15 September 1993 Sebastian Faulks visits the killing fields of Flanders, the backdrop to his new and acclaimed novel, Birdsong

In 1988 I was sent by a newspaper to report on the 70th anniversary of the Armistice. I went with a party of veterans organised by the historian Lyn Macdonald who, in the 1970s, had seen the danger that most of these old men were dying without ever having told their stories. We stayed in Bethune, in the flatlands of north-eastern France, and I remember being amazed at the passion for tea evinced by these old men. In the morning we drove to the battlefields of Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge, where in 1915 the British launched their first attacks of the war.

The old man sitting next to me on the bus took my hand as he explained how it felt to be wheeled on a general service wagon over rutted ground with the two parts of your shattered leg rubbing together. When we stopped and got off, he showed me where the fire trench had been; he pointed to the German line about 90 yards distant, still marked by the indestructible concrete pillboxes.

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