Hide in this battered crumbling line
Hide in these rude promiscuous graves,
Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.
– 
John Ebenezer Stewart, 1917

Still started out as a commission to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme by 14-18 NOW. The organisation tasked with developing a five-years programme of new artworks to mark the centenary of the First World War approached Simon Armitage who eventually came up with the idea of a sequence of poems written in response to aerial or panoramic photographs of the Somme battlefield taken during the First World War. Still was presented as an exhibition combining poems and photographs at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in May 2016. Now it’s been published as a book.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, Armitage explored the many thousands of aerial and reconnaissance photographs taken for reconnaissance purposes during the battle that provided an unfamiliar perspective on the conflict. Aerial photography was in its infancy at the time, and often involved air crew hanging over the side of the aircraft to operate cumbersome cameras. Some photos were taken from balloons. Either way, it was a dangerous affair hovering above enemy lines, and many paid with their lives.

Armitage was struck by the apparent tranquillity of many of the images:

Map-like images of cratered fields and hieroglyphic trench patterns; dreamlike ‘obliques’ showing landscapes of sepia-toned towns and ghostly villages; panoramas of apparently tranquil meadows and country lanes that disguise more macabre details.

As he explored further, Armitage decided to make the backbone of his project the straight road that runs from the town of Albert to Bapaume. This stretch of twelve miles of road was the heart of one of the most fiercely-fought sectors in the battle of the Somme. (I travelled along that road in 2014, in my own journey through the physical landscapes of the First World War in an attempt to find some meaning in the terrible events that had unfolded there a hundred years before.)

The D929 road from Albert to Bapaume near Thiepval
The D929 road from Albert to Bapaume near Thiepval

The road runs straight as an arrow through a tranquil landscape of haunting beauty: broad, richly cultivated fields stretch to the horizon beneath a big sky, interrupted only by the occasional patch of woodland. A pastoral, a song of soil, cultivation, husbandry; of land that nourishes the farmsteads and villages that nestle here.

Armitage saw that and – recalling that the Albert to Bapaume road is straight because it was originally built by the Romans – found the key that unlocked his poetic response to the 1WW photographs. He thought first of Roman Virgil’s epic poem of war, the Aeneid, before Virgil’s Georgics came to mind: a pastoral suite of poems concerned with cultivation, animal husbandry and the land: ‘the ground beneath our feet that we call our home and country, and the earth which ultimately provides our every nourishment.’

What turns the corn to gold: under which star,
Old friend, should the plough set out, and when
To train the curling vine to the dwarf-elm;
Sound advice for the stockman and shepherd;
How best to govern the industrious bees:
These are my themes, the songs I’ll sing.

So, on facing pages throughout the book, Still presents versions by Simon Armitage of excerpts from the original Latin of the Georgics. Some passages appear to comment directly on the content of a particular photo; other responses are more oblique, in Armitage’s phrase, ‘throwing word-shadows onto the landscapes’ on the opposite page.

Whilst some of the double-page spreads work powerfully, Armitage’s re-working of Virgil’s passages of homely advice interacting to great effect with the haunting, almost abstract images caught by the reconnaissance photographers, for me others did not have the same impact. This was not due to any lack on the part of Armitage’s poetry, but more, I think, to a kind of blankness of many of the images of empty landscapes stretching to a distant horizon.

Here is a particularly successful pairing. Opposite an aerial photo taken above the village of Courcelette a few miles south of Bapaume (one of the few kinks in the D929 visible at bottom left) we read this verse by Armitage:

A time will certainly come in these rich vales
When a ploughman slicing open the soil
Will crunch through rusting spears, or strike
A headless iron helmet with his spade,
Or stare, wordless, at the harvest of raw bones
He exhumes from the earth’s unmarked grave.

Aerial photograph of the Somme battlefield around Courcelette village October 1916.
Aerial photograph of the Somme battlefield around Courcelette village October 1916. IWM

I remember the shock of first seeing aerial ‘before and after’ photos of Passchendaele which showed how the village was totally obliterated by shelling, leaving only a pitted, sterile landscape of shell-holes where houses and the church had once stood. In Still there is a comparable one: of Pozieres, a village a mile or so south of Courcelette on the D929. On 17 June 1916, the village is occupied by the Germans but is still a place of old stone houses, barns, little fields, gardens, country lanes, and a small square where people might once have gathered under the trees. A month later, on 16 July, after it has been taken following ferocious British artillery fire, the village has almost been blasted from the face of the earth.

