christmas, for surely the war would have been brought to an end by then. But the war doesn’t end, and Michael will never see America again.