Author talk: Richard Van Emden

Posted on Wednesday 6th April 2016

Warfare Magazine interviewed best-selling Great War author Richard van Emden. Having published 18 far... it is difficult to find another author that is so invested in taking the time to research the people of war rather than focusing solely on the battles of war. Richard makes time to visit the Somme and Ypres every year, and has done since 1985.

Where did your interest in the first world war come from?

In 1984 my mother asked me what I would like for Christmas and, knowing nothing about the Great War, I asked for a biography by a soldier who had fought. She bought me Goodbye to all That by Robert Graves and from the moment I read the book I was hooked on the War. I can recall going into a bargain bookstore and looking at the Great War section and thinking ‘if I buy a book on the Great War, using my own money,’ (and I was an impoverished student back then), ‘then this will be the start of something big’. In my ignorance I bought a book that I would not give a second look at now, but that started a hobby that became a passion that became a career.

You have written 18 books on the war so far. What was your first?

Originally I wanted to find out as much as I could about the subject but that was a long way off from actually publishing anything. And then I met Ben Clouting, a former trooper in the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards. He had enlisted aged 15 in 1913, sailing to France with the Regiment a year later. His Squadron was accredited with taking part in the first action of the war, and Ben’s troop, 4th Troop, was in the thick of things. The last witness to the first action of the British Expeditionary Force in France lived two miles from my home! Over the following two years I visited him almost every Sunday, recording his memories of that first shot and of the Retreat from Mons. He served on the Western Front for four years, so it was clear to me that such an extraordinary witness was surely the perfect subject for a memoir and I approached publishers with his story. In 1995 it was published under the title Tickled to Death to Go, and was re-released a couple of years ago with a new cover and title by Pen and Sword Books. Now it is called Teenage Tommy. It is a book for which I have great affection. Sadly, Ben Clouting did not live to see his story published. At that time I did not believe I would write anything else.

Clearly your best-known book is The Last Fighting Tommy but how did you first meet Harry Patch?

In my search for ‘new’ veterans, I came across a magazine called the Caring Times. This was an industry magazine, and ran features and adverts about anything and everything that could be of interest to those who ran residential homes for the elderly. At the back of the magazine was a small column that wished those who were turning 100 years of age a very happy birthday. The names of these centenarians were given to the magazine for publication by the care homes themselves, so, for example, it might say ‘Happy birthday Mrs Mavis Bell,’ and it would add the name of the home in which he or she lived. Usually, every month amongst the list of names would be one of a man, and one day Harry’s name appeared under Fletcher House in Wells, his care home. I rang the home, asked whether he was a Great War veteran and if he would talk to me. Harry had never spoken about the war to anyone and this was the first occasion he agreed to speak about his service. So I met Harry a few weeks after his 100th birthday and we became friends, a friendship that would last an astonishing 11 years.

'I met Harry Patch a few weeks after his 100th birthday and we became friends, a friendship that was to last an astonishing 11 years.'

how did you come to interview so many veterans of the great war?

I interviewed over 270 soldiers (and nurses) who served overseas during the Great War. The first veterans I met lived at the famous Chelsea Pensioners' building in London, and it was through talking to them that I became so keen to meet as many as I could before they all died. I set myself a target of 250 and during my years at university and afterwards, I went and knocked on the doors of residential homes and simply asked if there were veterans living there and whether they would talk to me. Back in the late 1980 and early 1990s I managed to meet other veterans simply because friends got to know of my interest and would tell me that a relative or a neighbour had served and was still alive. On one occasion, a friend told me he had sat next to a 93 year old veteran of the Durham Light Infantry on a bus from Edinburgh. He took the man’s telephone number and he passed it on to me. A big breakthrough came around 1998 when the French Government drew up a list of surviving veterans eligible to receive the country’s award of the Légion d’ Honneur. I helped to add many names to the list and, in doing so, I was also given access to other old soldiers of whom I was unaware . Finally, as the number declined, I was able to interview many veterans in countries as far away as Australia and Canada, filming them for documentaries culminating in the three-part BBC1 documentary about the last Great War veterans, ending in 2009 with ‘The Last Tommy’, shown shortly before the death of Harry Patch, the last infantryman of the war.

how did you go about interviewing the veterans that you met?

