‘Downton Abbey meets Atonement’: a first look at Kate Williams’s new WW1 novel

Royal historian Kate Williams has released a novel set in the First World War – the first in a series Alison Weir says will delight Downton Abbey fans

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Opening in the early summer of 1914, The Storms of War centres on the de Witt family: Rudolf and Verena are planning the wedding of their daughter Emmeline, while their eldest son, Arthur, is studying in Paris, and Michael is just back from his first term at Cambridge. Celia, the youngest of the de Witt children, is on the brink of adulthood, and secretly dreams of escaping her carefully mapped-out future and exploring the world. For the family, life is somewhat idyllic – until, that is, the onslaught of war.

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Williams follows the de Witts as they find themselves sidelined and in danger of losing everything they hold dear. Celia, struggling to make sense of the changing world around her, lies about her age to join the war effort, and finds herself embroiled in a complex plot that puts not only herself, but those she loves, in danger.

Here, Williams shares with History Extra her inspiration for The Storms of War, and we bring you an extract of the book, which is due to be released on 12 March:

I started writing The Storms of War because I was fascinated by the lives of Germans in the period. Throughout the 19th century, the Germans had been seen by the British as friends – unlike the supposedly untrustworthy and belligerent Catholic French. The royals married Germans (and were Hanoverians themselves), and Britain was full of Germans who came to the country to live and work – as tailors, music tutors, waiters, butchers, bakers and shopkeepers. They set up businesses, married into English families, and helped to fuel the booming 19th-century economy.

And then came an increasing mistrust of the kaiser and his government. Shows were staged in public places about fantasy invasions – perfect English villages attacked by furious German soldiers. But, for many, it remained just that – a fantasy. The Germans living in England paid little heed.

Then, almost overnight, everything changed. After the declaration that Britain and Germany were at war, the Germans in Britain were suddenly the enemy. The Defence of the Realm Act (8 August 1914) stated that Germans were either deported, interned or prohibited from visiting certain parts of the country, and in November 1914 it was decided that Germans were not allowed to live in prohibited areas on the south and east coast.

Initially the government resisted the call to intern German men, but the pressure from Lord Northcliffe’s newspapers was strong. A number of Germans employed by top London hotels were fired, and the Daily Mail told readers: “If your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport.” By May 1915, after riots against German businesses and spy fever had gripped Britain, the government bowed to pressure and agreed to a policy of civilian internment whereby all adult male enemy aliens between the ages of 17 to 55 were interned.

I was fascinated by the lives of Germans in England. How could a half-English, half-German family survive? And after finding wonderful documents and diaries from such families in a few record offices and collections, I began to write their story…

 

Prologue

December 1916

Michael was shaking. If he held his hand, then it was his leg; if he stilled that, then his back wobbled, like a string waved about from one end only. He sat at the back of the trench and felt his body quiver in the freezing air. The whole place was quiet save for the movements of the men, the scrabbling of the rats over the discarded bits of food. Only he was making sounds: his knees knocking together, his teeth chattering. What a joke that normally was – knees knocking. He had laughed at actors playing fake fear on stage, hands popped over mouths, legs quavering. And now here he was, a caricature, and none of it was funny because he just couldn’t stop. A tin can fell to the floor and he jumped in horror. The scream was out of his mouth before he knew it. The men turned around. He looked down and a large rat had knocked over Orchard’s billy mug. The men turned back to their positions. That was the most shaming thing of all. Now they hardly noticed him, took it for granted.

It was even worse when there were no bombs. When there was shelling, all the men were shaking, even Orchard. In the silence, it was just him.

Orchard manoeuvred himself beside him. ‘It’s coming up to time, sir,’ he said, tapping his watch. ‘No orders to the contrary so far?’ He was a squat, cheerful man, worked for the fire brigade in Wapping. Michael knew he was beyond fortunate with his second in command. ‘Don’t you worry, sir,’ Orchard said when Michael was holding his gun upside down or had sent the men the wrong way. ‘You’ll pick it up in half a tick.’ Michael made himself do things he hated, so as not to let down Orchard and his beaming face. ‘No, Orchard. No orders to the contrary.’

‘Right, chaps! Attention. Corporal Witt wishes to issue a command.’ The trench was silent. From a distance, you could just hear the French shouting on parade and the boom of the miners making another trench. Michael thought – just for a moment – that he heard a woman singing. Perhaps one of the cooks, although it sounded too delicate for a domestic. He strained for the notes, but there was a gust of wind and they were lost. Orchard looked at his watch. Michael tried to still his shaking hands. ‘Over!’ a voice shouted. ‘Over the top, men!’ It was his. It wasn’t loud enough.

‘Don’t worry, sir,’ said Sergeant Orchard. ‘The wind ate up your voice that time. I will give it a proper shout so the chaps know what’s what.’

‘Thank you,’ Michael tried to say. But his voice was shaking too and it could not get out. Orchard stood up. ‘All right, men,’ he shouted. ‘We’re going over. As the captain said, we’ll have fire cover from the top and the barbed wire will be cut. You’ll be as safe as houses.’ He put up his arms. ‘One, two, three, GO!’

Michael held his gun, willed himself to go forward.

 

1914

One

Stoneythorpe, Hampshire, Saturday 1st August 1914

‘There you are!’ Emmeline was pulling apart the willow branches, poking in her perfect, entirely regular nose. ‘Mama wants you. Michael’s American friend has arrived early. And she’s fussing about the party.’

Celia looked to the side so the white and silver of the pond was sharp on her eyes. ‘I’ll come in a moment.’

‘Now, Mama says.’ Emmeline kicked at the soil with her boot. ‘Come along. I think I was good to even try to find you back here. It’s so dirty.’ Celia pulled herself out of the willows, ignoring Emmeline’s hand. ‘I don’t know what Mama is thinking, allowing Michael to invite this Jonathan person. We’ve quite enough to do, with the party and my wedding.’

None of us cares about your stupid wedding, Celia wanted to say. Not that it would be true. ‘Let them try to mock us now,’ Rudolf had said, pulling on his beard. ‘My wife was the daughter of Lord Deerhurst and my daughter is to be Lady Bradshaw.’ She scraped her boots in the grass and followed her sister up to the house.

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Emmeline walked ahead, her pale pink skirt snaking after her – she was wearing out her old dresses in preparation for her trousseau. The house beckoned to them, the squat frontage of the servants’ hall, the breakfast and dining rooms and the back of the sitting room, its long, pale windows glinting in the sun, the Hampshire stone flashing coolly behind. In summer, Celia would usually be in the Black Forest, visiting her second cousins, Hilde and Johann. ‘We will make a longer visit next year,’ Rudolf had said. ‘When the international situation has calmed.’ She blushed to herself that she had been secretly relieved. From the age of eight, she had spent two weeks there with her siblings, but now they said they were too old for it, and last year Celia had gone alone. They had done the things that would look like fun to anyone seeing them from outside: fishing for sticks in the river by their house, taking rides with their groom and listening to the gramophone in the parlour. But Johann had been awkward with her and Hilde had wanted to be alone and not talk. ‘She is just growing, dear,’ Aunt Lotte had said. ‘She wishes to be quiet to think.’