We are coming to the end of another busy year. After much hard work my novel The Cavalier Historianhas finally made it into print and is already proving popular. I am now working on a story set during the Second World War. So far I have spent many happy hours researching the war in North Africa and have now put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!) on the new novel. I have also written a novella about the main characters in the new book which you can access here. Please help yourself to a free copy for Christmas!
I hope that your year has been equally successful. I wish you a very Happy Christmas and hope that 2017 is all that you wish for.
‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men’ is a perennial theme of Christmas. But throughout the years soldiers have spent Christmas in terrible conditions, far from their homes and loved ones. The Second World War lasted for six long years and some people didn’t see their loved ones during all that time. Christmas 1944 was one such time for American soldiers with the armies in northern Europe.
The Siege of Bastogne, part of the larger Battle of the Bulge, took place in December 1944 when German forces made a last desperate push towards the harbour at Antwerp. The seven major roads in the Ardennes area of Belgium all converged on Bastogne so Hitler saw control of this town as vital to his plans to divide and defeat the advancing Allies.
In the early hours of 16th December German infantry forces were ferried across the river Our; two hours later they began to advance under cover of artillery which knocked out the American lines of communication. The Germans had overwhelmingly superior numbers but were held up by a single company of Americans who fought fiercely, holding up the German plans to cross the Clef River for two days. On 19th December the American command post of the 28th Division moved to Bastogne where the Division put up a strong defence, but the 500 men were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat by the evening.
The German offensive had taken the Allies completely by surprise, and by the end of the second day the 28th Infantry was close to collapse. Reserves were hurriedly pushed forward and units diverted from their assigned targets in order to hold back this last ditch effort by the Germans to retake land lost since D Day and push the Allies back into France. But although the attack had been unexpected the Americans moved quickly, thanks in part to the fast moving M18 Hellcats, and a tank battle was soon in progress, inflicting heavy losses on the German armour.
The 101st Airborne formed a perimeter around Bastogne, and three artillery battalions, each with twelve 255mm howitzers, were able to provide firepower in all directions although they were limited by lack of ammunition. The force was enough, however, to worry General von Luttwitz who did not want to have such numbers to his rear so was forced to slow his advance towards Antwerp and encircle Bastogne. On the night of 20th the Germans began an attack which was stopped by the Americans, although all of the seven roads into Bastogne were finally cut by the German forces leaving the Americans totally cut off.
Outnumbered 5 to 1, lacking cold-weather equipment, short on ammunition, medical supplies and food, and with most of the senior officers elsewhere, the situation for the Americans looked desperate. Worse still, there was no chance of re-supplying the forces from the air due to the worst winter weather in living memory. This also made it impossible for the Americans to offer tactical air support. The men on the ground in Bastogne were forced to hunker down in freezing conditions and pray for an improvement in the weather. The situation looked hopeless.
On 22nd December von Luttwitz sent a message to Brigadier General McAuliffe who was leading the defence of Bastogne;
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.
McAuliffe’s reply is one of the most well know military communications of the Second World War:
To the German Commander.
The American Commander
After the response had been translated for von Luttwitz the attacking forces began preparations for their final assault. Bombers attacked during the night whilst panzers attacked from the west where the defences were penetrated at one point. German infantry poured through the breach but were halted by the Americans. Major attacks continued to take place all along the defensive lines, with no break in hostilities to celebrate Christmas Day.
Patton’s Third Army finally arrived near Bastogne on Boxing Day. After fierce fighting communications with the besieged Americans were restored and supplies began to get through to the cold and hungry soldiers. The 101st expected to be relieved and sent back down the line after such a hard-fought defence but instead were ordered to resume the offensive against German forces. The wider Battle of the Bulge continued unabated into 1945.
One of the main characters in my novel, Heronfield, is caught up in the siege of Bastogne. I wrote about this battle as I wanted to portray the courage and fortitude of the men involved, men who fought against overwhelming odds – vastly superior numbers, cold and hunger – yet refused to give in. Their bravery helped to bring about one of the major turning points of the war. So whilst you enjoy your Christmas celebrations please spare a thought for these men, and all others who have fought and died on many Christmas Days in the past to preserve the liberty and freedoms we enjoy.
