I think it’s the feeling that the people living through that period were on borrowed time while experiencing an age of great hope, artistic and scientific achievement, and enjoying everything the ‘Belle Epoque’ had to offer. Then they were hit by the great conflagration, that had such catastrophic repercussions for them and the old European order. The results of the events leading up to the First World War can still be seen today in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There’s also still a lot of mystery around the period, in particular the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife which is gold dust for a writer when everyone knows about the period. It gives you the ability to make up your own story in the structure of what actually happened.
Your hero Johnny Swift is a bit of a character. Can you describe him?
Johnny’s 19 in 1914 and a ‘bon vivant’ living beyond his means as a clerk in the Paris Embassy. He’s a social climber desperate to regain the life of luxury he lost as a child. This ultimately makes him brash and reckless, and leaves him open to the scheming of his superiors which gets him into all manner of scrapes. When the stakes are raised, Johnny always tries to redeem himself and do the right thing. He believes in service and advancing his own interests in equal measure. Johnny’s ultimate goal is to make his fortune and become a Conservative MP. Much like his beloved British Empire, Johnny bluffs his way through with a mixture of blind luck, courage and ambition.
Had you always wanted to write a novel and did you plan a trilogy or did it develop?
I’ve always loved stories and making up stories. I’m dyslexic so learning to read was a bit of a challenge so I’d make up my own adventures. The idea of writing a book felt as distant as becoming an astronaut, but I think it was something I had always wanted to do.
I originally planned to write a series that charted the decline of the British Empire from 1914 to the Suez Crises in 1956, but I think I would probably have died before I finished it! I’d also like to write more about the turn of the Twentieth Century and late 1800s. So instead I plan to write shorter series. The overarching theme of the Swift books is the political intriguing around the First World War. Firstly to cause the war, then when deadlock set in to subvert the neutral and opposing countries to break the stalemate.
The story is set around the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – how much was it luck and how much intricate planning and execution?
The circumstances leading up to the assassination were a combination of tragedy and comedy. It certainly wasn’t intricately planned or executed. There was a rough plan to ambush the Archduke’s motorcade, as it travelled to a reception in Sarajevo’s city hall. However only one of the assassins acted. Nedeljko Cabrinovic threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car. After that the return journey was changed to avoid anymore trouble. This wasn’t communicated to the driver of the lead car in the motorcade, with tragic consequences.
Do you think WW1 was inevitable?
Yes, there were a number of diplomatic crises in the period before the assassination that were resolved through negotiation. However the alliance structures of the great powers, their mobilisation plans, their desire to expand and to settle old scores made war inevitable. It just needed the right circumstances to set events in motion.
There is some dispute, even today, as to who was to blame for the war, from the Serbian terrorists, to the Russian mobilisation. But surely Germany was the most to blame for its aggressive foreign policy leading up to August ’14 and the invasion of Belgium?
The Germans could certainly have stopped the diplomatic crisis that resulted from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and led to the war; but I agree with Christopher Clark that the majority of blame goes to Austro-Hungary’s expansion into the Balkans. This brought them into conflict with Serbia who supplied the arms to the Yugoslav nationalists who carried out the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne. The Germans then placed the gunpowder next to the resulting spark, giving Austria a ‘blank cheque’ to take punitive action against Serbia. The Austrians saw the situation as a “gift from Mars”, giving them the opportunity to settle scores with Serbia and expand into the Balkans. This then brought them into conflict with Russia who saw Serbia as part of their sphere of influence and started to mobilise in response. The Germans wanted to humble Russia before she became too powerful and saw this as the perfect opportunity to establish hegemony in Europe. The alliances and tight mobilisation timetable made the war inevitable.
Should Britain have gone into the war? There are some who believe it was a mistake.
It had been British policy since the Napoleonic Wars to maintain the balance of power in Europe, once that was threatened there was little choice but to take action. To paraphrase Max Hastings if we had not gone in when we did, we would have had to fight Germany eventually when the Kaiser came looking for his “place in the sun”, except without the aid of France and Russia.
Having said that the view I put across in The Assassins is that the Great Powers should have left Serbia and Austro-Hungary to fight it out and not got involved. If the Russians had stopped their mobilisation the Germans would have had no reason to go to war. The battle hardened Serbian army would have beaten off the unprepared and badly led Austrians. At which point the great powers could have interceded to set up a peace conference.
Were there any authors that were inspiration for your series? W Somerset Maugham springs to mind.
Oh yes definitely Somerset Maugham, Ashenden is a must read for anyone interested in WW1 literature and is written in a wonderfully dry and laconic style. When writing the series I was also inspired by Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Count Miklós Bánffy’s wonderful Transylvania Trilogy, Thunder at Twilight by Frederic Morton, All Quite on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards, ‘Storm of Steel’ by Ernst Junger, The Secret Battle by Alan Herbert and Under Fire by Henri Barbusse.
Will we see Johnny Swift again?
Yes definitely, the third book Enemies and Allies is open ended. Johnny is sent to Russia to take part in the political intriguing to keep Russia in the war following the Revolution and the subsequent espionage activities between Britain and Russia after WWI. He also has to make his fortune and a few loose ends to tie up about his parents.