Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding

Rereading John Berger: <em>To the Wedding</em>

Following news of the death of John Berger I decided to re-visit some of his books, many of which I last read decades ago. In this post I want to discuss his novel To the Wedding, first published in 1995. There must be some truth in the notion that the circumstances surrounding an encounter with an artistic work somehow may affect our response. When I first read this book soon after publication, I admired it as much for its portrayal of a post-Cold War Europe in which the novel’s characters could move with greater freedom across borders as for its its story of two young lovers facing a future poisoned by AIDS. Reading it again this week, still grieving after our own personal loss, the novel overwhelmed me with its humanity, its  assertion of love in the face of death, with the fierce determination of a couple who seize joy from the present with a wedding feast described by Berger in  transcendent passages that form the book’s conclusion.

What shall we do before eternity?

Take our time.

Dance without shoes?

Re-acquainting myself with To the Wedding, I now believe this to be John Berger’s masterpiece.  Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding

The heart of a dog: an elegy

The heart of a dog: an elegy

I haven’t felt able to write for the last few days. As if January 2017 wasn’t bad enough – paint it battleship grey with a cold, steel heart – our beloved dog passed away on Saturday. If those words arouse no strong feeling of empathy, it’s OK, you can leave now. We dog lovers know there are many who don’t share our passion. Continue reading “The heart of a dog: an elegy”

Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times

Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times

Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us opens with a panoramic shot of a car making its way along a dusty track winding through a bare landscape dotted with occasional trees. In the car a group of film-makers argue about directions to the village where they have arranged to make a film. They are looking for a turning that should be near a single tree. One of the film-makers quotes a line from a Sufi poem: ‘Near the tree is a wooded lane/Greener than the dreams of God… .’

In those few seconds of film are encapsulated several of the defining characteristics and concerns of the films of the Iranian director, whose death was announced earlier this month. Years after seeing his films, images from them still haunt my imagination. Continue reading “Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times”

Stories Only Exist When Remembered: a film of exquisite beauty

<em>Stories Only Exist When Remembered</em>: a film of exquisite beauty

One of the pleasures of blogging comes with the responses you sometimes get from a person you have never met, who may live on the other side of the world, yet who has read and appreciated something you have written. One instance was last week, when Victor wrote from Brazil in appreciation of a post I had written some time ago about the Korean film Poetry.

As a token of his appreciation Victor recommended a Brazilian film of which I’d never heard, viewable on YouTube. Stories Only Exist When Remembered, a first feature directed by Julia Murat in 2011, proved to be an exquisite film, a meditation on memory, time and ageing in which few words are spoken but much is implied. Continue reading Stories Only Exist When Remembered: a film of exquisite beauty”

The British: ‘a people living in shells, reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious’

The British: ‘a people living in shells, reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious’
Writing about FW Murnau’s silent film Sunrise in my previous post, I mentioned a poem called ‘Silent Cinema’ that I had come across.  It was by Arthur Tessimond (1902-1962), a poet about whom his current publisher, Bloodaxe Books admits on their website ‘almost all trace … has disappeared.’

Continue reading “The British: ‘a people living in shells, reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious’”

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

A week or so ago I wrote about L8 Unseen, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  Now I’ve been to see another exhibition of photographs from Liverpool 8, this one at the Bluecoat.  Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presents images virtually unseen for 40 years which provide a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when it was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities. Continue reading “Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s”

Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

Recently I was presented with a beautiful gift – a book by Dominick Tyler called Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape. The book is the product of a year that Tyler spent travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to photograph specific features of the natural world. Continue reading “Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again”

Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker

Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker

On show at the Walker in Liverpool until June is a tremendous exhibition of photography by Martin Parr and Tony Ray Jones. I first saw the exhibition Only in England when it was on at the Science Museum in London in 2013, and it so captivated me then that I had to go and see it again. Continue reading “Only in England: photos by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker”

From Berlin to New York: the origins of Blue Note

From Berlin to New York:  the origins of Blue Note

There was still a fortnight to go when the postman handed me an early Christmas present.  Out of the blue, and unprecedented, I was the lucky winner of a competition. The prize was a copy of Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers, a massive, magnificent and beautifully-illustrated book published by Thames and Hudson (who awarded me the prize) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the coolest and best-known label in the history of jazz. With the book came a poster and a 5-CD box set of 75 singles released by Blue Note in the past 75 years. Continue reading “From Berlin to New York: the origins of Blue Note”

Jane Bown: looking for the light

Jane Bown: looking for the light

Jane Bown, self-portrait, c1986

Jane Bown, self-portrait, c 1986

‘I was terrified, I don’t think I even knew who he was. But the light was good …’

That was the photographer Jane Bown who died yesterday, speaking of her first commission for the Observer in 1949 – a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.  Her words, writes Luke Dodds today in his tender and funny Guardian obituary of one of Britain’s finest post-war photographers, ‘classic Jane: concise, self-deprecating and modestly assured’.

