Voices from the Somme: History, without the fiction

While we Yanks are firing up our grills for a weekend of patriotic festivities, our mates across the pond observe a much more somber anniversary. Today marks one hundred years since the start of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest episodes in recorded history with approximately one million casualties over six months. IrishCentral.com reported that the diary of a young Irish soldier in the conflict goes on display today. The story is both touching and heartbreaking. Private Thomas “Tommy” Chambers, just 17 years old, recorded his “adventures” with the 36th Ulster Division. He filled only sixteen pages before dying, along with 20,000 others, on July 1, 1916.

Westfront, deutscher Soldat

Soldier at the Battle of Ginchy, September 1916.

Incredibly, his words survived. The hand that wrote them—once as warm and strong as my own—went cold on a French battlefield a hundred years ago, but today I can read their entries for a fleeting glimpse of another reality. I have to remind myself it’s not historical fiction. This really happened. A boy little more than half my age left behind a fragment of himself. Sometimes when I write YA, I pause to question whether my teenaged protagonists would really have the grit and courage to face whatever fictional obstacles I pose them. Then I encounter a true story like that of Tommy Chambers and realize that young people have braved episodes more awful than even my warped writer mind can imagine.

History fascinates me for this reason. Go beyond the tedious parade of dates and timelines drilled into our grade-school minds, and you find real “characters” every bit as engaging as our fictional favorites, who once breathed the same air as we do. Tommy Chambers left us only sixteen pages; how many of his companions left none at all? How many stories will never be told? I suppose this is where fiction finds its worth, exploring territory that can otherwise never be mapped and giving voices to those who otherwise might never speak.

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