I had no idea about interview technique and frankly I am embarrassed at what I asked many of the veterans I first met. For a while I simply took notes and the veterans talked. Then, at the end of our meeting, I would ask if I could take a picture of my interviewee and also asked for his or her signature, getting them to add details such as rank, number and regiment. Very often, former soldiers added details such as the battles in which they fought or when they had embarked for the Western Front. One day I went to Nottingham to interview a veteran called Donald Price who had served with the 20th Royal Fusiliers. He was so fascinating and articulate, that I realised that taking notes was hopeless and so I bought a tape recorder, From then on, all the veterans I met were recorded for posterity, although I am still mortified at my naive questions when I occasionally listen to interviews conducted 25 years ago.

Richard Van Emden. (Photograph by Jonathan Ring)

'It started as a hobby that became a passion that became a career.'

Did any of the veterans you met become less like interviewees and more like family?

Absolutely. I became very attached to some veterans, men who became very close friends even though I knew them for a relatively short time. Whenever I stop to think about the old soldiers, perhaps on Remembrance Sunday, I think of five in particular: Ben Clouting, Harry Patch, Vic Cole, Andrew Bowie and Stan Clayton. All these men were wonderful characters. Andrew Bowie lived near Sydney in Australia and yet his Scottish accent was still astonishingly strong. He had served with the Cameron Highlanders on the Somme and fought at most of the battles of 1917 and 1918. I was fortunate to visit and film him and I never missed the chance, when visiting Hardecourt on the Somme, to call him from this village in which he was once billeted. Vic Cole and Stan Clayton were what I called 'old school veterans': strong, tough men, Vic a street-wise lad from South London, Stan a no-nonsense boy from Sheffield. Both spoke frankly about their service with no pretences and, I felt, trusted me with stories that were perhaps not told to everyone else. Both men were intelligent and always carefully considered and answered my questions. I felt I lost a lot when these men died.

Of all the books you have had published, which one has been most pleasurable to research and write?

Without a doubt, Boy Soldiers of the Great War. This was a story that came to me as I walked around the cemeteries of France and Belgium. I kept seeing the graves of lads, many aged 16 or 17, and I began to wonder why so many had clearly enlisted under-age in the army. What I did not foresee was that absolutely nothing had been written on the subject: there was no book to which I could refer so as to get me started. I had to generate the entire story; I had to go away and work out what I would need to include. In many ways it was the most pure research I have ever done, working out what the bigger picture should look like but without any idea of whether I had all the constituent pieces. Stories such as the campaign by a Member of Parliament, Sir Arthur Markham, who fought a political battle to stop the youngest lads going overseas, was a remarkable discovery and gave my book an entirely new dimension alongside the stories of the young lads who fought and in many cases died on the Western Front.

stay in touch...

Further Reading

The Somme
(Hardback - 356 pages)
ISBN: 9781473855212

by Richard van Emden
Only £25.00

The offensive on the Somme took place between July and November 1916 and is perhaps the most iconic battle of the Great War. It was there that Kitchener’s famous ‘Pals’ Battalions were first sent into action en masse and it was a battlefield where many of the dreams and aspirations of a nation, hopeful of victory, were agonizingly dashed.

Because of its legendary status, the Somme has been the subject of many books, and many more will come out next year. However, nothing has ever been…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Further Reading

Britain's Last Tommies
(Commemorative magazine - 100 pages)
ISBN: 9781848842571

by Richard van Emden
Only £6.99

The final Roll Call of the Great War is complete. There is now no Briton left alive who served in any capacity on the Western Front, nor in any other theatre of war on land. There are no Frenchmen or Belgians, no Russians or Anzacs, no former enemies from Germany, Austria, or Turkey; the war that came to epitomize both the worst of human cruelty and brutality and the best of human endeavour and courage, has finally passed in to history.
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...