Sebastian Faulks: I'll never forget how my personal Birdsong saga began


I well remember this assignment. I was literary editor of The Independent at the time, but enjoyed getting out of the office whenever possible. I had been interested in the First World War for a long time, so when the idea of this trip to France was proposed I was quick to volunteer.

At this time my second novel The Girl at the Lion d'Or was about to be published. It was set in 1936, but had necessitated some research into the First World War and its effects on France. Being brought up in England and taught at school by people who could remember the Great War or who had lost brothers, fathers or friends in it had also made me curious. What intrigued me was how unwilling they seemed – even in the 1960s – to talk about it.

Many books about the war came out in 1988, the 70th anniversary of the armistice. One or two of them dealt with the underground conflict – the mining operations under no-man's-land. I had always felt that if I ever dared to set a novel during this war I ought to bring something new, or at least little known, to the background; and the story of the tunnellers – brave but reticent men – seemed to be a possibility.

The trip to France described in this piece was also crucial in that it enabled me to meet men who had been there and fought. I knew they would all be dead soon. It was not their stories that I wanted, it was a sense of legitimacy.

I remember the mud curling over the rim of our shoes as "Doc" Wilson stood with me at Aubers Ridge. He was holding my hand. At the moment that he told me about burying his friend, the war seemed to stop being "history" and to become real. It was a privilege to meet these stoical and modest men. I will never forget them. And in an odd way we had fun together.

Sebastian Faulks was a journalist at ‘The Independent’ from 1986 to 1991