How I turned a family archive into an epic saga of the Great War
When I began rummaging around in the cardboard boxes and antique chests that constituted my Bachus family archive, I was not planning on writing a novel that would center on World War I.
I was already an established national and regional journalist, having worked for The Christian Science Monitor and freelanced for publications such as Newsweek, Ski, and dozens of other national and regional magazines and newspapers. So, I knew that I wanted to write about these ancestors of mine who stared back at me from black-and-white photographs and yellowing newspaper clippings with datelines of Manzanillo, Cuba … Tacna-Arica, South America … and Belfort, France. But it took some time and study to find the focus – the real heart of their story.
When I began exploring my family story decades ago, my knowledge of WW I was shaped as much by Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel biplane as it was from my studies of history. My paternal grandparents died nearly a decade before I was born and my father passed on when I was still a teenager, so their stories were never told to me directly by word of mouth.
Instead, I got to read them through the dusty pages of letters they wrote and received, blood-stained front-line orders, wax-paper trench maps from Alsace-Lorraine, and the out-of-print books they held onto over the decades. Unpacking the lives of Joe and Lina Bachus (my grandparents) took about two years, and turning their story into a fictional novel with Joe and Anna Becker as the main characters took me even longer – about two decades of starts and stops.
But at the beginning of 2017, just as the 100th anniversary of the United States entrance into WW I drew near, my first novel – Into No Man’s Land – was released by Hellgate Press, a leading publisher of military history and memoir.
It wasn’t just the volume of the archive and artifacts that took me so long; I was also torn by the decisions I had to make for the novel’s coherence. What to keep? What to take out? I wanted to include it all but knew it was impossible. My original outline was about a yard long and stretched from the late 1800s through the 1990s. How could I leave out this incredible stuff about Joe’s encounters with real headhunters in the Philippines in the 1930s? What was the story with this Plebiscite Commission in Chile and Peru? And what the heck did my midwestern grandparents have to do with the Old Spanish Trail in the late 20s?
My grandfather’s military career stretched across nearly a half century and into service with the US Navy, US Marine Corps, Ohio National Guard, Michigan National Guard, US Army, and even a stint as a Colonel who was in charge of WW II recruiting for the Army Air Corp in the Midwest.
There was too much for one book, and my decision to make Into No Man’s Land the first book in a series that I’m calling the “Becker Chronicles” helped break through a mental logjam that stalled me. I’ve already begun work on the next book in the series, Along the Border. It takes place after WW I, and picks up the story of the Becker family as Joe is given a top-secret mission to survey and investigate Mexico’s most-likely invasion routes into the United States along the Texas border.
The more I dug into my family’s experiences leading up to and into WW I, the more I wanted to uncover and write about my family’s Great War experiences. It became clearer and clearer to me that Joe’s combat duty in France as an infantry company commander was one of the most important events of his life. Not only was it his first time leading men into combat, but also he received a battlefield promotion to captain from General Pershing himself. Here’s how I recounted that story in my novel where Lt. Joe Becker is the fictional version of my grandfather at the front lines of Alsace-Lorraine.
Book excerpt from Into No Man's Land:
A cloud of dust blew around the corner of one of the rustic buildings of the square immediately followed by an open-air staff car loaded with officers. Major Potter, a thin man in his fifties with a sharp nose leapt from the running boards before the automobile came to a full stop. He opened the door for a tall mustached man wearing leather riding boots, gloves, and the distinctive Sam Browne belt that was officially banned for officers back in the States. On his head, he wore the leather-visored officer’s field cap that he had designed for the U.S. Army, and still bears his name. As this older gentleman athletically stepped out of the car while maintaining his proper military bearing, Joe instantly recognized him even before he noticed the four stars on his shoulder. It was General John J. Pershing in the flesh.
“Ten-hut!” Sgt. Pomeroy called out as he and Joe jumped to attention.
General Hahn, commander of the 32nd Division, quickly followed wearing his Sam Browne belt, as well. This simple, two-piece leather belt had stirred quite a controversy in the U.S. Army. It was a wide belt that buckled around the waist on the outside of the uniform, with a diagonal strap that ran across the chest and over an officer’s shoulder.
