Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

It’s a curious thing, but just as I was entering the time of sleep lost after the arrival of the new pup, I began listening to the new release on the ECM label from the Tarkovsky Quartet. Not only was the album entitled Nuit blanche (‘sleepless night’ this side of the Channel), it also featured a dog on the cover. Not only that, the quartet, founded some years ago by the French pianist François Couturier and consisting of cellist Anja Lechner, soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier takes its name from the Russian film director whose greatest works include Stalker – which was itself the subject of Zona, a brilliant meandering, meditative book by Geoff Dyer, a bunch of whose books were all that I could focus on in the indolent, zoned-out state in which I found myself. In situations like this you can’t help asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Continue reading “Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams”

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

I have never had any problem sleeping, losing consciousness within minutes of laying my head on the pillow. Yet, paradoxically, I have always been a light sleeper, snapping awake at untoward sounds and disturbed by encroaching light. Any happy balance I had achieved between these contradictory poles was instantly shattered when, in late April, we brought home our new Cocker Spaniel puppy. Not only did I get less – much less – than my preferred allocation of sleep (being woken and expected to play chase around the garden at 5am), my light sleeper mode went into overdrive, instantly waking at the slightest movement or sound from the puppy’s crate at the foot of our bed. The pup would shift, then fall asleep, while I lay sleepless and alert until the grey light of dawn spilled through the curtains and our noisy, thoughtless neighbours began tootling their blasted chorus. Continue reading “Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress”

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

Reading a lot of the stuff written in the British press about John Berger following his death two days ago, I have barely been able to recognise the writer that I have known and loved from reading –  a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, comprises ten novels, four plays, three collections of poetry and 33 other books, an unclassifiable blend of ruminations on art, politics and the simple joys and beauty of everyday life. The writer I am familiar with was certainly not the ‘bludgeoningly opinionated man’ of the Independent’s write up, nor the person depicted in the Guardian’s shoddy and mean-spirited obituary.

Berger was certainly one who had very definite views, but who always, it seems to me, advanced them as propositions to be debated, rather than assertions to be simply accepted (for example, the last words of his celebrated TV series Ways of Seeing are ‘to be continued – by the viewer’). He never seemed to demand our agreement as his reader or listener, merely our engagement. Continue reading “John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’”

The sacrifice: remembering those who came from near and far

The sacrifice: remembering those who came from near and far

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The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

– A E Housman

As I continued my odyssey along the Western Front, a theme began to emerge at the cemeteries and monuments I visited. My first port of call was the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy, a memorial to the 60,000 Canadians who were killed in battle during the the Great War.  Alongside the famous pylon towers is another memorial to the North African soldiers who fell on Vimy Ridge. In the following days I would spend time at cemeteries and memorials which recalled the sacrifice of others who came, often from other continents, to fight in the European ‘civil war’: Canadians and Newfoundlanders, Australians, Scots, Irish, Welsh and men from the Indian sub-continent.

We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

– Frank McGuinness, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

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The twin pylons of the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy

The Vimy Memorial is an awe-inspiring structure: you see its twin spires rising above the village of Vimy from miles away as you approach Vimy ridge across the flatlands of Picardy.  The Memorial was designed by a sculptor from Toronto, Walter Seymour Allward, its two pylon towers to rising skywards to represent Canada and France, two countries united in their sacrifice to war.The Memorial bears the names of 11,168 missing Canadians, killed in action in France but whose remains have not been found or identified. The monument was located on the imposing ridge of high ground at Vimy Ridge, north of Arras, because this had been the scene of a successful attack by the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the spring of 1917, during the Battles of Arras.

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The view from Vimy Ridge across the plain below

The Germans had secured the Ridge by October 1914, and remained in control of it despite French Army attempts to dislodge them twice in 1915 without success and at tremendous loss of over 100,000 casualties. In the Second Battle of Artois (May-June 1915) the French 1st Moroccan Division gained a foothold at Hill 145, but could not hold on to it. It was not until the spring of 1917 that the Canadians managed to secure the Ridge.

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The mourning figure of  ‘Canada Bereft’ at Vimy

The two pylons rise 120 feet (30 metres) from the base of the Memorial.  Beneath them, arranged around a vast paved terrace, are twenty sculpted human figures.  The terrace is dominated by ‘Canada Bereft’, a female figure draped in a cloak which stands alone on the wall, head bowed, looking down at a stone sarcophagus representing Canada’s war dead. The figure was carved from a single 30 tonne block of limestone. From this vantage point it is easy to see the advantage gained by the German troops as you look out across the plain towards Lens and the slag heaps at Loos-en-Gohelle that rise like volcanoes on the horizon.

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The Vimy Memorial: The Chorus

The tops of the pylon are sculpted to form The Chorus – a group of eight figures representing Justice, Peace, Hope, Charity, Honour, Faith, Truth and Knowledge. Peace is the highest figure on the monument, reaching upwards with a torch. Between the pylons is The Spirit of Sacrifice,  a group of two figures which comprises a dying soldier who has passed a torch to a comrade.

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Vimy: one of The Mourning Parents figures

On the other side of the Memorial are two reclining figures, located on either side of the steps, representing the mourning mothers and fathers of Canada’s war dead.

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The Names of the Missing Canadians

The names of more than 11,000 Canadians, with no known resting place in France, are inscribed on the walls around the base of the monument in a font specially designed by Allward.

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The Moroccan memorial

At the entrance to the Vimy Memorial stands the reminder of soldiers from yet another continent who died here. The Memorial to the Moroccan Division recalls the bravery of a division that was composed of regiments of Zouaves (North African volunteers) and French Foreign Legion soldiers who seized the ridge in May 1916 but who were forced to retreat. On 9 May 1916, men of the 1st Moroccan Division managed to break through the German lines to begin the attack on Vimy Ridge. Unfortunately, white squares had been sown on their uniforms to help the French artillery adjust the range of their guns. Tragically, this made the men of the Moroccan Division visible not only to the French, but also to the Germans positioned on their flank.  They became easy targets. As the French artillery ran out of ammunition, expected reinforcements failed to arrived. The order to retreat was given, and the position was lost.

French Zouaves North African soldiers in 1WW

French Zouaves –  North African volunteers – in WW1

I know of only one poem of the First World War which recognises the contribution of soldiers from France’s African colonies. Five of the six sections in Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 volume of poems, Calligrammes, were composed while he was serving on the front line in the war.  One section is entitled ‘The Sighs of the Gunner from Dakar’, in which, remarkably, Apollinaire adopts the voice of a soldier from Senegal.  Apollinaire died in 1918, not in battle, but in the flu pandemic.

The Sighs of the Gunner from Dakar [Extract]

In the log dugout hidden by osiers
Near grey cannons turned toward the north
I dream of the African village
Where we danced where we sang and made love
And made long speeches
Noble and joyful
I see again my father who fought
The Ashantis
In the service of the English
I see again my sister with the crazy laugh
With breasts as hard as bombshells
And I see again
My mother the witch who alone in the village
Scorned salt
Crushing millet in a mortar


And I was a servant in Paris
I don’t know my age
But at the recruiting
They wrote down twenty years old
I’m a French soldier and so they turned me white
Sector 59 I can’t say where
But why is it better to be white than black
Why not dance and make speeches
Eat and then sleep
And we shoot at the Boche supplies
Or at the iron wires in front of the doughboys
Under the metallic storm
I remember a hideous lake
And couples chained by an atrocious love
A crazy night
A night of sorcery
Like tonight
Where so many horrible eyes
Explode in the brilliant sky

Near to Vimy is Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, the village featured in Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, the book he dedicated to ‘the memory of the comrades who fell beside me at Croucy and on Hill 119’ (locations along the Vimy Ridge):

The village has disappeared. Never have I seen such a disappearance of a village. Ablain-Saint-Nazaire and Carency still preserved some semblance of locality, with their gutted and truncated houses and their courtyards filled with plaster and tiles. Here, framed by the shredded trees – which, in the midst of the fog, surround us with a ghostly sort of decor – nothing has any shape; there is not even a fragment of wall or railing or gate still standing, and we are amazed to discover, under the heap of beams, stones and ironmongery, that there are paving stones – here there used to be a street!

You would think  it was a patch of untended waste ground, swampy,   where some nearby town for years had been regularly emptying its  mess, its litter, its building rubble and its worn-out utensils without leaving a clear spot, just a uniform layer of muck and rubbish into  which we go, walking slowly and with a great deal of difficulty. The bombardment has changed things so much that it has changed the course of the mill stream which is flowing at random and forming a pond on the remains of the little square where the cross used to stand.  A few mortar holes where swollen horses are rotting, others in which are scattered the remains of what used to be humans, distorted by the massive injury of the shells.

Here, lying across our path, which we are following upwards like a disaster, like a flood of debris beneath the dense sadness of the sky, lies a man who seems to be sleeping; but he is flattened against the ground in the way that distinguishes a dead body from a sleeping one.  He was a man on soup fatigue, with his rosary of loaves threaded into a belt and a bunch of his comrades’ mess tins held to his shoulder by a tangle of straps. He must have been hit the previous night, his back holed by a piece of shrapnel. We must be the first to find him: an obscure soldier who died in obscurity.

Perhaps he will be scattered   before anyone else comes across him. We hunt for the identity disc   which is stuck in the clotted blood where his right hand is lying. I copy down the name on it in letters of blood.  Poterloo left me to do this by myself. He is like a sleepwalker, but looking, looking desperately all round. He is looking towards infinity among all these gutted, vanished things; in this void he is staring towards the misty horizon.

Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland memorial

The Newfoundland Memorial

40 kilometres away, to the south of Arras, is the village of Beaumont Hamel, in 1916 one of the German fortress villages which commanded the valley of the Ancre, a tributary of the Somme, which  the attacking troops had to cross in the terrible days of July 1916. This is where I find the Newfoundland Memorial, which commemorates the participation of the Newfoundland Regiment during the Battle of the Somme.

Although the memorial park here was founded to honour the memory of the Newfoundland Regiment, it also contains a number of other memorials, as well as three cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Collectively, they recall the contribution to the war effort of soldiers from Newfoundland, Scotland and England.

Nearly 12,000 men from the sparsely-populated island of Newfoundland, an independent country in 1914, enlisted for the war, representing nearly 10 percent of the total male population, or 36 percent of young men between the ages of 19 and 35. Of these, 1,480 were killed.

