Author Talk: Mary Hooper, Poppy in the Field
When I was asked to write two books set during the First World War, I felt rather anxious. I knew nothing about the War and nothing about how people lived then - to me they were just remote figures in starched aprons or shapeless khaki uniforms; the men thigh-deep in mud or struggling to stay alive in the trenches. The idea of the Great War exuded none of the glamour of previous topics I’d written about: neither the intrigue of Tudor London nor the romance of the Georgians, just fighting, injuries, horror, death. But I began researching…
At the start of the War, thousands of men volunteered to go into the Army, leaving behind a multitude of women who quickly realised that they were not being utilised enough. They wanted to help the war effort; they knew
they could do much more and at last, in March 1915, the War Office heard them, and women were asked to register for war service work. They were needed to work on the land, or as drivers, in factories, shops and in manufacturing: in fact, they were being asked to take on almost any job which had previously done by a man. One of the biggest changes was to allow women to do heavy and uncongenial work in munitions factories, making the shells that were so desperately needed on the battlefield. The women could manage this all right, but the chemicals used in the manufacture of these shells caused their hair to turn yellow, so that the girls became known as ‘the canaries’. At first they tried to dye their hair back to its rightful colour, but in the end wore their yellow hair with pride: it was proof that they were doing war work.
Doing these difficult jobs in the real world changed women’s lives. As well as giving them independence and the freedom to take whatever work they chose, it also meant they could earn a good regular salary, far above what they might have earned as a waitress or maid (the usual employment at that time for an uneducated girl).
Intrigued by the girls I was reading about, I did more research. I found that at the outbreak of the War, Voluntary Aid Detachments were established across the country by the Red Cross and St John Ambulance, and many girls and women joined up as volunteer nurses. This, I decided, was the career I wanted for the main character in my book, POPPY. She could be a nurse and get to know some of the boys who’d been in the thick of the fighting; she’d undertake nursing duties which previously might have appalled her, she’d hear the casualties’ stories and become involved. She might even fall in love - in fact, she definitely would
fall in love.
In books, museums and on line I found letters, diaries and first hand accounts of what it was really like to live through those years. I discovered stories about nurses on Red Cross trains, ships and in foreign hospitals close to the front line. They were assisting with operations, being attracted to doctors, falling foul of matron, helping cut the uniform off someone with terrible injuries or sitting up all night with someone who was dying. I read about nurses who’d written letters home informing mothers that their son had died, or who’d penned love letters for men who had no arms. I also discovered that, at the start of the War, some big-wig Army generals thought injured soldiers should only be nursed by male orderlies…they didn’t think it “nice” for girls to have to do it. I even found that a newly-qualified female surgeon was told by an Army Major to leave the War to the men - she should go home and sit still!
I finished my research with a real sense of what it must have been like to have been POPPY, or someone very like her, and - this probably sounds ridiculous, but it’s true - I missed her terribly when I finished writing about her.