Monday, June 19, 2017

Guest Post: Historical Details in War of Loyalties: Life on the Homefront in WW1

A friend of mine, Schuyler M., has written a World War I spy novel called War of Loyalties. She kindly agreed to share the fascinating historical background undergirding her story here on Defending the Legacy.

For the past seven years, I’ve been writing novel entitled War of Loyalties. It’s a Dickensian novel with a spy flavor, and today I’m glad to be invited to Defending the Legacy to talk about some of the historical details in its pages. But before I start, let me set the context with the novel description:

April, 1917. A ring of German spies threatens the security of England’s Secret Service. Newly-recruited agent Ben Dorroll must uncover false British agents who are traitors to their country. However, Ben’s secrecy may be the very thing that puts their mission in jeopardy. Unwilling to trust fellow agent Jaeryn Graham with the clues hidden in his family’s broken past, he wants to resign and go back to his medical practice. But success means one last chance at winning the respect of the father he’s never met. And when he learns that his family identity holds the key to capturing the spy ring, Ben has no choice but to unite with Jaeryn Graham so that the truth can be discovered.

In the aftermath of the Irish Rebellion, Jaeryn Graham's British colleagues look warily on his Irish background. Always up for a challenge, he thinks his new mission to investigate the true loyalties of his fellow spies should be an opportunity to prove his prowess. But the agents he has to work with are determined to prove he himself is a traitor. Unless he can win the loyalties of his newest assistant, Ben Dorroll, his secret ambitions and his perfect success record will be destroyed.

War of Loyalties started out rather precariously as historical novels go. I was sixteen at the time, with a thirst for story-writing and characters who were begging to be written about. Aside from choosing early 1900s for the time period, and England for the setting, it didn’t have much in the scholarly way going for it. With the rather tenuous idea that it had to be somewhere along the coast, but not in Dover, I pulled out a map. Folkestone? Ramsgate? It was a coin toss between the two towns. How Folkestone won out, I can’t recall anymore. But it was what I like to call an act of Providence, the first of many in the writing of this book. Folkestone is rich with WW1 history, and I can’t imagine a better setting for the adventure to take place.

Because it took place in WW1, one of the aspects I had to deal with is the history on the micro-level: the clothes characters would have worn, the vehicles, the buildings that existed at the time, whether they used pencils or pens, and all those things we tend to take for granted. I wanted to talk to you today about some cool details that I discovered along the way.

1. Enlistment Law

Doctors of the Great War, by Ian Whitehead, was an invaluable resource for checking out some of the situations in War of Loyalties. Since both of my main characters are young and of draftable age, there has to be a pretty good reason why they’re not on the battlefield.

Jaeryn Graham is born and raised Irish, an agent for six missions with the British Secret Service, and a doctor able to use his medical services for the nation. According to Wikipedia’s “Conscription in the United Kingdom”, Irishmen were not able to be conscripted.
[1] Though to be fair, many, many Irishmen voluntarily enlisted in the War, according to Whitehead. Since Jaeryn’s in Secret Service and Irish, he’s pretty much taken care of, but for an added measure of patriotism, his supervisor gives him two medical practices to maintain instead of one. Jaeryn’s supervisor makes reference to some of these facts in the first scene of the book:
“Excellent. With two medical practices, you should have ample sufficient access to the people you'll need to know. Besides, it would look strange if you only had one, with your colleagues rushing off to the front. As it is, you might get some persecution, being a fit man and not enlisting.”

Jaeryn made no effort to disguise his indifference. “There's not much anyone can do about it. No English bureaucrat can force an Irishman to enlist. It's the law.”

As for Ben, he’s actually a dual citizen, born of an American mother and a British father, and raised for twenty years of his life in America. Technically I don’t think England could have an overwhelming claim on him at this point. All the same, he comes to England because he has the claim of conscience: his father has written to him about a position in the Secret Service, and since it’s an opportunity to meet his father, he feels it’s his duty to go. Since Ben, like Jaeryn, is in secret service and helping run the two medical practices, he also has a patriotic reason to stay on the English home front. 

2. Medical Details

During WW1, doctors in England who had established medical practices didn’t want to lose their practice when they enlisted. Their rights were protected, and the doctors who took over their practices only took the practice over temporarily. The substitute doctor would keep patient records and share the profits with the doctor who actually owned the practice. While Jaeryn owns one medical practice, he holds a second one for Doctor Winfield. This led to a lot of extra work for doctors on the home front. In Ian Whitehead’s Doctors of the Great War, the author referenced a story in which a constable threatened to arrest a doctor. The doctor said he wished the constable would so he could get a break!