On 1 July 1916, in the first few hours of the Somme offensive, the Newfoundland Regiment, was virtually annihilated at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. The losses sustained by the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel that day, were staggering. Of the 801 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 survived the day (a loss of 86 percent of its full strength). Few island families were untouched by the calamity: the dead included 14 sets of brothers. So catastrophic was the event that it remained etched into the consciousness of Newfoundlanders for the rest of the 20th century, leading the islanders to see the war’s legacy not as one of nation-building, like much of English Canada, but as one of loss of nationhood.

There was a rather curious reaction to the Newfoundlanders’ sacrifice from the commander of the 29th British Division who said of the actions of the Newfoundland Regiment on that July morning:

It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.

The caribou was chosen as the symbol for the memorial to the Newfoundlanders, and was unveiled by Lord Haig in June 1925 when the park was little changed from the war, with barbed wire entanglements, shell-holes, and war debris scattered around.

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Trenches at Beaumont-Hamel

Even today, around the Memorial, there are the remains of the front-line trenches  from which the British and Newfoundland troops attacked on 1 July 1916. The trench system, the only survival of its kind in the Somme, is well-preserved and warning signs indicate the presence, still, of undetonated explosives.  Walking through these fields with the troughs, ridges and mounds that still remain as the scars of war, I thought of Carl Sandburg’s poem, ‘Grass’:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

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Duckboard-lined trenches, fringed with wildflowers

There is a trail that winds its way in great loop around the park – through the remains of the trenches now duckboard-lined and fringed with wildflowers, along an avenue of trees, and across the fields that slope down towards the Ancre river. It’s a short walk to the unusual Hunter’s Cemetery, sheltered beneath a small copse,  which commemorates 46 soldiers who fell during the taking of Beaumont Hamel, who were blown up by a shell and later buried here in the same large shell-hole. The spirit of the place is reflected in the unusual feature of the burial ground: the headstones do not stand in rows as grave markers, but are set into a circular wall around a cross.

Beaumont Hamel Hunter's cemetery

Beaumont Hamel: Hunter’s cemetery

At the furthest edge of the park stands the memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division which captured the village of Beaumont Hamel on 13 November 1916. Rough blocks of granite assembled in a pyramid form are topped by the statue of a kilted Highland soldier, looking east towards the village of Beaumont Hamel.

Beaumont Hamel 51st Division memorialBeaumont Hamel 51st Division memorial from afar

 Beaumont Hamel: the 51st Division memorial

I recalled a poem that echoes the actions commemorated here. On 16 May 1916, E. A. Mackintosh, an officer in the Seaforth Highlanders, led a raid on German trenches just north of Arras. The death of one of his men, a close friend, in the raid had a profound effect on Mackintosh, leading him to write the poem, ‘In Memoriam’.  As the attack went wrong, Mackintosh carried the wounded Private David Sutherland through 100 yards of German trenches with the Germans in pursuit. Sutherland died before Mackintosh managed to get back to the British trenches, and his body had to be left behind.  He has no known burial place. Mackintosh’s bravery won him the Military Cross, and in memory of Private David Sutherland he wrote ‘In Memoriam’. On 21 November 1917, Mackintosh himself was killed.

In Memoriam: Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench, May 16th 1916, and the others who died.

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year got stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight —
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed, “Don’t leave me, Sir,”
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.

Newfoundland Hawthorn Ridge cemetery

Hawthorn Ridge cemetery

In addition to the Newfoundland and 51st Division memorials, there are three British cemeteries in the park.  As I follow the path back to the entrance I look back across the fields to where Hawthorn Ridge cemetery lies surrounded by trees, from a distance looking like a sheepfold you might see on a hillside in northern England.  This, too, was farming land until war came, and men arrived from near and far, many to leave their bones beneath this turf.

In his account of his own pilgrimage to the Western Front, The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer wrote of Beaumont-Hamel that ‘some part of me will always be calmed by the memory of this place, by the vast capacity for forgiveness revealed by these cemeteries, by this landscape.’  His book ends here, with the knowledge that ‘even in your moments of most exalted emotion, you do not matter’:

Because these things will always be here: the dark trees full of summer leaf, the fading light that has not changed in seventy-five years, the peace that lies perpetually in wait. […]

Tomorrow, a year from now, it will be exactly the same: birds lunging and darting towards the horizon; three crosses silhouetted against the blood-red sky; a man walking along the curving road; lights coming on in distant farmhouses – and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 1

The round tower of the Island of Ireland Peace Park

I spent the last day of my odyssey in Flanders, moving through a landscape in which everything is near and neighbourly: small towns, villages, farms – and cemeteries, which are often tucked in behind back gardens on suburban streets or in the corner of some ploughed field.

I was driving towards Mesen (known as Messines in 1914-1918) when I caught my first glimpse of the traditional Irish round tower that rises from The Island of Ireland Peace Park, located by the road from Ploegsteert, not far from the centre of Mesen.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 7

The Island of Ireland Peace Park

It’s a recent memorial,  officially opened at 11:00 on 11 November 1998, and dedicated to the soldiers of Ireland, of all political and religious beliefs, who died, were wounded or missing in the Great War. About 300,000 Irish men and women served in the war – not only in the British army, but also with the armies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

The tower was built as a symbol of reconciliation, and opened in the same year that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast.  With the support of the people of Mesen, the tower was commissioned by the All-Ireland Journey of Reconciliation Trust, a broad-based cross-border Irish organisation which hopes to bring together people of diverse beliefs, It was constructed using stones from a demolished workhouse in Mullinger, County Westmeath. The design is that of a traditional Irish round tower of the 8th century. It is 110 feet high, and is designed so that the inside of the tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Inside the Tower there are record books with the names of the 49,400 known Irish who gave their lives in the First World War.

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 The approach to the Peace Tower, lined with inscribed tablets

Near to the entrance of the Peace Park a bronze plaque is inscribed with a Peace Pledge:

From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour.

As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches.

As we jointly thank the armistice of 11 November 1918 – when the guns fell silent along this western front – we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.

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Three stone pillars record the sacrifice by three volunteer Irish Divisions

Three stone pillars are engraved with the numbers of killed, wounded and missing of the three voluntary Irish Divisions which fought with the British Army in WW1 – a reminder that the Irish people’s experience of the war was complex and its memory divisive. At the outbreak of the war, most Irish people, regardless of political affiliation, supported the war, with both nationalist and unionist leaders initially supporting Britain. Both Catholics and Protestants served extensively in the After the suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and the execution of its leaders by the British, however, the Irish nation was divided over continued support for Britain.

This is exemplified by two remarks of the volunteer  soldier and poet, Francis Ledwidge, who died in the Third battle of Ypres in 1917 and who is commemorated here in the Peace Park. When he enlisted he said, ‘I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions’.  But, after the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed, he expressed a different view: ‘If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!’

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The tablet commemorating the poet Francis Ledwidge

Along the approach to the Peace Tower are nine stone tablets, each inscribed with prose, a poems or part of a letter from an Irish serviceman.  They express a variety of different views of the war.

One of the tablets displays a quotation by Francis Ledwidge, killed in the Ypres Salient on 31 July 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele:

It is too late now to retrieve a fallen dream, too late to grieve a name unmade, but not too late to thank the Gods for what is great. A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart is greater than a poet’s art. And greater than a poet’s fame a little grave that has no name.

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The tablet with words by War Artist William Orpen 

Two other tablets offer a very different view of the war.  One, with words by William Orpen, official War Artist, reads:

I mean the simple soldier man, who when the Great War first began, just died, stone dead from lumps of lead, in mire.

Another bears the words of Charles Miller of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers:

As it was, the Ypres battleground just represented one gigantic slough of despond into which floundered battalions, brigades and divisions of infantry without end to be shot to pieces or drowned, until at last and with immeasurable slaughter we had gained a few miles of liquid mud.

Island of Ireland Peace Park 4

The words of Charles Miller of the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Francis Ledwidge’s poetry was neglected until, in Field Work (1979), Seamus Heaney published his elegy ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, killed in France, 31 July 1917’.  Carol Rumens wrote in the Guardian that:

Heaney’s elegy weaves in the agonised remarks Ledwidge made after learning of the British executions of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: ‘To be called a British soldier while my country/ Has no place among nations … ‘ But, of course, Ledwidge was originally a volunteer. … And at that stage he no doubt believed he was fighting, ultimately, for Irish freedom as well as British: there was no insoluble conflict for him, as a moderate Nationalist, in military action against Germany. All that changed after the Easter Rising, and he wanted only to return home to County Meath. He survived the battle of Arras (which had cost the life of the great English poet Edward Thomas), only to be killed in the slaughter at the third battle of Ypres.

Seamus Heaney: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, killed in France  July 31 July 1917’

The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how the real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned

Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque –
It all meant little to the worried pet

I was in nineteen forty-six or seven,
Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand
Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent
To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand.

The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat.
Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes.
A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat
Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins.

Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane

Where you belonged, among the dolorous
And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers,

Easter water sprinkled in outhouses,
Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres.

I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches like a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.

It’s summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl
My aunt was then, herding on the long acre.
Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles
You suck stones to make your dry mouth water.

It’s nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows
But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
‘My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows …
My country wears her confirmation dress.’

‘To be called a British soldier while my country
Has no place among nations …’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’

In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum

You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground

Francis Ledwidge

Francis Ledwidge

On 31 July 1917, a group from Ledwidge’s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were road-laying in preparation for an assault during the Third Battle of Ypres, near the village of Boezinge, northwest of Ypres. While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades, a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded ‘Ledwidge killed, blown to bits’.

He is now buried in Artillery Wood Military Cemetery, Boezinge, (where the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, killed on the same day, is also buried).

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making rills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind,
And there I wander as I will.

– Francis Ledwidge, ‘In France’

Hedd Wyn

Hedd Wyn

Hedd Wyn, buried in the same cemetery as Francis Ledwidge (born Ellis Humphrey Evans), was a sheep farmer turned poet-soldier who chose Hedd Wyn (‘blessed peace’) as his pen name.  He was born in Penlan, Trawsfynydd, the eldest of eleven children, and lived for much of his life at Yr Ysgwrn, a hill farm east of Trawsfynydd.

