December 22, 2014

Jim Hay goes to war.

A century ago this Christmas, Jim Hay and hundreds of thousands of other boys were beginning their basic training and learning what army life was like. It was still all a game for many, but in the years to come they would discover the true horror that they had signed up for.

Since the death of his father in action, Jim Hay has been struggling with his desire to join the army. He stays at home for his sick mother and because Anne, the girl he is falling in love with, doesn't want him to go. His best friend Iain is keen to go and in September Anne gives him permission, but still he hesitates. Below, from Jim Hay's diary in And in the Morning, is how he finally decides to join up.

Tuesday, September 22, 1914.
Mother the same. Anne is being wonderful, as is her father. I have always thought him a bit odd with his socialist views, but he is truly very kind—and not in the conventional ways of kindness that one might expect in these circumstances. His way is to talk about something completely unrelated to Mother’s illness and take our minds off the worry. Sometimes it works. This evening he told us stories of Canada. Anne was too young to remember much, so we both sat enthralled, transported for a short while to a different world—of wide open spaces, and mountains and forests, of skating on the river in winter and canoeing in the summer. It seems a magic place.
Anne’s father also has the habit of reading a poem after supper. I know little of poetry, being aware only of Mr. Kipling’s verse, Sam McGee and the like. Today we were treated to a new poem published only yesterday in the Times newspaper. I had never heard of the poet, a Mr. Binyon, but then neither had Anne nor her father.
The poem was about the war, but not the drums and battles. I think of it as talking about Father, and I have cut it out to keep. It is called “For the Fallen,” and I find the middle verses comforting:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

Wednesday, September 23
Mother died last night. The nurse said she just slipped away, moments before Anne and I arrived. Mother looked so peaceful. Her eyes were closed and her hands had finally ceased their polishing. Everyone is being so kind.

Friday, September 25
Mother’s funeral. The last few days have been a blur. I am a different person than I was but a few weeks ago. I have lost Father and Mother. I am alone.

Saturday, September 26
A letter today about Father's death.

September 14, 1914
Dear Madam,
Please excuse this letter from a stranger, but I am writing to express my deepest regret at the sad loss of your husband, Lieutenant William Hay. It is my hope that the news I can give will be a comfort to you in your grief.
On September 13 last, my company was a part of the Highland Light Infantry attack across the River Aisne. Our first attacks were thrown back by heavy enemy fire. Throughout it all, Lieutenant Hay exerted himself to the fullest and was a credit to his comrades and his unit.
By midday, we were back in our rough trenches, being shelled, and there were a number of casualties lying in the open. One man was delirious and calling for his wife. Although the rifle fire was heavy, Lieutenant Hay crawled out to help him and began dragging him back. But the movement attracted attention and the man was hit again and killed. Lieutenant Hay was also hit in the chest, but fell back into the trench. There was little his men could do for him. He remained conscious and cheerful until he died peacefully an hour or so later. His last words were for you and Jimmy.
Lieutenant Hay will be sorely missed. Please rest assured that he performed his duty with the utmost gallantry.
Yours in Sympathy,
Arthur Roberts, Captain

Strange, but I felt more emotion reading of Father’s last hours in a letter from a complete stranger than I have all this week. Is something wrong with me? I have not been able to cry for my mother. Perhaps insanity runs in the family. All Mother’s odd behaviour long before we heard of Father’s death. And her hysterics that Father told me of. It must all have been insanity. I am ashamed and scared. Anne told me it was all perfectly natural, but her kindness does not really help. I will have this hanging over me my whole life.
I showed Captain Roberts’ letter to Iain. He read it through twice and went very quiet. Then he said that he had decided to go to the recruiting office on Monday morning. He has waited this long because of Mother’s illness. What am I to do? I think back on Father’s words—almost his last to me—about only fools and fanatics rushing off to war.

Sunday, September 27
I have decided—fool or fanatic, I am going to sign up with Iain tomorrow. What is there to stop me now? Only Anne, and she has given her permission. I cannot stay here. I will join Father’s regiment and take his place.
I have reread this diary and find it difficult to believe my childish entries of only a few weeks ago. I am ashamed of my schoolboy enthusiasm, but I will keep this book. Perhaps I shall even write in it again one day, but for now I must concentrate on other things. Tomorrow I will be a soldier.

October 11, 1914
Gailes Camp, Ayrshire
Dear Anne,
Just a note to let you know that Iain and I have arrived safely. No uniforms or rifles yet, but we have 1000 bars of soap, so we shall be clean. We are in F Company, Glasgow Boys’ Brigade Battalion (officially, the 2nd City Battalion, 16th Highland Light Infantry), about 200 lads, mostly from Paisley. Hugh is here also. Was he ever surprised to see us!
Will write when I can.
Best regards from your dear friend,

And in the Morning is available in bookstores everywhere and online as a paperback or eBook from, and

August 3, 2014

Jim's first diary entry from And in the Morning

Tuesday, August 4, 1914

It’s going to be war! Germany has invaded Belgium! Unless they stop, we will be at war by tomorrow! It is all anyone can talk about.
       Yesterday, Mother, Father and I took the train to the beach at Largs for the Bank Holiday. My friend Iain came too. He lives with his elderly Aunt Sadie, who is a delightful character but has no time for the holiday crowds at the seaside. The beach was crowded—even war cannot prevent a Bank Holiday—and the water superbly cold after our time in the hot sun. The carriage on the train back to Paisley was full of brave soldiers hurrying to report to their depots for service. They were so cheerful and ardent, smoking, laughing and singing songs. With the exception of “Tipperary,” Mother did not wish us to listen closely to the words! Father was unusually quiet. He is in the reserves, so his call-up papers will arrive any day now. Then he will get his chance to fight.
       What an adventure this war is, and so close on the heels of Shackleton’s departure to cross the Great Frozen Antarctic Continent. Shackleton is my hero, but even his noble enterprise cannot compare to this! I am so excited I can barely sit still long enough to write this page—but I must. I promised I would begin a diary this summer, and what better day to begin than this???

