Dr Jonathan Hicks is the Headteacher of St Cyres Comprehensive School in Penarth. He began his career as an English teacher and has taught in four secondary schools. Married with three sons, one of whom is also a teacher, he is a longstanding supporter of Cardiff City F.C. He is the author of four books on military history: ‘A Solemn Mockery’ on the myths of the Anglo-Zulu War, which in 2006 won the Victorian Military Society’s top award; ‘Strange Hells’ which told the story of his great uncle’s service at Gallipoli and on the Western Front during the Great War. He has also written on his hometown’s military past in the 2007 book ‘Barry and the Great War’ – an illustrated account of the part that Barrians played in that conflict, a lecture on which won the Western Front Association Shield in 2010. In 2008 he wrote an illustrated account on the role Barrians played in WW2 - ‘Barry and the Second World War’. AmeriCymru spoke to Jonathan about his first novel 'The Dead of Mametz'
Jonathan: I met a fellow military historian in a pub in Swansea about ten years ago. He told me all about the battle for Mametz Wood as I had never heard the story before. I visited the location with my family in 2004. It was a bright, sunny day as we made our way past the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery towards the wood. Quite suddenly the clouds gathered overhead and there was a rumble of thunder. Being a teacher, I told my three sons to stand still, close their eyes and imagine what it must have been like when the battle commenced. With that, a bolt of lightning flashed and it was all too much for my youngest who ran back to the car! Since that strange, ethereal moment Mametz Wood has always held a fascination for me.
Americymru: Members of the Western Front Association have described "The Dead of Mametz" as: ‘... a great mix of an intriguing storyline and superb historical detail.’ How did you go about researching the historical background for the book?
Jonathan: I was a brought up on Hollywood’s version of the Second World War – John Wayne and Audie Murphy films. All I knew about WW1 was the black and white films of men moving far too quickly (because of the film speed) through oceans of mud. But as I grew older I became more interested in finding out about WW1. I spent several years in the middle of the last decade gathering the stories of the men and women from my hometown, Barry, who served during the Great War. I then wrote a book entitled ‘Barry and the Great War’ which contained photographs, newspaper accounts and memories of their service. I also held two exhibitions to raise funds to restore our local memorial.
Americymru: What were the Military Police and what was their role during WWI?
Jonathan: At the start of the War the Military Police was a comparatively small force of just 3 officers and 761 men. By the end of the War this number had risen to over 15000. In France their role mainly included the manning of 'stragglers' posts', traffic control, dealing with crime committed by British soldiers, the control of civilians within the battle area, handling prisoners of war and patrolling rear areas and ports. Walking wounded from Regimental Aid Posts were directed to casualty collecting stations for evacuation, and 'stragglers' were dealt with. This last-named duty involved halting soldiers who were obviously neither casualties, signallers or runners, re-arming and equipping them if necessary, and sending them forward to rejoin their units, individually or in groups.
Americymru: What investigatory tools were available to the Military Police at that time in history? How might a murder investigation at that time be different from today and more difficult?
Jonathan: Information on the Military Police during the Great War is scant. It is, for example, not even certain which cap badge they wore. As part of my research I visited the museum of the Military Police and spent time with the curator who was able to help me with some additional information. A murder investigation of the time would have lacked all of the sophisticated tools and technology that is currently employed at a crime scene, but my detective relies on his experience and deduction to solve the murder.
Americymru: In your research, were you able to find records of actual homicide cases investigated by the Military Police?
Jonathan: Actually the homicide case that I based the novel on was one I found in the service record of a local soldier. He had indeed shot two of his colleagues but I changed the motive for the killing in my novel as well as regiments, dates and names.
Americymru: Are you working on another novel?
Jonathan: The second novel in the series is virtually complete and will be published next Spring. This time events are set at Gallipoli in 1915 and at Passchendaele in the summer of 1917, as well as in south Wales. I have the plot for the third in the series sketched out and will be commencing work on it this summer.
Americymru: Who do you read for pleasure or inspiration? Any recommendations?
Jonathan: To give me the background knowledge that enables me to write on the period, I read factual accounts of the Great War, memoirs and articles on militaria. For pleasure I also read the great contemporary American crime thriller writers – Jeffrey Deaver, Harlan Coben and Robert Crais.
Americymru: Where can our readers go to purchase your book online?
Jonathan: ‘The Dead of Mametz’ can be purchased through Amazon or Waterstones, as well as all good bookshops.
Americymru: You are a long standing supporter of Cardiff F.C. Do you think they'll ever make it to the Premier League?
Jonathan: I hope so! I have never seen Cardiff play in the top division in my lifetime, although I did attend their three recent visits to Wembley Stadium. My grandparents went to the 1927 FA Cup Final at Wembley when we beat Arsenal to win the cup. My mother was born exactly nine months later….
Americymru: Any final comment for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Jonathan: I am thrilled at having my first novel published by Y Lolfa and the reviews on Amazon and Waterstones have been very complimentary. I hope that people of Welsh descent who live in America will enjoy the novel and its portrayal of the lives of working people in south Wales at the start of the last century and make them think of the principality. I hope they will also think of the novel the next time they pass a war memorial and as they read the list of names, remember that those men and women once had dreams and hopes for the future.
Theme of the Novel
The strength of this novel is the storyline; it is pacey, exciting and historically accurate, with strong characterisation. One of the themes is the contrast between the lives of men on the Western Front and those of the workers in the industries of South Wales. The wood provides the backdrop to the roles and actions of the characters, showing the contrast, and sometimes conflict, between Nature and Man. It is also a reflection on the greed of men and women, even in a time of war.
Interview by Ceri Shaw Email
War Memorial at Mametz
Interview by Ceri Shaw Email