I sang to the long hope of my life
And the magic of the inspiration of youth;
The passion of the wind and the scent
Of the lighting of the path
ahead were in my poem.

My muse was a deep cry
And all the ages to come will hear it,
And my rewards were grievous violence;
And a world that is
One long bare winter without respite.

– Hedd Wyn, from ‘Hero’

Wynn chose to go to war in order to prevent his younger brother from enlisting, even though he was very close to being a pacifist, as his chosen bardic name indicates. Following a period of training in Liverpool, Private Evans was despatched for active service in Flanders and found himself stationed with his regiment at the notorious Pilckem Ridge in August 1917, immediately prior to the opening of the Passchendaele offensive. He died in the first day of the offensive. Six weeks later, on 6 September, he was named was the posthumous winner of the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod. As Phil Carradice has written on his BBC Welsh history blog:

His death in battle shocked not just those present at the Eisteddfod but the whole of Wales. A stunned silence fell over the Eisteddfod field as the news finally began to sink in. The Archdruid summed up the feelings of the gathering when he said, simply, ‘Yr wyl yn ei dagrau a’r Bardd yn ei fedd – the festival in tears and the poet in his grave.’ There could be no question of any form of investiture and amidst a funereal silence the Bardic Chair, the Chair that now belonged to the dead poet, was solemnly draped in black cloth.

A year ago, the Guardian published a poem by Gillian Clarke, ‘Eisteddfod of the Black Chair’ inspired by this account.  Until I saw that piece, I had never heard of Hedd Wyn. But there was one poem by a Welshman, about the war but written long after, which I had read and remembered from some anthology of war poetry: ‘His Father, Singing’ by Leslie Norris, in which the poet recalls his father singing ‘ the songs he’d learned, still a boy, up to his knees in French mud, those dying songs’:

My father sang for himself,
out of sadness and poverty;
perhaps from happiness,
but I’m not sure of that.

He sang in the garden,
quietly, a quiet voice
near his wallflowers
which of all plants

he loved most, calling them
gillyflowers, a name
learned from his mother.
His songs came from a time

before my time, his boy’s
life among musical brothers,
keeping pigeons, red and blue
checkers, had a racing cycle

with bamboo wheels. More often
he sang the songs he’d learned,
still a boy, up to his knees
in French mud, those dying songs.

He sang for us once only,
our mother away from the house,
the lamp lit, and I reading,
seven years old, already bookish,

at the scrubbed table.
My brother cried from his crib
in the small bedroom, teething,
a peremptory squall, then a long

wail. My father lifted from
the sheets his peevish child,
red-faced, feverish, carried
him down in a wool shawl

and in the kitchen, holding
the child close, began to sing.
Quietly, of course, and swaying
rhythmically from foot to foot,

he rocked the sobbing boy.
I saw my brother’s head,
his puckered face, fall
on my father’s chest. His crying

died away, and I
read on. It was my father’s
singing brought my head up.
His little wordless lullabies

had gone, and what he sang
above his baby’s sleep
was never meant
for any infant’s comfort.

He stood in the bleak kitchen,
the stern, young man, my father.
For the first time raised
his voice, in pain and anger

sang. I did not know his song
nor why he sang it. But stood
in fright, knowing it important,
and someone should be listening.

Menin Gate India monument

The Indian Forces Memorial, Ypres

They came from Canada and Newfoundland, North Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  On the last afternoon of my trip, at the Menin Gate in Ypres, I encountered yet another memorial to men who came to fight in Europe’s war.  Near to the Menin Gate is a new memorial – it wasn’t there when I last visited this place – dedicated to the 130,000 troops of the Indian Forces who ‘fought in Flanders fields’ during the Great War. The monument records that over 9,000 died in France and Flanders

At the end of the trail I had followed along the Western Front in Flanders and the Somme, and wondering again about the motives that had impelled me to make the journey, I recalled two poems that offer a commentary on the business of visiting war cemeteries. The first is ‘The War Graves’ by Belfast poet Michael Longley, whose father’s survived the Great War :

The exhausted cathedral reaches nowhere near the sky
As though behind its buttresses wounded angels
Snooze in a halfway house of gargoyles, rainwater
By the mouthful, broken wings among pigeons’ wings.

There will be no end to clearing up after the war
And only an imaginary harvest-home where once
The Germans drilled holes for dynamite, for fieldmice
To smuggle seeds and sow them inside these columns.

The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion.

Mothers and widows pruned these roses yesterday,
It seems, planted sweet william and mowed the lawn
After consultations with the dead, heads meeting
Over this year’s seed catalogues and packets of seeds.

Around the shell holes not one poppy has appeared,
No symbolic flora, only the tiny whitish flowers
No one remembers the names of in time, brookweed
And fairy flax, say, lamb’s lettuce and penny-cress.

In mine craters so vast they are called after cities
Violets thrive, as though strewn by each cataclysm
To sweeten the atmosphere and conceal death’s smell
With a perfume that vanishes as soon as it is found.

At the Canadian front line permanent sandbags
And duckboards admit us to the underworld, and then
With the beavers we surface for long enough to hear
The huge lamentations of the wounded caribou.

Old pals in the visitors’ book at Railway Hollow
Have scribbled ‘The severest spot. The lads did well’
‘We came to remember’, and the wood pigeons too
Call from the wood and all the way from Accrington.

I don’t know how Rifleman Parfitt, Corporal Vance,
Private Costello of the Duke of Wellingtons,
Driver Chapman, Topping, Atkinson, Duckworth,
Dorrell, Wood come to be written in my diary.

For as high as we can reach we touch-read the names
Of the disappeared, and shut our eyes and listen to
Finches’ chitters and a blackbird’s apprehensive cry
Accompanying Charles Sorley’s monumental sonnet.

We describe the comet at Edward Thomas’s grave
And, because he was a fisherman, that headlong
Motionless deflection looks like a fisherman’s fly,
Two or three white after-feathers overlapping.

Geese on sentry duty, lambs, a clattering freight train
And a village graveyard encompass Wilfred Owen’s
Allotment, and there we pick from a nettle bed
One celandine each, the flower that outwits winter.

High Wood & Thistle Dump War Cemetery

High Wood & Thistle Dump War Cemetery

The second poem might be considered prophetic, since it was written in 1918 by John Stanley Purvis, under the pseudonym of Philip Johnson. Purvis had been invalided out of the army after being wounded during the Battle of the Somme, and in his poem he envisages a time when tourists will travel to the battlefields of the Western Front. He didn’t have to wait long: battlefield tourism developed as soon as the war was over, with tours organised by companies such as Michelin and Thomas Cook from 1919 onwards.

High Wood is not far from Beaumont-Hamel and is still frequently visited by tourists.  Most are respectful – pilgrims seeking to connect with the experience of ancestors, or (like me) paying respects to admired figures or simply trying to work out the damn meaning of it all. I didn’t visist it, but High Wood is still, apparently, an eerie place that never has been thoroughly cleared of bodies and debris. Something like 8,000 German and British soldiers who were killed here between 1 July and 18 November 1916 – fighting over a wood of no more than one-tenth of a square mile.

 Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

 So why did I come? Siegfried Sassoon puts it best, I think, in ‘Aftermath’, written in 1919:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

See also

Deserters, mutineers and the German soldier who warned of the first gas attack

Deserters, mutineers and the German soldier who warned of the first gas attack

Soldiers' graves at Bailleulmont Cemetery

Soldiers’ graves at Bailleulmont Cemetery

In a letter to a friend in July 1916, DH Lawrence wrote of the young recruits he had encountered at a barracks in Cornwall:

They all seemed so decent. And yet they all seemed as if they had chosen wrong. It was the underlying sense of disaster that overwhelmed me. They are all so brave, to suffer, but none of them brave enough to reject suffering.

Geoff Dyer cites Lawrence’s words in his book The Missing of the Somme, in which he ponders whether ‘the real heroes of 1914-18 … are those who refused to obey and to fight, who actively rejected the passivity forced upon them by the war, who reasserted their right not to suffer, not to have things done to them’.

I doubt that many of the more than 300 young soldiers executed by the British Army for desertion during the First World War were quite so clear-sighted in their actions.  A few may even have been rogues.  But it was my empathetic feelings for the terrified men – several of them under-age boys – who were blindfolded and shot by firing squad, usually at dawn and usually in some lonely field, that drew me to the Communal Cemetery at Bailleulmont, a village south of  Arras where, in a corner to the right of the entrance, there is a plot containing the graves of several British soldiers shot for desertion.

The corner containing soldiers' graves at Bailleulmont

The corner containing soldiers’ graves at Bailleulmont

There are only around 30 1WW soldiers buried here, not all of them British, and most of them not deserters. The cemetery is unusual, though –  and at first I thought that what I was seeing reflected some terrible discrimination by the CWGC in marking the graves of the deserters.  For the headstones here are not of the usual white Portland stone, but appeared to be painted a dirty brown. It was only later that I discovered my mistake: here, all soldiers’ graves (including those who were not deserters) are marked by stones made from sandstone.

In fact, the CWGC makes no distinction between soldiers killed in battle and those executed. The headstones are exactly the same in design, adhering to CWGC’s ethos of remembering each person in the same way, no matter who they were. In a Courage Remembered by Kingsley Ward, a book about the construction and maintenance of the Commonwealth military cemeteries, it states:

The Commission’s duty is … to commemorate all those who died in the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 wars, irrespective of the cause, or place, of death. It follows that those Commonwealth servicemen who were shot or hanged following sentence by courts martial or civil courts are entitled to war graves treatment, whether they were buried in a military cemetery or the prison yard, in Britain or elsewhere. … Executed servicemen buried in military cemeteries … have standard Commission markers on their graves and there is normally nothing on the headstone, and never anything in the register, to indicate the casualty was executed. But if the next of kin wished to indicate that the man was judicially executed by a reference to the fact in the personal inscription, this was reluctantly agreed to by the Commission.

One thing Geoff Dyer is right about is that a century after these men were executed, most British people have come to accept that they were not guilty in any sense that we recognise today. Most were undoubtedly numbed by the stress and squalor they experienced or by the sight of so much death, shell-shocked and driven to the edge of madness by being forced to endure the unendurable. We now recognise that these men were shot not because they were guilty, but as an example. In an article on the BBC History website, Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors or Victims?, we read this:

Most of the three million British troops soon knew they faced almost certain death on the battlefield. Day after day they would witness the annihilation of their friends, never knowing if or when they would be next. On some occasions whole battalions were wiped out, leaving just a handful of confused, terrified men. But those who shirked their responsibility soon learned there was no way out of the horror – if they ran from German guns, they would be shot by British ones.