Also, Ben’s wife, Charlotte, is a nurse. When she’s in Folkestone, she uses her nursing skills working in a maternity home. While it doesn’t play into the story much, these maternity homes actually existed in Folkestone.

3. The Town of Folkestone

Using real buildings always helps with atmosphere. While a few in this book are fictional, many of them are real as well. Tontine Congregational Church (where the characters attend church), the post office, and the greengrocer’s, are all actual places in the town. While some of the streets are fictional, the Lower Sandgate road where Ben and Jaeryn sometimes see Belgian patients actually had Belgians living there, as I recall. Earlier in the war, Belgians escaped across the English Channel and came as refugees to Folkestone.

Jaeryn’s clinic on Tontine is fictional, but Tontine itself is a real street (more on that in a moment). The Leas, a promenade overlooking the English Channel, where Ben and Charlotte walk, was a real place. They would have seen a lot of soldiers there, as well as guards standing in front of the hotels where the soldiers lodged.

Another interesting historical fact: During the war, the English citizens couldn’t drive with headlights and had to pull curtains after dark. I was glad to find that out for the third draft of the book, because I didn’t know during the second draft, and they were breaking the law due to my ignorance!

In case any readers want to research further, Google is full of vintage postcards and websites devoted specifically to Folkestone. Also, a couple of people developed websites with photos dedicated to the town of Folkestone, and they contain a couple of places mentioned in the War of Loyalties: and

Another invaluable resource was a book called Folkestone During the Great War, 1914-1919, edited by John Charles Carlile. This book gave me so much information in a scene that mentions the soldiers on the Leas, and especially describing the bomb drop and its aftermath in point 5. This details in this article are indebted at many points to that book. 

4. The Royal Victoria Hospital

Another real building, Folkestone’s Royal Victoria Hospital, gets used a couple of times in this story. It became the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1910. Our statewide library system had books solely about this hospital, which I saw as another act of Providence. While I was able to skim through several books, one of the books in particular was called A grand old lady: the history of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Folkestone, 1846-1996, by Martin Easdown. In all the books about the hospital, I was able to look at black and white photographs that helped me picture what it might have been like when the characters were there, especially the men’s ward where one of the characters spends some time.

5. The Easter Rising of 1916

Terry O’Sean, one of the key characters and the source of most of the smiles in this book, is a rebel on the run after the Irish Easter Rising. This was a rebellion in Dublin, which was promptly quashed by the British. A lot of the rebels were imprisoned or executed, but Terry escaped to France, and now he’s back in Folkestone undertaking a secret job that no one can figure out. This Easter Rising, while it doesn’t happen on-screen in the book, adds a layer of conflict in War of Loyalties between English, Irish, and German loyalties. Jaeryn, as an Irishman, has not been convicted of taking part in the Irish rebellion, but because of his nationality, that causes tension with other agents as they wonder where he stands politically. This event and its aftermath will play into the subsequent novels of the War of Loyalties series.

6. The Bomb Drop in Folkestone, May 1917
A Gotha IV bomber of the type that raided Folkestone

One of the early events in the story was a real bomb drop in Folkestone which adds a lot of drama. Germany dropped bombs over Folkestone early one evening, May 25, 1917. Real facts that I included in the story were the fire on Tontine Street, searching through bodies at the morgue, and the tragedy of Tontine Street looking like a battlefield, as well as the memorial service afterward. This event gave Ben, his wife Charlotte, and his sister, Pearl, a stark and dramatic introduction to their new home. Folkestone During the Great War was an invaluable resource with first-hand accounts. 


There are other things, like Webley pistols, the search for information about German dog tags, the tragedy of gas burns, and the convenience of cereal boxes (yes, Jaeryn Graham could actually have purchased breakfast cereal) but I’ll leave those details to be discovered in the book.

War of Loyalties is currently on Kickstarter to raise funds for editing and cover design. The goal is to publish it this year so you can enjoy the story during the centennial of it fictionally taking place. There are only a few days left to make this funding happen, so be sure to
check us out on Kickstarter if this piques your interest!

You can follow the War of Loyalties journey at my
Twitter, Facebook, and blog. Thanks for having me on the blog today, Jordan!

Schuyler McConkey is a teacher, ministry leader, author, and book blogger. She is a passionate advocate for quality literature and reading with Christian discernment, and writes with the happy accompaniment of Celtic folk tunes. Her first book, War of Loyalties, is projected to release November/December this year.

[This was actually the case with author C. S. Lewis.  As an Irish citizen, he was not obligated to join the British army, but chose to do so.  See Lewis's autobiography, Surprised by Joy. ~Jordan]


  1. Wow, super cool! Definitely looking forward to Schulyer's book release!