‘A Fine Balance’ tells the story of the lives of four individuals who are brought together by circumstances. While we learn a lot about their background the main focus of the novel is the political and social situation in India in the 1970’s. Through their relationships with each other and interactions with other people Rohinton Mistry paints a compelling picture of poverty and prejudice in India. The levels of corruption and injustice portrayed in the novel give a sense of the hopelessness of life for many, yet the fact that the poorest characters can find a joy in their lives which evades those of a higher social standing is humbling.
This is a novel which tells the truth of the brutality if a government which could force sterilization on people in an effort to control the population; and the brutality of people who , by a simple accident of birth, found themselves in a position of power. The title ‘A Fine Balance’ is well chosen as Mr Mistry balances this darkness with a lightness and humour from both the characters and their situations. As one who has lived in India for the last few years I found many of the descriptions incredible accurate – from the chaos of the courthouse and other official institutions to the busy streets, chaotic trains and remote village life.
Sadly, my experience tells me that although the caste system is now illegal in India it is still all pervading, and it would not be difficult to imagine aspects of this story happening today. Yet alongside this the humour, love and hope which Mr Mistry describes are still there and the road to change, which often seems too long and slow, is still progressing.
The only aspect of this novel which I found difficult was the number of coincidences which occurred, bringing minor characters into the story at frequent intervals which are unlikely to happen in life. Having said that, I recognise that these characters and their meetings are an essential part of the story which Mr Mistry is telling, so if you can set aside the coincidences and accept the truths that the characters bring to the story it will not spoil your enjoyment.
‘A Fine Balance’ is a well written novel with deeply nuanced characters, all the more real to me as I see in them much that reminds me of the Indians I know and love. It is well structured, invoking a sense of place so that we can almost feel the heat, smell the streets, taste the food, bathe in the dust or rain. This is a novel which shows the real India, where life can be hard for all but the most wealthy; it is therefore interesting that the character who has the easiest life, the best situation, finds it the most difficult to cope. As for the reader, I think we can all learn from the attitude of the main characters, and Indians in general – life is not easy, we all face difficulties challenges and heartaches; what defines us though is how we face what life throws at us, and move on.
‘A Fine Balance’ is up there as one of my favourite novels about India, alongside ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. Anyone who wants to try to understand the complexities, mysteries and universal truths of India presented by an author with an exceptional command of language should read this novel.
Do you ever wonder where nursery rhymes come from? Although they are simple songs to children today they are often based on difficult or unpleasant times in the past; for instance, ‘Ring a ring o’ roses’ is said to be about the Back Death which devastated the population of England in the Middle Ages. But what about Humpty Dumpty? Who was he, why was he sitting on a wall, and what made him fall?
The general consensus amongst historians is that this nursery rhyme originated during the English Civil War. By 1648 King Charles I had been captured by the Parliamentarians and was being held prisoner. In the hope of freeing him the Royalists planned an invasion of England by a Scottish army, those in England who supported the King were to rise up at the same time. But the Scottish invasion was delayed, the Royalist forces in the east of England were attacked by Lord-General Fairfax and retreated behind the walls of Colchester. Fairfax surrounded the city and a siege began.
The siege lasted from 12th June to 28th August 1648. In defence of the city several artillery pieces were set up on the walls. The biggest gun was placed on the walls of St Mary’s Church. This gun was one of the largest at the time and so called Humpty Dumpty, which was a common nick-name for an overly large (or over weight) person.
On the night of 14th July 1648 Fairfax ordered an attack on the Royalists in Colchester; one focus of the attack was the guns on the walls, particularly Humpty Dumpty. By the end of the night the wall beneath the gun had crumbled, sending it crashing to the ground below. The Parliamentarian forces failed to take Colchester that night, but folklore has it that the failed attack was commemorated in a nursery rhyme about the big gun which was destroyed. The earliest versions of the rhyme differ from what we know today, but its meaning is still clear:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score men and four-score more
Could not make Humpty where he was before.
Despite the deplorable conditions for the people living inside the city walls – things were so bad that people had to resort to eating soap and tallow candles – Colchester continued to hold out until the end of August. The Scottish invasion had eventually come but the army was defeated by Cromwell on 19th August; news of the Parliamentary victory reached Fairfax on 24th August. On the morning of the 28th the defenders of Colchester finally laid down their arms and surrendered.
My novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’ tells the story of the siege of Colchester in detail; a tale of suffering and hardship, of lost hope and defeat. A pivotal moment in British history which few know about yet which is celebrated by English children every day in the nursery rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’.