Private Thomas Highgate was the first to suffer such military justice. Unable to bear the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons, he had fled and hidden in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Just 35 days into the war, Private Highgate was executed at the age of 17.

Between 1914 and 1920, more than 3,000 British soldiers were sentenced to death by courts martial for desertion, cowardice, striking an officer, disobedience, falling asleep on duty or casting away arms. Although only 11 per cent of the sentences were carried out, those who were shot at dawn were denied legal representation and the right of appeal. Medical evidence which showed that many were suffering from shell-shock – or post traumatic stress disorder – was either not submitted to the courts or was ignored. Most hearings lasted no more than 20 minutes. Transcripts made public 75 years after the events suggested that some of the men were under-age. Others appeared to have wandered away from the battlefield in states of extreme distress and confusion, yet they were charged with desertion.

During the war the executions were kept silent. In Goodbye to All That, published in 1929, Robert Graves wrote:

I had my first direct experience of official lying when I arrived at Le Havre in May 1915 and read the back-files of army orders at the rest camp. They contained something like twenty reports of men shot for cowardice or desertion. Yet a few days later the responsible minister in the House of Commons, answering a question from a pacifist, denied that sentence of death for a military offence had been carried out in France on any member of His Majesty’s Forces.

In For the Sake of Example: Capital Courts–Martial 1914—1920, Anthony Babington observed though the number of soldiers in the British army who were executed by firing squads during the First World War is ‘utterly insignificant compared with the massive carnage at the front’:

At the time of their condemnation [these soldiers] were branded as ‘shirkers’, ‘funks’ and ‘degenerates’, whose very existence was best forgotten. Yet, ever since, the manner in which they were tried and their subsequent treatment have given rise to a profound unease in the national conscience. Death did not come to them, random and abrupt, on the field of battle; it came with measured tread as the calculated climax of an archaic and macabre ritual carried out, supposedly, in the interests of discipline and morale.

All 306 soldiers of the First World War who were shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion were finally pardoned by the British government in August 2006 in a decision announced by the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.

Albert Ingham's grave at Bailleulmont

Albert Ingham’s grave at Bailleulmont

Because the CWGC makes no distinction between soldiers killed in battle and those executed, at Bailleulmont cemetery it isn’t possible to tell which are the graves of deserters – except in one instance. Albert Ingham is perhaps the reason why many people come to this cemetery, for his is the only gravestone amongst the more than 300 executed soldiers which states the cause of his death. The stone bears the inscription:

Shot at Dawn
One of the first to enlist
A worthy son
Of his father

The statement was added at the insistence of Private Ingham’s father after the war when he learned that official explanation for his son’s death – ‘died of gun shot wounds’ was an official lie.  Buried next to Ingham is his friend, Private Alfred Longshaw.  They were both executed in the early hours of 1 December 1916.  Ingham was 24, Longshaw  just 21.

They had been friends before they joined up – both worked together as clerks at the Salford Goods Yard of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company. They volunteered together and served together in the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Neither of their service records appear to have survived, except for their medal cards, showing the forfeiture of their medals.

Private Alfred Longshaw's grave at Bailleulmont

Private Alfred Longshaw’s grave at Bailleulmont

They had both seen active service at the Somme, and were due to be transferred to their Brigade’s machine gun unit for service in the trenches.  Instead they made their way together to the coast and had stowed away in civilian clothing on a Swedish ship in Dieppe harbour when they were caught and arrested. It later emerged that Alfred Longshaw’s wife was ill, and that he had been refused compassionate leave to see her.  It seemed that Ingham had simply decided to help his desperately worried friend.  Both were convicted and shot following the usual cursory courts martial, and with or little opportunity for a defence.

The grave of Private William Hunt at Bailleulmont

The grave of Private William Hunt at Bailleulmont

There’s another man from the Manchester Regiment buried here – Private William Hunt, shot on 14 November 1916, aged 20. Hunt was a regular soldier who had been serving in France since the first days of the war. In the latter half of 1916 he was posted to the 18th Manchesters from which he absconded. Hunt already had a previous conviction for disobedience, but when he was tried on the 22 October 1916 his commanding officer described him as a satisfactory soldier. Despite this, and a plea for leniency, Hunt was sentenced to death.

The grave of Guardsman Benjamin O'Connell at Bailleulmont

The grave of Guardsman Benjamin O’Connell at Bailleulmont

Benjamin O’Connell was serving with the Irish Guards when he was executed on 8 August 1918, aged 23. He was the son of James and Mary O’Connell, of Tinnarath, near Foulksmills in county Wexford. O’Connell had already been tried and found guilty for two previous offences of desertion, but, in line with the policy of sending such men back to the front, the sentences had been suspended.  However, a third offence brought him before a firing squad – just weeks before the war ended.

The grave of Rifleman Willie Smith at Bailleulmont

The grave of Rifleman Willie Smith at Bailleulmont

There is one other grave Bailleulmont that bears an inscription. The headstone of Rifleman Willie Smith bears the additional words:  ‘In loving memory of our dear son Willie who died doing his duty.  Mum and Dad.’  I have been unable find any further details of the circumstances of Willie Smith’s death.

Arboretum Shot at Dawn memorial

The Shot at Dawn memorial in the National Arboretum

In a sign of the changed public attitude towards the 1WW deserters, at the National Memorial Arboretum (the UK’s ‘year-round centre of Remembrance’) in Staffordshire there is now a memorial to those shot at dawn.  It was unveiled in June 2001 and commemorates the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot for desertion or cowardice during World War I. Andy Decomyn’s statue is modelled on Private Herbert Burden, of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, who was shot at Ypres in 1915, aged 17.

Britain was not alone in executing its own soldiers. The French are estimated to have killed about 600. The Germans, whose troops outnumbered the British by two to one, shot 48 of their own men, and the Belgians 13. In 2001, 23 executed Canadians were posthumously honoured by their government, and five troops killed by New Zealand’s military command also recently won a pardon. Not one American or Australian soldier was executed.


On 3 June 1918, on the beach near Oostduinkerke, Belgian 21-year old Aloïs Walput is tied to a stake and shot by his fellow-soldiers. Source: The heritage of the Great War (Flemish website)

I think I first became aware of the fate of the soldiers shot at dawn when, some twenty years ago, I read this memorable passage from Under Fire by Henri Barbusse:

The evening twilight was approaching across the countryside and with it came a noise as soft as a whisper. In the houses along the village street – a main road dressed up for  a few yards as a main street – the rooms, no longer supplied by the light of day, were starting to be lit by lamps and candles, so that the  evening emerged from them to go outside: you could see light and dark gradually change place.

On the edge of the village, towards the fields, soldiers wandered without equipment, sniffing the air.  We were ending the day in peace.   We were enjoying that vague idleness that one appreciates when   one is really exhausted. It was fine; we were at the start of our rest and dreaming. The evening light seemed to exaggerate faces before darkening  them and our  foreheads   reflected  the   serenity   around.

Sergeant Suilhard came over and took my arm to lead me away.   ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I want to show you something.’

At the edge of the village were rows upon rows of tall calm trees; we walked alongside them. From time to time, the huge branches chose to make some majestic movement, pushed by the breeze.     Suilhard was in front of me, leading us towards a sunken road that twisted along between banks; on each side there was a tightly packed hedgerow. We walked for a while, surrounded by soft greenery. A last ray of light slanting across the path scattered bright yellow dots among the leaves like golden coins.   ‘It’s pretty,’ I said.    He said nothing, but looked to one side. Then he stopped. ‘It must be here.’

He made me climb up a little bit of path into a field surrounded by a huge square of tall trees and full of the scent of new-mown hay. ‘Look!’ I said, seeing the ground. ‘It’s all been trampled around here. There’s been some kind of parade.’

‘Come on,’ Suilhard said. He led me into the field, not far from the entrance. There was a  group of soldiers, speaking in low voices. My companion pointed. ‘There it is,’ he said. A low post, barely a metre high, was standing a few feet from the hedge which at this point consisted of young trees.

‘That’s where they shot the soldier of the 204th this morning,’ he said. ‘They set up the stake overnight. They brought the fellow at dawn and it was the men of his squad who killed him. He tried to get out of the trenches. At the relief he stayed behind and quietly went back to the billet. He didn’t do anything else. No doubt they wanted  to make an example of him.’

We went close to the others who were talking.   ‘No, not at all,’ one of them was saying. ‘He wasn’t a bandit; he wasn’t one of those tough types you sometimes see. We joined up together. He was a bloke like us, no different, a bit of a loafer, that’s all. He’d been in the front line since the start, mate, and I never saw him drunk, either.

‘If you look you can see a little blood on the ground,’ said one man, leaning over.   ‘They gave it the full works,’ said another. ‘The whole ceremony from A to Z, the colonel on horseback, the stripping of rank. Then they tied him to that little post, something you’d tie an animal to. He must have been forced to kneel or sit on the ground with a stake like that.’

‘It’s unbelievable ‘ a third man said after a pause.  ‘Except for that thing the sergeant was saying about making an example.’

On the stake, scribbled by the soldiers, were inscriptions and protests. A rough Croix de Guerre, cut out of wood, had been nailed to  it and on it were the words:  ‘To Cajard, called up in August I9I4.   With the gratitude of his country.’

As I was going back to the billet I saw Volpatte talking, with a crowd around him. He was telling some new story about his stay with the happy folks in the rear.

Henri Barbusse

Henri Barbusse

Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu (Under Fire) is one of the classics of the literature of the Great War. Barbusse served with distinction in the war, being awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1915.  He was invalided out of service in 1917. Under Fire was adapted from his war diary which he kept from October 1915 and was serialized in the left-wing journal L’Ouvre before being published in book form in December 1916.

The book was a huge success, winning the Prix Goncourt in 1917 and selling 250,000 copies in France, a remarkable achievement in a wartime nation. It was translated into English in 1917 and was both widely-reviewed (in the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman) and read by serving soldiers. Wilfred Own read a copy in Scarborough in 1917, and there are echoes of Barbusse’s work in some of Owen’s famous war poems.  Barbusse’s book is dedicated ‘to the memory of the comrades who fell beside me at Croucy and on Hill 119′.

