'The ideas behind Tilly's Promise,' by Linda Newbery

For this activity you'll need to do some research on the poet Sigfried Sassoon, and then do your own piece of extended writing!

Like all authors, I’m often asked “Where do your ideas come from?” and sometimes I know the answer. Or at least an answer.

I had accepted an invitation to write for Barrington Stoke. I knew of the Barrington Stoke books – short, easy to read, many of them aimed at teenagers but with a younger reading age. I’d always thought it would be hard to write such a book in the way I wanted, but thinking of the approaching 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, I agreed to take up the challenge.

It was a hard-hitting Siegfried Sassoon poem that started it off. Here’s the first verse, which I quote at the beginning of Tilly’s Promise:

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark …

The poem is called Suicide in the Trenches, and goes on: He put a bullet through his brain … No one spoke of him again.

For this, Sassoon blames not the enemy, not the generals (though he had plenty to say about them in other poems) but the crowds at home who encouraged boys and young men to go and fight, and jeered if they wouldn’t.

I wondered about a boy like this – who was he? Where did he come from? What finally drove him to despair?

Although there’s no suicide in my book, the simple soldier boy became Georgie, and the story is told by his sister, Tilly, who becomes a nurse. Once I had the idea of Tilly making her sweetheart, Harry, promise to look after Georgie – a promise he’s reluctant to make, for good reason - I had my story.

The publishers, Barrington Stoke, have made a special website called READING WAR, which gives background information to both TILLY’S PROMISE and a story by Tom Palmer called OVER THE LINE. Find the website here: www.readingwar.co.uk

WRITING IDEAS: Find out more about the poet Siegfried Sassoon (from his name you might think he was German, but in fact he was English, with a home in Kent) and what happened to the Military Cross medal he was awarded for bravery. He is known for his blunt, very direct, hard-hitting poems about the First World War.

You could find the whole text of SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES, and see which bits I used, and which bits I left out. You could look at another of his poems, for example MEMORIAL TABLET, and write the beginning of a story based on that – maybe set in the village where Tilly lives with her family, but using a character you make up yourself. It’s an unusual poem in that it speaks from a viewpoint ‘beyond the grave’ – that of a soldier who has been killed in the war. You could try using that in your story.