Why I wrote Two Trees

In Two Trees the Brownleader family is based on my paternal grandparents and their children; the central character John Brownleader is inspired by my father, Charles Edwin Greenhough, who as a young soldier served on the Western Front in 1918 and was taken prisoner of war by the Germans

The novel Two Trees is a fusion of many strands. In principle it is a tribute to my father, Charles Edwin Greenhough, whom I never knew. I have no idea what he would have thought about the final book; in some ways he would not have approved of any depiction of his time on the Western Front and his incarceration in a German prisoner of war camp in 1918. Like many survivors of the First World War he would almost certainly want to distance himself from this painful time and to look to the future rather than reflect on the past. However, I hope that he would accept that his experience and survival is worthy of recording and even celebrating.

Despite my background as a teacher of history I did not want to write a ‘history book’ as such. By using the experience of my father’s time on the Western Front in France in 1918 as a basic spine, the format of a novel allowed me to explore and speculate on a number of areas of family life and contrasting attitudes and circumstances. Given that I have never written a novel before this whole project proved to be a steep learning curve. Of course, the success of the whole exercise rests very much with the opinion of the reader.

Field Guns outside Arras – Western Front 1917 – the Arras sector plays a significant role in Chapter Seven of Two Trees

Aspects of the story are based on snippets of information that were mentioned in family circles together with my own research. However, some of what is presented in Two Trees is a complete invention. For instance, unlike John Brownleader in Part Two of the novel, my father never met in person his German rescuer. But in essence I suspect that such a meeting took place many times in my father’s mind, as apparently he always acknowledged that the Germans had saved his life.

In the novel I wanted to examine and present a number of different angles to father’s experience on the Western Front. This included taking part in the Allied advances on the heavily defended German Hindenburg Line in the Arras area of France in the summer of 1918, being taken prisoner by the enemy, being taken to a German field hospital and subsequently to a prisoner of war camp.

A German field hospital which is included in Chapter Seven of Two Trees – my father encountered such a place

I also wanted to explore the relationship of my paternal grandparents with their children during the challenging months of 1918 back home in the Black Country area of England. As one example the novel finds Edward, the character based on my grandfather, starting the year in one position but shifting to a very different position by the end: he realises that his world, and the world around him, will never be the same again when the war ends with the Armistice.

In another way Two Trees is a narrative seen through the eyes of the two young children Hannah and George, based on my youngest aunt and uncle. The novel is not a children’s story but rather an interpretation of a changing situation seen through a very different set of lenses; in the story the children display a wisdom and insight that the adults somehow do not muster. One of the challenges of writing the children’s contributions was to try to make them authentic and not to present Hannah and George as just mini-versions of their elder siblings or their parents; whether I have achieved this is open to opinion.

A contemporary picture of a Black Country bakery (complete with children) very similar to the one run by my grandparents and featured in Two Trees

Any novel about war is very often seen through masculine eyes. There are exceptions of course, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is one example. In Two Trees there are a number of quite strong but also compassionate women who play significant roles in the story. Take out the central character of John, based on my father, and the parts played by the children and you are left with a large contribution played by the female characters. Much has been written about the role and contribution of women to the war effort between 1914 and 1918; Two Trees discusses some of these aspects but centres more on the chemistry between the family members and other friends. Again, whether I have presented these characters in an authentic way is open to opinion.

Women’s Central Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford,1918 – Flora Lion (source: ‘Art from the First World War’ – Imperial War Museum)

As Two Trees unfolds all of the characters have to assess their on-going opinion of ‘the enemy’. Given that my father acknowledged that the Germans saved his life, I wanted to present the principle German character, Frank Muller, as a genuinely compassionate individual; I even wanted to give the Commandant of the prisoner of war camp a humane side in the way that he treats John immediately prior to the Armistice in November 1918. Maybe creating the characters Frank and his wife Sylvie to be of Jewish heritage was not really necessary. However, I wanted to demonstrate that Jewish individuals served in the German Army under Kaiser Wilhelm II; this is something that we always acknowledged on Battlefield Tours of France and Belgium that my colleagues and I undertook when I was teaching.

A First World War Jewish grave in a German Cemetery

There are some controversial areas in the novel. In Two Trees Ada’s father, Henry Bailey, indicates that any children from his daughter’s marriage to John will only be ‘cannon fodder’ in another world war. In reality my father and his first wife Frida never had any children largely because Frida’s state of health may have prevented them from having a family. However, in Two Trees Henry Bailey’s thinking was not an isolated school of thought in 1919. The Americans and some of the French military believed that the Armistice in November 1918 was premature and that the German population would only genuinely accept defeat when Allied troops occupied Berlin; a lesson that was subsequently learned in 1945. Even in the summer of 1919 there were those who believed that the Versailles Treaty with Germany sowed the seeds for a future European conflict as the contemporary cartoon of May 1919 below demonstrates.

The ‘Tiger’ is Georges Clemenceau (France), the figure at the back is David Lloyd George (Britain), then Vittorio Orlando (Italy) and right Woodrow Wilson (United States of America); known as the ‘Big Four’ these were the principle politicians who negotiated the Treaty of Versailles between the Allies and Germany in 1919

Criticism of Two Trees could easily centre on the fact that in parts there is too much dialogue between particular characters. In many ways this is deliberate as I wanted to eavesdrop through the novel’s characters on conversations between my grandparents, aunts and uncles that in reality I could not entertain myself. In real life I was aware of most of these people, with the exception of my paternal grandfather, but I did not know them intimately. For instance, as a child I often went to visit my Uncle Alf (the inspiration for William in the novel) but I had no idea at the time that he had been in the Royal Flying Corps. I wish that I could talk to him now and give him copy of the novel.

Throughout my own life I have no idea, genuinely no idea, what my father was like as a person. I have absolutely no concept of what it is like to have the influence of a father as he died when I was extremely young. I never felt deprived as a child or as a teenager; it was only much later in life that I realised that there was something ‘missing’ as such. I hope that Two Trees is a suitable tribute to him, his family and who they represented. Equally, my mother, my father’s second wife, never lived to read the novel.

My father, Charles Edwin Greenhough

1897 – 1954

Writing Two Trees is an exercise that I am pleased to have attempted and completed and I must acknowledge the support of my wife Chris in this whole project. I hope that my father would feel happy to accept Two Trees if I should ever meet him in another place and at another time; I think that he was a rather remarkable man.

GJG

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