Pursuing the theme of soldiers’ resistance to the war a little further, perhaps the most dramatic instance of this was the French Army Mutinies of 1917 that took place amongst French troops on the Western Front in Northern France following the disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne.  By that point in the war, nearly one million French soldiers out of a population of twenty million French males had been killed in fighting. In the main, the mutineers were motivated by despair, rather than pacifism or politics. The mutinies were suppressed: mass arrests were followed by mass trials and  629 death sentences, though only 43 executions were carried out.  Instead, General Pétain restored morale through a combination of rest periods, frequent rotations of the front-line units and regular home leave.

French soldiers enjoy seaside leave following the mutinies of May-June 1917

French soldiers enjoy seaside leave following the mutinies of May-June 1917

The mutinies inspired a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb that was later adapted by Stanley Kubrick in his 1957 anti-war film, Paths of Glory. Around the same time, the Austrian poet Erich Fried, who had fled with his mother to London after his father’s murder by the Gestapo, wrote ‘French Soldiers Mutiny 1917’:

For years the troops have gone
like lambs to the slaughter

But these are bleating
They are marching through the town

They are marching
and they are bleating like sheep

By bleating they cease to be
a herd of sheep

(The mutinying French soldiers actually did bleat as a protest.)

There’s a mutinous feel, too, in Siegfried Sassoon’s famous ‘Public Statement Of Defiance’ published as a letter in The Times on 31 July 1917, and in his poem, ‘Suicide in the Trenches’:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects witch actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerity’s for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.

In ‘Suicide in the Trenches’, Sassoon speaks of ‘the hell where youth and laughter go’:

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.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

 German and British soldiers fraternize - Christmas 1914

German and British soldiers fraternize on Christmas Day,1914: a temporary form of desertion?

Perhaps the most remarkable story concerning a 1WW deserter is that of the German soldier August Jaeger.  I knew nothing of his story until, arriving at the Alegria B&B in Ypres (excellent, by the way) on the Flanders leg of my journey, I fell into conversation with Luc, the owner.  Luc is passionate about sharing with travellers his interest in the impact of the war on Ypres and surrounding area. It was Luc who told me the astonishing story of August Jaeger.

Desertion was not uncommon in this sector: after all, and this was one of the stretches of the Western Front where the Christmas Truce of 1914 (a form of temporary desertion?) had been observed with particular intensity.

The Ypres Salient was where the Germans first used poison gas, and I had always assumed that it came as a complete surprise to the French and British forces in the sector.  But, on 13 April 1915, the German soldier August Jaeger climbed out of his front-line trench and scrambled across the few hundred metres of no-man’s-land, and made it to the French trenches near Langemarck, where he gave himself up.

Interrogated by the French, Jaeger revealed that the Germans were planning to attack the French front line with asphyxiating gas.  He told his interrogators that the only way the French soldiers could protect themselves would be to cover their mouth and nose with cloths soaked in urine.  General Ferry, the commander of the French division sent an urgent message to French General Headquarters with these details. It was two days before he received a reply from his superiors in which he was, in effect, reprimanded by his senior commanders. The reply stated that ‘all this gas business cannot be taken seriously’. It went on to say that a message he had sent to the British 28th Division, also warning them about the gas, had been entirely out of order.

The senior command assumed that if gas was going to be used by the Germans it would only cause minor irritation and would be localised in small areas.

The first use of poison gas by the Germans came a week later, as Jaeger had warned – on 22 April 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.  Following a day of heavy bombardment around Ypres, at around 5 pm, French sentries noticed a curious yellow-green cloud drifting slowly towards their line. Puzzled but suspicious the French suspected that the cloud masked an advance by German infantry and ordered their men to ‘stand to’ – that is, to mount the trench fire step in readiness for probable attack.  But the advancing cloud was composed of chlorine gas, whose effects were severe. Within seconds of inhaling its vapour it destroyed the victim’s respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks. Panic-stricken the French troops fled in disorder, creating a four-mile gap in the Allied line.

The extraordinary story of August Jaeger doesn’t end there.  In 1932 General Ferry, the French commander in 1915, wrote an article in a French magazine about the incident and named Private Jaeger as the deserter. August Jaeger was accused by the German Reich Supreme Court for desertion and betrayal. He pleaded innocent and defended his action on ethical grounds. The court rejected all ethical arguments and declared August a traitor. On 17 December 1932 he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and was held by the Nazis as a political prisoner, first in Buchenwald and Mauthausen concentration camps, before ending up in Dachau.  He was released from Dachau on 24 April 24 1945, aged 54, and disappeared from history.

Branded a traitor to the fatherland in Nazi Germany, August Jaeger was perhaps fortunate not to have faced a firing squad as the unlucky deserters of the British, French and Belgian armies did.  In Shot at Dawn, photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews recently documented many of the sites where around 1,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion (records of where German soldiers were shot were destroyed during the second world war). The project was commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of a commemorative art series, 14–18 NOW,was published as a book in July and will be exhibited at Tate Modern in November.

Shot at dawn former abbatoir

Former abattoir, Mazingarbe, Nord-Pasde- Calais

Private John Jones (21 December 1915 at 7.22am); Private Arthur Dale (24 February 1916, time unknown); Private C Lewis (3 March 1916, time unknown); Private Anthony O’Neill (11 March 1916, time unknown); Private John William Hasemore (30 April 1916, time unknown); Private J Thomas (12 May 1916 at 4.24am); Private William Henry Burrell (20 May 1916, time unknown); Private Edward A Card (22 May 1916, time unknown); Private C Welsh (22 September 1916; time unknown)

Shot at dawn Six Farm Loker

Six Farm, Loker, West-Vlaanderen

Private Joseph Byers and Private Andrew Evans (06 February 1915, time unknown); Private George E Collins (15 February 1915 at 7.30am)

Shot at Dawn Ambleney, Aisne, Picardy

Ambleney, Aisne, Picardy

Jean Boursaud and Alphonse Brosse, 7am, 10.10.1914

See also

Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone

Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone

Near Thiepval 1

Storm approaching over the Somme

I’m driving south from Lille towards Arras, tailwinds from hurricane Bertha sending clouds skittering across the sky above the plains of Picardy – beginning a journey that will take me through the physical landscapes of the First World War – the Somme valley and the old Ypres salient.  At the same time, though, this is very much an inner journey as I attempt to find some meaning in the terrible events that began to unfold here one hundred years ago.

My plan is to follow stories from the war that have a special meaning for me: that shape a narrative which will, no doubt, differ from those traced by others who pass this way. For this summer the road is full of those seeking meaning or consolation in the places where battles were fought, and in the hundreds of wayside cemeteries spread across Flanders and northern France in which are buried the young men who fell in those battles.

Unlike many of those making this pilgrimage, I am not seeking out places where family members were laid to rest. My paternal grandfather survived the war, having served in Macedonia .  Unlike most, it seems possible that he might have had a good war. He was stationed near a village, then known by its Austrian name of Kalinova.  In the 1930s he managed to buy a suburban semi in Hazel Grove and named the house ‘Kalinova’.  No one left alive knows why, but it suggests that he did not have traumatic memories of the place. On my mother’s side, one family member was killed in the war, and is buried in northern Italy.

No. If there is one single reason why I am here, pursuing ghosts in graveyards, it is because of who I am and when I came of age.  I am a child of the sixties and the son of a conscientious objector.  In my teens, Peace News was always in the house – bought by my father who had been a conchie in the Second World War, having been swept up in the Peace Pledge Union in the thirties.

There had been conscientious objectors in the First World War.  They weren’t the first: in 1575 Dutch Mennonites were allowed to refuse military service in exchange for a monetary payment, whilst British Quakers were exempted from military service in the mid-18th century.  But objectors to war had a higher profile in WW1, beginning with the suffragettes who, in 1914, delivered a petition to Downing Street, urging British political leaders to use diplomacy to avoid war.

There were 16,000 conscientious objectors in the first world war – men whose decision not to fight, or to stop fighting, for religious or political or ethical reasons often led to opprobrium and disgrace in their communities. Since 1995, they have had their solitary memorial in Tavistock Square in London

Tavistock Square memorial

The  memorial stone for conscientious objectors in Tavistock Square

Most 1WW conchies were not affiliated to any organisation, taking their stand as a matter of individual conscience and morality, usually founded on their religious affiliation. However, one of the earliest anti-war organisations was founded at The Hague in 1915 when 1,200 women from many different backgrounds and nationalities gathered, committed to study and eliminate the causes of war. They sent out delegations to most countries engaged in the First World War and founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

This reminds of a letter written by the philosopher Mary Midgley and published in the Guardian on 19 June:

Simon Jenkins remarked (about recent proposals to bomb Iraq) that “politics remains stuck in Homer’s day, in human vanity and tribal loyalty”. Indeed. And if warfare were not already a respected national institution – if it were not already accepted as the correct ultimate way of resolving disputes – would anybody now think of proposing it? Would someone then solemnly get up and say, “since we are not getting on very well with solving these problems, we had better just go out and start killing each other”? If they did, how would that proposal be accepted?

The Peace Pledge Union, which influenced my father’s stance in World War 2, emerged from an initiative by Dick Sheppard, canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1934.  He also had published a letter in the Guardian, inviting men (but not women!) to send him postcards pledging never to support war. 135,000 men responded and became members. The initial male-only aspect of the pledge was aimed at countering the idea that only women were involved in the peace movement. However, in 1936 membership was opened to women, and the newly founded Peace News was founded as the PPU’s weekly newspaper. The movement gathered a number of noted public figures as sponsors, including Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Siegfried Sassoon.

So there’s that. And perhaps most important in shaping my view of the war is that I am a child of the sixties, when I read the verses of  1WW poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg, seeing in their invocation of the horrors of a futile war obvious parallels with the war then raging in Vietnam.  The poetry of the First World War seemed to echo the ant-war sentiments of songs being sung at the time by the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs:

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.

– Bob Dylan, ‘With God on Our Side

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

– Phil Ochs, ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

The poetry, Oh! What a Lovely War, and much else that I read at the time, left me with sense – that has never left me – that war in 1914 was avoidable: the feeling of what a waste it all was, of futility:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

– Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’ (written in May 1918)

The poets gave imaginative shape to the war, while from the histories I have read has come the realisation that the war was undoubtedly the most significant event of the 20th century: the event that made the modern world, contributed crucially to the rise of Nazism, and led inevitably to the second global war.