The voice of a fifteen-year-old boy in 1914, fictionalized from research done in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. 

And in the Morning is available as an eBook through; and

and this fall as a new paperback edition.

July 31, 2014

Wings of War—Sample

It's Late July, 1914 and Edward Simpson is watching his uncle fly his latest invention around a prairie field.

"The snap of the high-tension wire giving way echoes like a gunshot over the flat prairie field. Abby, the chestnut mare I’ve ridden over from my folks’ place, twitches her ears and looks up. Above her an extraordinary contraption of wood, fabric and wire wobbles dangerously. I see where the wire’s gone—it’s about halfway along the right wings. Both twist oddly, and my uncle Horst, crouching on the old tractor seat in the middle of the plane, wrestles with the controls, fighting to find a balance between too much speed, which will rip the weakened wings off, and too little, which will stall the flight. Either way the plane will plummet to the ground—certain death for my uncle from over seventy feet up.
          I hold my breath and clench my fists as I watch. The rough coughing sound of the engine comes and goes as the machine bucks and turns. The plane clears the trees around the farmhouse and sinks slowly toward the stubble field beside the barn. Horst is winning his battle for control! I let my breath out as the large baby-carriage wheels touch down. Almost immediately, the contraption lurches to the right, the lower wing tip touches the ground and, with a loud snapping sound, the wings fold up like crumpled paper. The engine races wildly and the propeller shatters, sending knife-like pieces of wood slashing through the air."

Edward's uncle survives the crash and begins to plan his next flying machine. As Edward rides home, he imagines what it would be like to soar with the birds in the coming war.

 "I ride Abby the four miles home at a walk, wondering, dreaming and questioning. The late afternoon sky is clear, with only a few puffy white clouds hugging the horizon. It’s endless and so much more interesting than the flat land that stretches away from me on all sides. I focus on a red-tailed hawk far above, his broad wings motionless as he soars effortlessly in lazy circles. How far can he see? He owns the world. Of course, he doesn’t need a heavy, smelly engine thumping and roaring away to keep him up there, but that’s a price I would gladly pay to fly…
            In my daydream I’m up there with the hawk. I can see the railway line stretching off to the east and west, the grain elevators of Mortlach and Parkbeg rising up to break the monotony. The wheat fields are a patchwork quilt below me, and the occasional cows mere toys. There’s Old Man Dudek driving his buggy into town to sell eggs and pierogies. I feel as if I could reach down and pick him up. That would surprise him! I could even drop a bag of flour on him for a joke. Or a bomb.
            My daydream becomes darker and I imagine armies marching back and forth across the fields—long, curving lines of men in red and blue uniforms snaking toward one another. Cavalry troops, their helmets and breastplates gleaming in the sun, sweep out in front, probing for the enemy. Cannons are unlimbered, and puffs of dark smoke rise from their muzzles. Shells explode redly among the soldiers. I can almost hear the thunder of the explosions, the crack of the rifles and the screams of the wounded. Is this what it would be like? Is this what airplanes are going to be used for?"

Edward learns to fly and goes to war, but he soon discovers that his love of flying is not enough as he battles for his life in the skies over France.

Download a longer excerpt or pick up a copy at or Amazon.

January 13, 2014


Private S/14143 R. S. Hay, 7th Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, Loos, France

This is one of the names carved on the wall of the First World War cemetery at Loos in France. The wall commemorates the 23,000 British and Empire soldiers who died at the battle in the surrounding fields in September 1915, and whose bodies were never found or identified.

This young man, Richard Symons Hay, was born in Ayr, Scotland on February 25, 1897. He lied about his age in August 1914 and joined the 7th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. After training, Richard and his mates sailed for France on July 8, 1915. On September 25, the battalion was in support of the first waves of the attack at Loos.

At first things went well and the 7th Battalion followed the attack through the German first lines, past the bodies of those who and fallen in the first waves and the ruined town of Loos. They climbed Hill 70, where they came under heavy fire from ahead and on the flanks. With the remnants of other units, they held Hill 70 until nightfall, when they were relieved. When the roll was taken on September 26, there were 6 officers and 290 other ranks from the 20 officers and 827 men who had set off 24 hours before. Richard was not one of them.

I tell this story because Richard Hay was my wife's great uncle. His photograph, fresh-faced and proud in his new kilted uniform, hangs on my living room wall and three of my four books set in WWI are dedicated to him—one even has his photograph on the cover.

So this blog, in which I shall talk about my existing and upcoming WWI books, upload extracts and tell stories, is dedicated to Richard Hay.

Lest we forget.