Aerial ‘before’ of Pozières, 17 June 1916. IWM
Aerial ‘before’ of Pozières, 17 June 1916. IWM

Armitage matches this terrible pairing with his re-working of a verse from Georgics which sings of the beneficial effects of turning and tilling the soil:

Sometimes after reaping a fierce blaze is best,
Tatching the stubble till the land crackles with flames.
Perhaps the heat rekindles purpose and strength
In the soil, or perhaps the effect is to cleanse, purging
Foul elements, drawing out poison as steam,
Or maybe it opens clogged arteries in the plants’ flesh,
Letting goodness pulse into new petals and leaves.
Or it cauterises, sealing broken veins
Against punishing sunlight, swamping rain
And the stabbing north wind.

Aerial 'after' of Pozières, 16 July 1916. IWM
Aerial ‘after’ of Pozières, 16 July 1916. IWM

An aerial photograph of the Albert to Bapaume road, looking north to Bapaume and taken on 16 October 1916 is matched to this verse:

In this place no one can tell wrong from right;
When war stalks the world wearing its many masks
There’s no honour in tilling the land, and the fields
Run to seed. Now the sickle’s crescent
Is recast as a sword whose yield is death.
The East is armoured and armed, Germany marches in;
Neighbouring cities have shredded treaties of peace;
Nation meets nation in all-out attack;
The whole planet hurtles into catastrophe,
As when a chariot bolts from the starting line,
Picking up speed with every lap – suddenly there’s no saying
Where it might end, no reining the clattering horses back.

Aerial photograph of the Albert to Bapaume road, taken 16 October 1916.
Aerial photograph of the Albert to Bapaume road, taken 16 October 1916.

Not all the photos are devoid of people; Armitage has chosen some that were taken at ground level – in the trenches and advanced dressing stations, among soldiers and German prisoners of war. One terribly evocative image of a company of Tyneside Irish going forward just after zero hour on 1 July 1916 has been taken literally at ground level, the photographer pressing into out-of-focus wildflowers in the foreground. It’s here that Armitage introduces the imagery of bees, from Virgil’s passages of bee-keeping advice:

Between two monarchs bitter feuds are commonplace
And swarms are never slow to mobilise.
From miles away you’ll sense them massing for battle,
You’ll sense an appetite for hostilities, a violent thirst,
Cowards and dawdlers are dragooned into action.
Sounding the war-conch with droning wings
They stream into the breach, fizzing with fury,
Nerves set like wires, venomous bayonets fixed.
Back as far as their sovereign’s chamber
They’ll defend and engage, resolved to kill or die.
Or out of the blue yonder into the field
They’ll pour from the hive, countless as rain.

company of Tyneside Irish going forward just after zero hour on 1 July 1916
A company of Tyneside Irish going forward just after zero hour on 1 July 1916

The book concludes with a photo (not the one below) of smashed German trenches at Ovillers, looking towards Albert, taken in July 1916. Armitage returns to the imagery of the bees:

The intense vehemence surpasses
All borders, crosses every line. Riled,
They summon their poison, drive their tiny barbs
Deep into men’s flesh, so their own hearts
Are ripped out in sacrifice.

A single German casualty after the Battle of Thiepval, September 1916
A single German casualty after the Battle of Thiepval, September 1916

When these photos were shown with Simon Armitage’s poetry in Norwich in May, the exhibition went under the title of The Fierce Light, named after a poem written in 1917 by John Ebenezer Stewart, a teacher from Coatbridge in Scotland, who served as an officer in the Border Regiment during the First World War.
Despite an unprivileged childhood, Stewart won a place at the University of Glasgow before becoming a teacher. With his battalion he took took part in several actions on the Somme and was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. H was killed on the 26 April 1918 in the 4th Battle of Ypres. This was a poet and poem completely new to me:

If I were but a Journalist,
And had a heading every day
In double-column caps, I wist
I, too, could make it pay;

But still for me the shadow lies
Of tragedy. I cannot write
Of these so many Calvaries
As of a pageant fight;

For dead men look me through and through
With their blind eyes, and mutely cry
My name, as I were one they knew
In that red-rimmed July;

Others on new sensation bent
Will wander here, with some glib guide
Insufferably eloquent
Of secrets we would hide –

Hide in this battered crumbling line
Hide in these promiscuous graves,
Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.

The Somme near Thiepval
The Somme near Thiepval

Thanks, Dave, for the loan of this beautifully-produced book.

See also

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4 thoughts on “‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield

  1. You’re very welcome; my pleasure. I thought you’d turn it into a fine tribute. And, as usual, you have. Delighted you found the photographs too

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