Then there’s the scale of the disaster: with close on 18 million military and civilian deaths, and 20 million wounded, the war ranks as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history (I remember how Blackadder described the Great War as: ‘a war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week’).  More than double the number of British citizens died in the 1WW than in the second.  For some countries, the percentage of those mobilised who were killed was devastating: 37% for Serbia, more than 30% for Romania, more than 20% for Turkey and Bulgaria. (For France the figure was 17%, Germany 15%, and the UK 12.5%).  Vernon Scannell, in his poem ‘The Great War‘ (written after the Second World War) wrote:

Whenever war is spoken of
I find
The war that was called Great invades the mind:

Scannell’s poem summons up the familiar images of trench warfare with its references to ‘fractured tree-trunks’, ‘wire’, ‘zero-hour’, ‘duckboards, mud and rats’, and he concludes that the Great War had more influence on him than the 1939–45 war in which he served:

And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.

The First World War still runs through the British psyche like no other conflict.  The horrors of the war touched everyone, irrespective of class. It closely parallels Vietnam in having left an overwhelming sense of futility, with so many lives lost for such little gain. In this respect it differs from the Second World War, which more convincingly falls into the ‘just war’ definition.   The trauma of the war, and the way in which it continues to haunt the modern memory has been explored by novelists such as Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker, who said in accepting the Booker prize in 1995 for the final volume of her 1WW trilogy, The Ghost Road: ‘The Somme is like the Holocaust: it revealed things we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It never becomes the past.’

In Regeneration (1992), Pat Barker has one character reflect on the war’s terrible reversal of expectations:

The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure (the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys) consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.  The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known.

Although I know that the Western Front is not, by any means, the whole story of the war, this was the place I had to come in this centennial year. I want to pay my respects to the poets by visiting the graves of  Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. I’m going to visit the grave of a Liverpool hero – Noel Chavasse, the only to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the war – and the graves of those who were shot at dawn for desertion. And I want to return to the German cemetery at Vladslo near Ypres, where, twenty years ago, I first encountered Kathe Kollwitz’s deeply moving sculpture The Grieving Parents, a tribute to her youngest son, Peter, who was killed in October 1914 and is buried nearby.

Near Thiepval 4Near Thiepval 5

North of the Somme: through fields of gold 

On the road from Bapaume, I drive across the Arras plain under huge skies, through a landscape of hedge-less, golden fields of grain, already harvested, the rolls of wheat awaiting transportation to winter stores.  Today the scene is peaceful and bountiful, but this landscape still – and will always – hold the memory of carnage. For every mile or so there is a sign for a war cemetery or a small roadside burial ground.

The place names – Fricourt, Mametz, Pozieres – recall the offensive launched here on 1 July 1916 that lasted 141 days – the largest and deadliest of the war, in which more than a million men lost their lives.  On the first day alone, as 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines and the machine guns opened up, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead.

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Nevinson painted the road I am following  in 1917.  No fields of golden grain then.  In his portrayal of the British supply route between Arras and Bapaume, the road stretches beyond the horizon through a bleak and featureless terrain.

CRW Nevinson,The Road from Arras to Bapaume

CRW Nevinson,’The Road from Arras to Bapaume’, 1917

This is farming country, a prairie landscape in which tractors are busy and flocks of crows sweep and settle. Snuggled down in the folds of the plain, the villages through which I pass are places that, but for the disasters of a century ago, might have slept anonymously through history.

Near ThiepvalNear Thiepval 2Near Thiepval 3

Approaching Thiepval

Where to start on this journey?  It’s 9:00 am and I’m approaching a place I have wanted to see ever since reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  From many miles away I can see it, a mountain of red brick and white stone that rises above a copse of trees on the ridge to the west: Thiepval.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields bears the names of 72,194 officers and men of the British and South African forces. These men died in the Somme battle sector and have no known grave. Over 90 percent of those commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial died just in the 141 days of the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. They are the Missing.

The Memorial stands on the ridge above the neat little village of Thiepval.  At the crossroads in the village a multitude of signs point the way to other memorials with famous names.  The village consisted of a few houses, a château and some outlying farms when the Germans first arrived here at the end of September 1914.  Even to a non-military person, the significance of their position atop the ridge is obvious.  The aim of the Franco-British offensive that began in the early morning of 1 July 1916, was to remove the Germans from strong-points such as this.

The ruins of Thiepval village, 1917

The ruins of Thiepval village in 1917

William Orpen Thiepval

William Orpen, Thiepval, 1917

However, in places such as Gommecourt, Serre, Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval, the Germans were well entrenched, in numerous large bunkers dug deep underneath the chalk downs.  German troops were able to survive the preliminary bombardment with few casualties, and with their machine gun posts intact. The losses to the British on the first day of the attack were unprecedented for the British Army, with approximately 58,000 casualties for that day alone including 19,000 of them being killed.  The battles of the Somme 1916 carried on over a period of several months from the first day of July to the middle of November. Every village, hamlet, farmhouse, wood and copse were fought over until the winter weather closed in. Only a few miles of ground had been gained by the end. The village of Thiepval was finally captured by the British at the end of September 1916.

A few months later, the war artist William Orpen returned to the scene of the battle to find the ruins of the village littered with skulls, bones and fragments of clothing. In his painting, Orpen observes the human remains and broken objects with an unflinching eye. Beneath a fine summer sky,tufts of grass and poppies are pushing through around scattered skeletons.

Thiepval 2

The Thiepval Memorial

I was lucky; in this centenary year, places of remembrance such as Thiepval are attracting large numbers.  But, arriving at around 9:30, I had the place to myself for nearly half an hour.  It overwhelmed me.

The Thiepval memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was built in red brick and limestone between 1928 and 1932, and is the largest British battle memorial in the world.  It takes the form of a gigantic memorial arch, a sort of Rubik’s cube of interlocking arches in four different sizes: each side of the main arch containing a smaller arch at right angles to the main arch. Each of these smaller arches is then pierced by a still smaller arch, and so on.

Thiepval 6b

The main arch of the Thiepval Memorial

The main arch is colossal, dwarfing those who stand beneath it.  At its centre is the Stone of Remembrance bearing the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’, a phrase taken from Ecclesiasticus and suggested by Rudyard Kipling who lost his son, John, killed in his first hour in action at the Battle of Loos. Kipling died before his son’s body was found in 1919, and he felt especially deeply for those families who had lost sons, fathers, brothers and who were ‘missing in action’.

Thiepval 4

The Stone of Remembrance at Thiepval

For this great memorial stands in remembrance of the Missing: the 72,194 names that are inscribed on the huge stone panels which line the piers of the building being only those of the men missing in action on the battlefield of the Somme.  In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer’s account of his own pilgrimage to the Somme,he describes the Memorial as ‘palpably here, unmissable’:

The monument has none of the vulnerability of the human body, none of its terrible propensity for harm.  Its predominant relation is to the earth – not, as in the case with a cathedral, to the sky.  A cathedral reaches up, defies gravity effortlessly, its effect entirely vertiginous. […] The Thiepval Memorial … is stubborn, stoical.  Like the deadlocked armies of the war, it stands its ground.

The contrast with a cathedral is telling in another, broader sense.  In keeping with Luytens’ general preference, the Memorial is stripped of Christian symbolism; there was, he felt, no need for it.  For many men who survived, the Battle of the Somme (which, in memory, represents the core experience and expression of the Great War) put an end to the consoling power of religion.  ‘From that moment’, a soldier has said of the first day’s fighting, ‘all my religion died’.

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The Missing

The names of quiet villages and woods on the gently rolling chalk downs hereabouts became associated for ever with the famous battles of 1916. Each pier of the Thiepval Memorial carries the names of these battles: Albert, Gommecourt, Serre, Bazentin Ridge, Delville Wood, Pozières, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Thiepval, Le Transloy, Ancre Heights.

Thiepval 6 Thiepval 12Thiepval 10Thiepval 11

Behind the Memorial is an Anglo-French cemetery that contains 300 Commonwealth burials and 300 French burials, mostly those of bodies recovered from the 1916 battlefields on the Somme.  The French gravestones take the form of a simple concrete cross emblazoned with the single word ‘Inconnu’, whilst most of the British and Commonwealth headstones are inscribed with the phrase ‘A soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’.

Alone here for a while, I try to absorb the meaning of this place, try to contain my emotions.  There is only the sound of the soughing of the wind in the trees which surround the Memorial, trees planted when the Memorial was erected that have now seen as many summers as the men remembered here might have hoped to know.  Swallows swoop above the graves, and for a moment I imagine them to be the souls of the lost.

It was Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong that first awoke my desire to visit this place – reading this passage in which Elizabeth, the grand-daughter of the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, seeking to learn more about her grandfather’s experiences in World War I, arrives at Thiepval:

The next day she drove to Bapaume and followed the signs for Albert, a town, Bob had told her, that was close to a number of historic sites and which, according to the book, had a small museum.  The road from Bapaume was dead straight. Elizabeth sat back in her seat and allowed the car to steer itself, with only her left hand resting on the bottom of the wheel. […]

After ten minutes she began to see small brown signs by the side of the   road; then came a cemetery, like any municipal burial ground, behind a  wall, belched on by the fumes of the rumbling container lorries. The signs began to come faster,   even though Albert was still some ten kilometres away.  Through the fields to her right Elizabeth saw a peculiar, ugly arch that sat among the crops and woods. She took it for a beet refinery at first, but then saw it was too big: it was made of brick or stone  on a monumental scale. It was as though the Pantheon or the Arc de Triomphe had been dumped in a meadow.

Intrigued, she turned off the road to Albert on to a smaller road that led through the gently rising fields. The curious arch stayed in view, visible from any angle, as its designers had presumably intended. She came to a cluster of buildings, too few and too scattered to be called a village or even a hamlet. She left the car and walked towards the arch.

In front of it was a lawn, lush, cropped and formal in the English style, with a path between its trimmed edges.  From near to, the scale of the arch became apparent: it was supported on four vast columns; it  overpowered the open landscape. The size of it was compounded by its brutal modern design; although clearly a memorial, it reminded her of Albert Speer’s buildings for the Third Reich.