General March who was Gen. Pershing’s superior back in Washington detested the belts and ordered them banned back in the States. Some Army insiders interpreted the wearing or the absence of the Sam Browne belt by officers in France as an indication of loyalty. Those who wore them were in Pershing’s “open warfare” camp, and those who didn’t wear them were loyal to Gen. March’s more traditional, old Army ways. Joe, who had worn one since his days in the Ohio National Guard, had long ago decided that the whole belt/no-belt issue probably just boiled down to how fat an officer was.
Colonel Westnedge, the commander of the 126th Infantry Regiment, a French general, and several other aids and staff officers whom Joe did not recognize, followed Hahn out of the car.
“Ah, Becker!” Major Potter shouted. “Just the man we are looking for.” Potter hurried over to Joe with a smile on his face, which quickly turned into a frown as he drew near. His voice dropped to a sharp whisper as he approached Joe. “Where are the rest of my men? I telephoned ahead to have the men assembled for a field inspection.”
“They don’t seem to have received the word, sir,” Joe said.
“Dammit!” Major Potter cursed under his breath. “All these confounded telephone lines running in and out of this place and you still can’t get a message through when you need to.”
“I know exactly what you mean, sir.”
“Look Becker, Gen. Pershing wants a company commander to give him a tour of our sector of the trenches. Your boys are in better shape than anybody else, so I picked you to take him and his staff to inspect the lines. I’ve got to stay here to get the H.Q. ready for an inspection on the general’s way back, so I’m counting on you to do 2nd Battalion proud.”
“My men are already on the alert,” Joe said. “We had word of some V.I.Ps. showing up since this morning.”
Major Potter made the introductions. Two disappointed staff officers were left behind to make room for Joe and Sgt. Pomeroy, whom Joe had asked to accompany the inspection party. After a brief pit stop in which Joe could hear Major Potter whipping his H.Q. staff into a frenzy of inspection cleanup inside the old farmhouse, Joe found himself seated in a bouncing car next to the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces.
“You look familiar, Captain Becker,” Pershing said. “Have we met before?”
“It’s Lieutenant Becker, sir, and, yes, I was with you two years ago on the Mexican Border. I did some translating for you when you came back to El Paso.”
“Ah, yes. The ex-marine from Michigan — I remember. Your language abilities were particularly useful that day. Do you speak any other languages?”
“I grew up speaking German. My French isn’t pretty, but it’s coming along.”
“Good for you, Captain. I may not always remember names, but I never forget the cut of a man,” Pershing said.
Pershing’s car sped down the country roads towards the town of Hauptwiller. Vehicles could reach Joe’s sector by a much longer route to the east of Hecken and then northwest along a dirt road that paralleled the Seultsbach creek that flowed between Joe’s trenches and the wooded hills between Hecken and the front. They passed Friday [the cook] and his wagons on the way back to the battalion H.Q. Joe and Sgt. Pomeroy took turns explaining the sights and recounting their first experiences in the trenches.
Once the V.I.Ps reached Post of Action 2, Joe carefully guided them into the trenches without exposing his guests to enemy observation or fire. Joe’s men had cleaned up nicely and they looked sharp without looking like they were trying too hard. Pershing strode quickly along the duckboards, but stopped frequently to chat with the men of Company E about where they were from, what they needed, and what they had learned.
Pershing nodded approval when he discovered the doughboys’ packs loaded with several days of ammo and gear in the event of a break in the enemy lines. He scowled when he saw the rats in the traps, but then smiled and had an aide make some notes when Sgt. Schloss explained the purpose of and beneficial effects of “rat duty.”
Ever the tactical instructor, Pershing not only inspected the troops, but also drilled Joe on how Joe’s company would use its current position in the lines in the event of a major attack by the Germans. Joe was able to point out sniper and trench mortar positions that he had established in the wooded hills behind the main trench, as well as provisions he had made for the main firing line and petty posts. Joe’s answers were met with approval, and the general gave him some pointers on maintaining communications with the other units in the area.
