When I was in the process of documenting Lt Robert Courtenay Pitman’s Great War account in the manner of a research paper, I would frequently reflect on what it was that drove him to be a warrior in the ‘war to end all wars’. I kept bumping up against scenarios which would strike fear into the average of us, even perhaps the bravest. Sure, it was necessity: the King wanted your service, your friends took up the cause, so why wouldn’t you?
But as the months and years passed for each and every young man, as 1914 turned to 1915, then to 1916, and so on, more than necessity was required to keep playing the game with grit. Was it bravery that was instilled in these men by parental influence or perhaps handed down by generations of bloodline daring? Was it to avoid showing an innate cowardice that caused one to grit teeth and jump in? Or could it have been religious or some other deferential pull that overrode any independent emotion? Courage is such a complex issue that I doubt even psychological experts have a clear answer. Perhaps any of the reasons could have contributed to individual feelings, or a combination of all.
In the context of war, fear clearly factors in to an examination of courage. But this too raises questions: if one is characterized as naturally fearless, are they by definition courageous? If a person has to work hard at overcoming fear in order to achieve fearlessness, is that equally courageous? If a soldier mindlessly ignores fear and plunges into the face of death, is that courageous or just plain stupid? Or conversely, is there a dose of wisdom (ie, making a wise choice) required that precedes a particular brave action that is needed for the act to be courageous? Again, these questions are not intended to be answered in this summary, rather to raise awareness that defining courage is particularly difficult.
Yet, when it came to transitioning a research piece to an historical novel, I had to find a meaningful title which reflected the story line. I moved through ideas like Overcoming Fear and Cheating the Wooden Cross before settling on Seeking Courage. I felt that fear was too negative and cheating implied the soldier was simply lucky. I wanted to not only document one man’s incredible struggle, but present it in a winning light that saw him enter the war with trepidation, and emerge years later with a courage to move forward in life, utilizing his learned experiences to make informed choices.
To achieve that, I first began with issues that cropped up in Pitman’s personal service records and Regimental/Squadron war diaries, all of which proved to be a wealth of data: the training to be an officer, arriving at the front, moving into battle for the first time, flying for the first time (when manned flight had existed for a mere 12 years), operating a machine gun in flight, bombing over enemy targets at night, withstanding freezing temperatures and wind at 8,000 feet, and so on. From there other examples of courage presented themselves: overcoming the social taint of venereal disease, learning to love a girl from whom that disease was contracted, surviving shell shock, surviving through a forced aircraft landing, and overcoming the plight of a German POW camp.
Much of Bob Pitman’s ability to overcome fear and seek courage was through Cissy, who taught him sensitivity and love, becoming his talisman to believe in on his many night bombing runs. We all know that love is a powerful force, and that only grows exponentially during war. Cissy is a pivotal character in Seeking Courage and on purpose an icon of strength, industriousness and beauty.