Elizabeth walked up the stone steps that led to it.  A man in a blue jacket was sweeping in the large space enclosed by the pillars. As she came up to the arch Elizabeth saw with a start that it was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone. There were names on it.

Every grain of the surface had been carved with British names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself; on every surface of every column as far as her eyes could see   there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of   yards, over furlongs of stone.

She moved through the space beneath the arch where the man was sweeping.  She found the other pillars identically   marked, their faces obliterated on all sides by the names that were carved on them.

‘Who are these, these .  .  . ?’ She gestured with her hand.

‘These?’ The man with the brush sounded surprised. ‘The lost.’

‘Men who died in this battle?’

‘No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the  cemeteries.’

‘These are just the . . . the unfound?’

She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in   footnotes.

When she could speak again, she said, ‘From the whole war?’

The man shook his head.  ‘Just these fields.’ He gestured with his arm.

Elizabeth went through and sat on the steps on the other side of the   monument. Beneath her was a formal garden with some rows of white headstones, each with a tended plant or flower at its base, each cleaned   and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.

‘Nobody told me.’ She ran her fingers with their red-painted nails back   through her thick dark hair.  ‘My God,  nobody  told  me. ‘

Thiepval 14

The Missing of the Somme: display in Thiepval Visitor Centre

Discretely situated some distance away, amidst the trees, is the Thiepval Visitor Centre where displays explain the course of the battles that took place here.  One display panel features photographs of some of the men who are commemorated on the Memorial. The panel consists of 600 head and shoulders pictures which were selected to provide a representative cross-section of the 72,000 on the Memorial.  The display represents an ongoing project which attempts to gather photographs and biographical information on each of the individuals named on the Memorial and add them to a computer database.

One of those named on the Memorial is George Butterworth, an English composer with a promising future, a contemporary of  Vaughan Williams, now best known for the romantic pastoral, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. In August 1916, when the Battle of the Somme was entering its most intense phase, at Pozieres (just below the ridge on which the Thiepval monument stands), Butterworth was shot through the head by a sniper. He was hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench, but his body was lost in the fierce bombardments of the next two years. I was interested to discover a local connection: the première of ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ took place in February 1914, when Adrian Boult conducted a combined orchestra of forty members of the Hallé and Liverpool orchestras in West Kirby.

Butterworth Thiepval

George Butterworth’s name on the Memorial at Thiepval

A small aside: a few months after the premiere of Butterworth’s work, Vaughan Williams was composing ‘The Lark Ascending’ whilst holidaying on the coast at Margate in Kent.  It was the day Britain entered the war, and offshore ships were engaging in fleet exercises. The tune came into the composer’s head as he walked the cliff, and he jotted down the notes. A young scout then made a citizen’s arrest, assuming he was scribbling details of the coastline for the enemy.

Thiepval 5

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
                                                                   I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

                                                                            What place is this?
                                                                            Where are we now? 
                                                                            I am the grass.
                                                                            Let me work.

 – ‘Grass’, Carl Sandburg

As Geoff Dyer observes in The Missing of the Somme, there had been military disasters before the Somme, but calamities such as the Charge of the Light Brigade served ‘only as indictments of individual strategy, not of the larger purpose of which they were a part’.  With the Great War, for the first time in history, comes a sense of the utter waste and futility of war.  So much of the meaning of the 20th century is, Dyer argues, concentrated in the once-devastated landscape of the Somme:

Thiepval is not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future, to what the century had in store for those who were left, whom age would weary.

Later on my journey I would stand at the grave of Isaac Rosenberg who produced some of the most uncompromising poetry of the war.  At Thiepval I thought of his poem ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the plainest and most brutal explanation there is of how the bodies of the Missing came to be lost:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

Menin Gate 1Menin Gate 1c

The Menin Gate, Ypres

After Thiepval, I wasn’t done with the Missing.  Many of the cemeteries I visited during the next few days contained, alongside the graves of those whose bodies were identified, monuments to those who had been killed in some local offensive, but whose remains were never found. Finally, I ended my brief trip in Ypres, standing at 8:00 in the evening with several hundred other people at the Menin Gate to hear the Last Post.

The Menin Gate is another Memorial to the Missing, one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing in the area of the Ypres. The memorial bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. The names are engraved on stone panels on the inner walls of the central Hall of Memory which spans a main road into the town, and also on the sides of staircases leading from the lower level to the upper exterior level, and on walls inside the loggias on the north and south sides of the building.

Menin Gate 2 Menin Gate 3  Menin Gate 5 Menin Gate 6 Menin Gate 7 Menin Gate 8

The names of the Missing

In 1914 this was simply a crossing point over the moat that surrounds Ypres, a place most soldiers would have passed when leaving the city along the Menin road that lead eastwards into the battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The first sounding of the Last Post took place on 1 July 1928. and has been sounded at the Menin Gate every night since, the only exception being during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from May 1940 to September 1944. The Last Postis played by buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade.

Menin Gate Last Post  Menin Gate Last Post 2

Crowds gather for the Last Post in August 2014

During the 1990s I would accompany my European Studies students to the Menin Gate for the Last Post.  It was usually February, and a few hundred of us would stand in the central archway with a clear view of the buglers. Last week, on the evening I visited, there must have been several thousand people gathered under and around the Gate, so I could only hear, but not see, the buglers.  Not surprisingly, visitor numbers have increased significantly in this centenary year. The problem is that the Gate is a major access point to the centre of Ypres, and the road under the Gate is now closed for an hour or more while ceremony takes place.

You might think that an event that has become a major tourist attraction, drawing a gathering of so many people would lose any sense of solemnity or meaning.  But that is not the case.  Silence is observed throughout the ceremony, and who could fail to reflect on the meaning of this act of remembrance when surrounded by all those names?

Menin Gate Last Post 3

An Ypres newspaper image of the Last Post ceremony

On the city ramparts adjoining the Gate is a garden of remembrance where I found a plaque with the words of  ‘Last Post’ by Flemish poet Herman de Coninck, in an English translation by Tanis Guest.  The poet imagines driving like the clappers from his home town of Antwerp to reach Ypres in time for the Last Post.  The poem references Edmund Blunden who saw action, not just at Ypres and in the Salient, but on the Somme as well:

This evening I was going to Ypres. Getting on for six.
I drove into the setting sun, and three storeys high
Dali-esque clouds which were being seen off by a force –

nine gale, the heavens blew away from the earth,
no way I could stop them, I drove and drove, 95 mph,
and every minute fell ten minutes behind. There went my horizon.

When I get into Ypres it’s 1917. Germans have blasted the sun
to smithereens. What light there still is, is explosions.
I’m in a poem by Edmund Blunden.

From the trenches he’s writing an ode to the poppy.
Earth has a great super-ego of flowers over it;
Blunden has them literally in his sights.

Here for all of a couple of years
it’s the second before you die.
Little things are all there is.

Later I listen to the Last Post at the Menin Gate:
three bugles you can hear cut back through eighty years
right to whatever’s left now on the bone.

 The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

And here’s a photo that explains why the citizens of Ypres maintain this daily act of remembrance.  During the war, the town was under constant  bombardment, and was reduced to ruins. Its most beautiful building, the Cloth Hall, completed in 1304, lay in ruins, devastated by artillery fire. Between 1933 and 1967, however, the hall was meticulously reconstructed. It now houses the brilliant, award-winning In Flanders Fields museum.

Ypres Cloth Hall

The Cloth Hall today

Passing the news-stands, although I can’t read the headlines, I can see they all concern war: Gaza, Iraq, and on the fringes of Europe, Ukraine. All sites where the Great War was fought and where today’s borders were defined at the close of the war. Unfinished business. Past and present touch.

The mood at the war’s inception was very different to that of its end.  ‘The Send-off’ by Wilfred Owen captures those contrasting moods:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Menin Gate 4


The 1WW trip

The Missing of the Somme: Have you forgotten yet?

The Missing of the Somme: Have you forgotten yet?

Isn’t this the way back to the Great War for all of us in succeeding generations: we enter the labyrinth of time and  follow the thread of the memory of someone in the family – son or father, uncle or brother – who died in the trenches or, perhaps, survived – wounded or traumatised by the experience?  As Jay Winter observed in The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century:

War is always the destroyer of families, and the Great War was to date the greatest destroyer of them all. Of the 70 million men who served in uniform in all combatant countries, over 9 million died or were killed on active service; 3 million widows and 10 million orphans owed their fate to the war of 1914-18.  We will never know what trauma on this scale meant to those who went through it.

Remembering his own grandfather is how Geoff Dyer begins The Missing of the Somme, his lyrical meditation on remembrance and the meaning of World War I, first published in 1994. As we enter a centennial season of commemoration and conflicting interpretation, I’ve been reading Dyer’s characteristically discursive, thoughtful work which he describes as ‘an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…’. And I’ve just embarked upon The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark who begins his book by remembering his great-uncle Jim, badly wounded on the western front in May 1918.

A hundred years on, the First World War still exerts a powerful hold over British minds: you only have to think of the kerfuffle in response to Michael Gove’s assertion that the war was ‘a just war’ in defence of western liberal values, misrepresented in dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite, a myth reinforced by left-wing historians (see Richard Evans’ rebuttal here).

Aside from preening politicians and debating historians, though, it’s the poignancy of countless individual lives wrecked or destroyed that draws us back to 1914-18. As Wilfred Owen wrote, remembering is not ‘about heroes’. Nor, he insisted, is it about ‘deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power’.  The subject is simply ‘War, and the pity of War’.

Geoff Dyer’s short book is about remembrance – how the World War I entered the nation’s collective memory through monuments and graves, poetry, fiction and art to become entwined with British identity and memory; and how, remarkably, the war provoked, in Dyer’s words, ‘the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining’. Dyer points out how many of the iconic images by which we remember the war were established in advance of its conclusion.

For example, those lines of Laurence Binyon’s, now burned into the nation’s conciousness –

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

– were actually written in September 1914, ‘before the fallen actually fell’, as Dyer laconically remarks.

Ernest Brooks, British soldier beside the grave of a comrade during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917

Similarly, Ernest Brooks iconic photograph of a British soldier (above), silhouetted with head bowed and rifle across his back, was taken on 22 August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, is an image of remembrance – ‘a photograph of the way the war will come to be remembered’:

It is a photograph of the future, of the future’s view of the past.  It is a photograph of Binyon’s poem, of a sentiment. We will remember them.