“Above all, never give any ground, Captain Becker.” General Pershing said. “We are not going to make the mistake of paying for the same ground twice.”
“I understand, sir, but it’s just Lieutenant Becker, sir. I’m not a captain.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t object to my calling you Captain Becker from now on, then?”
“No, sir.” Joe said. “I admit it would please me greatly.”
“Well, don’t put them on now, but I believe you’ll be needing these, then.” And with that, Gen. Pershing handed Joe a set of double silver bars and Joe became a captain in the United States Army. (end excerpt)
This passage is certainly not the most exciting passage of the book, but I share it here because it is indicative of how I was able to conjure up characters, scenes, and plot from mere snippets of the historical record.
For example, the scene above was largely drawn from a tattered newspaper clipping (possibly from the Ann Arbor News, circa 1918). The article titled “LIEUTENANT BACKUS (sic) PROMOTED TO CAPTAIN BY GENERAL PERSHING came from a letter sent home by another lieutenant in my grandfather’s company. Here’s the meat of the story:
A rumor that General Pershing was in the camp of the American soldiers reached the company headquarters, but the officers paid little attention to it, as such rumors are frequent. In a few moments, however, an orderly appeared at headquarters and announced that General Pershing and Colonel Westnedge were at hand, and Lieutenant Backus (sic) hurried out.
“I suppose you wouldn’t object to my calling you Captain Backus (sic), would you?” asked General Pershing, as Lieutenant Backus (sic) saluted, and the latter admitted that it would please him greatly. This is how he received word of his promotion, and the entire company was greatly pleased.
Before Company E (then Company I) left for the Mexican border, Lieutenant Backus (sic) was the most unpopular man in the company. Having had regular army training, he was a strict disciplinarian, and to the members of his company, most of whom considered army life more of a joke than anything else, his ideas of discipline were, to say the least, irksome. But as soon as they got into the game, and began to realize that Lieutenant Backus (sic) knew what was best for them, their attitude toward him speedily changed, and he is now the idol of his men.
To paint a clearer picture of the scene for the reader, I had Joe Becker and his right-hand sergeant leave the front lines and head to the rear. This occurs just before the excerpt I’ve included above. I even had a couple of photographs of the exact village with its doughboy guards where the battalion headquarters was set up, so I had a clear sense of this three-sided village square where Joe encounters Pershing.
But I also wanted to take the reader back into those trenches with Joe and Pershing, so that both the reader and the general could see why Joe was worthy of promotion. Some of the details in the trench tour like the “rat traps” I simply invented as a way of trying to imagine how my grandfather’s methodical and inventive mind would deal with the persistent problem of huge rats running around his sector of the trenches. As it would turn out, the rats carried the “trench fever” that spread throughout the lines when the A.E.F. first entered the trenches. The other details, like the loaded packs and tactical discussions came from my Pershing research. I typically write with two screens so that I could have outlines and web pages at the tip of my fingers while I wrote. I just loved these small “ah-ha” moments of triangulating what I knew from my family archive with some wider resource like Pershing’s My Experiences in the World War. My hope is that, as my readers come to know these characters I’ve crafted from the family archive, they will enjoy both the little and large “ah-ha” moments of the novel.
Next time, in “The Making of a New World War I Novel – Part 2,” I’ll share some of the sources and research locations that helped me turn a family story into a wider tale of front-line
Richard C. Bachus has been a professional journalist, English teacher, and advertising copywriter for nearly threedecades He’s had thousands of articles, essays, and marketing campaigns published around the world by media such as the Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, and Ski. As the descendant of four generations of U.S. soldiers, Mr. Bachus lives a peaceful life in the woods of Northern Michigan with his small family—living in a house not unlike “The Shack” depicted in the pages of this novel. Joe and Anna Becker are fictional versions of Mr. Bachus’s real grandparents, whose Great War experiences are chronicled on the U.S. WWI Centennial Commission’s blog, Trench Commander.