‘Even while the war was raging’, writes Dyer, ‘the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered.’  Dyer finds many examples to support this assessment, such as this passage from Le Feu, the novel by Henri Barbusse, published in 1916 and translated into English the following year.  Bertrand, one of the soldiers in Barbusse’s novel exclaims:

How will they regard this slaughter, they who’ll live after us … How will they regard these exploits which even we who perform them don’t know whether one should compare them with those of Plutarch’s and Corneille’s heroes or with those of hooligans and Apaches. […] The future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful.  And yet – the present – it had to be, it had to be!

Le Feu was the first major work of prose to give fictional expression to the experience of war and was a big influence on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  ‘We’re forgetting machines’, exclaims another of Barbusse’s soldiers, and Dyer finds examples from poetry and prose of the period to demonstrate how the fear of forgetting permeated the work of Owen, Sassoon and others – and has marked ‘every generation since the armistice’.  The issue, Dyer argues, is not simply the way the war generated memory, but:

The way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.

This is Dyer’s theme: how our perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by images of the war in literature, art and public memorials – mostly produced while the war was still in progress, or within 15 years of the Armistice.  It’s something that struck me while reading Paul Gough’s A Terrible Beauty recently. Gough draws on archives in the Imperial War Museum to reveal how, from as early as 1916, artists such as CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and William Roberts were commissioned under the official British war art scheme to document the war, resulting in some of the most extraordinary art of the 20th century. Before the war was over the Imperial War Museum had been established, and both the British and Canadian governments had initiated plans for war memorials and halls of Remembrance that would display commissioned war art.

Paul Nash, The Menin Road

Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, commissioned for the planned Hall of Remembrance in 1918

As Dyer points out, the dominant theme of the resulting cultural works – paintings, statues and war memorials at home and in the cemeteries along the western front – is not victory or glory, but sacrifice and its remembrance.  The memory of the war was elaborately constructed in the decade and a half following the cessation of hostilities. So it comes about that the war’s true subject is remembrance. How it should be remembered continues to be fought over retrospectively.

Dyer offers a pertinent example: how official and public attitudes to those who refused to obey and fight, who ‘actively rejected the passivity forced upon by the war, who reasserted their right not to suffer’ has changed over time.  Woven into Dyer’s meditations on poems, photographs and sculpture are glimpses of his own pilgrimage to the cemeteries and memorials along the western front where millions of dead have been marked for memory.  He tells how he made a special effort to find the village of Bailleulmont where, in the communal cemetery, in an isolated corner away from the civilian graves, is a group of four military headstones.

Unusually they are brown, rather than the usual white, and mark the burials of four of the more than 300 British soldiers shot for desertion or cowardice.  One headstone is inscribed:

1st DECEMBER 1916


Ingham memorial Bailleulmont

A worthy son of his father…

Ingham – and his friend Alfred Longshaw – served together at the Somme, deserted together, were executed together and now lie together. For years Ingham’s family believed he had simply ‘died of wounds’ – as the  inscriptions on the headstones of other executed men maintain – but when his father was informed of the truth he insisted on this inscription being added to the headstone.  Dyer comments:

The deserter’s grave has become a hero’s grave; pride has come to reside not in the carrying out of duty but in its humane dereliction.

Dyer’s visit to Ingham’s grave is but one stop on his pilgrimage to the war cemeteries along the western front. He finds the size of the cemeteries overwhelming, the numbers are too big to comprehend (I used to take European Studies students to the British and German cemeteries at Tyne Cot and Langemark, and can vouch for the emotional impact of these affecting monuments to brave lives wasted). The French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette has 20,000 named graves and an ossuary with 20,000 unknown dead.

Thiepval Memorial and graves

The Thiepval Memorial and graves

The Thiepval Memorial (which gives Dyer the title of his book, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme) bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died in the iconic battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. On the first day alone, 20,000 British soldiers died and another 40,000 were wounded or their bodies never found. The numbers, as Dyer notes, stop standing for anything but numbers.

It is overwhelming. The distance of a century is effaced. You stand aghast while the wind hurtles through your clothes, searing your ears until you find yourself almost vanishing: in the face of this wind, in this expanse of lifelessness, you cannot hold your own: you do not count. There is no room for the living. The wind, the cold, force you away.

Missing of the Somme Thiepval

Thiepval: The Missing of the Somme

Walking among the endless headstones of the western front, Dyer comes to feel that the war’s commemoration overtook all its other meanings.  It’s as if the survivors were trying to convince themselves, through art and ritual, that the sacrifice had been worthwhile. Memorialised even before it was completed, ‘the war was fought in order to be remembered’.  Of Thiepval he writes (in 1994):

So much of the meaning of our century is concentrated here.  Thiepval is not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future, to what the century had in store for those who were left, whom age would weary.

Cenotaph 1919

At the Cenotaph in 1919

Dyer ponders the significance of dates – 4 August 1914, 1 July 1916, 11 November 1918 – and the extent to which the ebbing and flowing of the memory of the Great War are ‘determined by the gravitational pull of the calendar’. The Great War ended at the predetermined eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. If the intention was to bring the future memory of the war into the sharpest possible focus, it could hardly have been better arranged, Dyer remarks, arguing that the various ceremonies of Remembrance could not have worked so powerfully without this precise temporal anchoring.  However, since the Second World War, this anchoring has been lost:

Remembrance Day can now drift three days clear of the eleventh of November. Hence the sense noted earlier that at the Cenotaph it is the act of remembering together that is being remembered. Past and present are only imperfectly aligned.

Dyer wrote The Missing of the Somme in 1994, remarking, then, that:

We are drawing gradually closer to the time when the war took place exactly a hundred years ago. In terms of remembrance the years 2014- 2018 will represent the temporal equivalent of a total eclipse.

Interspersed with his meditations on poems, photographs and sculpture are Dyer’s record of his own trip to the cemeteries and memorials along the Belgian and French borderlands. At their best these scenes are painted with a sombre lyricism, but sometimes they are, as you might expect from Dyer, less respectful. Dyer drives through the verdant landscape where the trenches were dug and the battles of 1914-18 were fought with an unruly carload of his friends.  They take to calling their car the ‘tank’, their hotel a ‘billet’, and speaking in a parody of the trench demotic:

By now the tank is a slum. It is littered with pate rind, bread crumbs, greaseproof paper, orange peel and banana skins. Tins of beer rattle across the floor every time we turn a corner […] Paul is driving. We are waiting at a junction. He begins pulling out on to the main road.

‘Watch out!’

A truck, overtaking a car on the main road, thunders past, missing us by inches. We’re all stunned. We talk about nothing else for the next hour.

‘Think of the publicity that would have got for your book,’ says Mark. ‘Getting killed before you even wrote it.’

‘This is not a book about Paul’s driving,’ I say. ‘English poetry is not yet fit to speak of it.’

‘Dulce et decorum est in tankus mori,’ says Paul.

Personally, I found these portions of the book a bit tiresome.  Overall, though, this is a book worth reading for Dyer’s discussions on remembrance and the poetry, prose and memorials of the war, even if a certain amount of what he has to say seems slightly second-hand if you have read Paul Fussell’s definitive The Great War and Modern Memory or Jay Winter’s The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century.

To return to my opening remarks.  Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, his recently-published and acclaimed history of the origins of the war, acknowledges how his interest in the war was provoked when he was given the wartime journal kept by his great-uncle, James Joseph O’Brien, an Australian grazier who took part in the battles of the Third Ypres campaign.  Clark recalls one particular conversation with Jim when he was nine years old.  He asked his great-uncle whether the men who fought in the war were scared, or keen to fight.  Some were scared and some were keen, he replied.  Did the keen ones fight better than the scared ones? ‘No’, said Jim, ‘It was the keen ones who shat themselves first’. Clark adds:

I was deeply impressed by this reply and puzzled over it – especially the word ‘first’ – for some time.

At the beginning of his book, Dyer recalls leafing through a family album and encountering a photo of his grandfather who survived the war to resume the life he had left. He died aged ninety-one, able still only to write his name.  In the photo, he is one of a group of men in hospital,  two with patches over their eyes, three with arms in slings. His grandfather, he writes was:

Born (illegitimate) in Worthen in Shropshire, eighteen miles from Oswestry where Wilfred Owen was born. Farm labourer. Able only to read and write his name. Enlisted in 1914. Served on the Somme as a driver (of horses), where, according to family legend, he once went up to the front-line trenches in place of a friend whose courage had suddenly deserted him. Later, back in the reserve trench, he shovelled the remains of his best friend into a sandbag.

Every family, Dyer says, has the same album and a version of the same legend. But, he continues, though ‘everything I have said about my grandfather is true’:

He is not the man second from the left in the photograph. I do not know who that is. It makes no difference. He could be anyone’s grandfather. Like many young men, my grandfather was under age when he turned up to enlist. The recruiting sergeant told him to come back in a couple of days when he was two years older. My grandfather duly returned, added a couple of years to his age and was accepted into the army. Similar episodes are fairly common in the repertoire of recruitment anecdotes, but I never doubted the veracity of this particular version of it, which my mother told several times over the years. It came as a surprise, then, to discover from his death certificate that my grandfather was born in November 1893 (the same year as Owen), and so was twenty when war broke out. One of the commonly circulating stories of the 1914 generation had been so thoroughly absorbed by my family that it had become part of my grandfather’s biography. He is everyone’s grandfather.

Dyer’s grandfather was Geoffrey Tudor, born the same year as Wilfred Owen, in a town not far away.On his ‘Certificate of Employment during the War’, Tudor is listed as a farm labourer. Next to ‘special remarks’, it says: ‘Steady and reliable. A very good groom and driver. Takes great care of his animals’. Dyer remarks that ‘the Major who filled out this certificate might have been describing an animal’; he himself went to Oxford to study with the elite, and no one, he observes, would describe him as ‘steady and reliable’. Yet, he concludes:

My deepest sense of kinship with my family is activated by this form of my grandfather’s – not just my love: my class feeling, my ambition, my loyalty. That form – army certificate Z.18 – is why this book has the shape – the form – it does.

The dedication of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, July 1936

The dedication of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, July 1936

‘Aftermath’, written by Siegfried Sassoon in 1919:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

 Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads -those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.