Bertrand Russell by Jane Bown

Bown differed from her male colleagues in the world of photo-journalism in many ways, Dodds tell us. She was intuitive, worked fast, and lacked all interest in camera equipment. In a typical shoot she exposed no more than a roll and a half of film, often in just 15 minutes.

Once, in a dark alleyway down the side of the Royal Court theatre in London, she cornered Samuel Beckett, who was notorious for refusing to be photographed. ‘With simmering hostility’, he stood long enough for Jane to expose five frames – the middle one, says Dodds, ‘is one of her most recognisable portraits and the best portrait of the playwright’.

Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown

Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown

In 1969, Jane produced another iconic portrait – of Billie Whitelaw, who also died yesterday. Best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, she has been described as his ‘muse’, and will always be associated with the three major works – Not I (1973), Footfalls (1976) and Rockaby (1981) – that Beckett wrote specifically for her, roles that placed enormous technical and psychological demands on the actress. ‘She doesn’t ask any damn-fool questions,’ Beckett once said wryly, explaining his preference for the unpretentious woman, daughter of a Liverpool electrician and his wife, who grew up in Bradford.

Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown

Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown

Jane Bown’s main preoccupation on any shoot was the light. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and in a completely intuitive way, preferring to ignore the camera’s light meter. Many of her best pictures involved a single exposure and she once remarked: ‘I was always a one-shot photographer … where I’m good is that I am very quick.’

Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

In his obituary, Luke Dodds adds this little vignette of her working method:

She liked to be at the same height or slightly higher than her subjects: given her diminutive stature, this sometimes led to unorthodox requests – Michael Parkinson reclining on the floor of ITN’s reception; Björk perched on rubbish bins outside the MTV studios in Camden Town. Then she would begin to circle the subject, gently clicking all the time. She knew instinctively if she had captured a good frame and would often say: “Ah, there you are.” Jane liked nothing better than to concentrate on the eyes, often using such a limited depth of field that one of the subject’s eyes is slightly out of focus.

David Hockney by Jane Bown

David Hockney by Jane Bown

I enjoyed Dobbs’ story of when Jane photographed Tony Blair just before he became prime minister in 1997. He writes:

Looking at the contact sheets it is clear that she struggled. When I asked her about it she replied: ‘It was impossible … he was nice and he allowed me to follow him upstairs so that he could try on a different shirt.’ When I pressed further, she scrunched up her face trying to remember the day and eventually said: ‘It was impossible, because there was nothing real there.’

Maya Angelou by Jane Bown

Maya Angelou, who also died this year, by Jane Bown

WH Auden

WH Auden by Jane Bown

John Betjeman by Jane Bown

John Betjeman by Jane Bown

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud by Jane Bown

Keith Richards by Jane Bown

Keith Richards by Jane Bown

John Lennon by Jane Bown

John Lennon by Jane Bown

Joan Baez by Jane Bown

Joan Baez by Jane Bown

Doris Lessing by Jane Bown

Doris Lessing by Jane Bown

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown

Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown

Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown

Eamonn McCabe, one time picture editor at the Guardian adds an affectionate footnote to Luke Dodds’ obituary, in which he writes:

Nobody has taken so many wonderful photographs of so many great faces with such little fuss as Jane Bown. She was a reluctant star, hating the attention of being well-known herself. She hated being photographed too. I was lucky she trusted me, but she watched me like a hawk when I photographed her at 80. She photographed the Queen that year and I photographed the queen of photography.

I worked alongside her at the Observer for nearly 15 years and she was as nervous as the rest of us every time she went out to take a picture, but unlike many of us, she prepared meticulously. Light was the most important thing in her life. She never used flash, probably didn’t know how it worked.

If you look at many of Jane’s pictures, the subject is often smiling and relaxed. That was because they were often taken after a long lunch, at which Jane would never drink, and shot by a light-filled window. But the real reason was that they all loved Jane. I often see her kind of picture when I look through a lens now, and think to myself, I can’t take that … it’s a Jane Bown.

Jane Bown in 2006.

Jane Bown in 2006 by Eamonn McCabe

Germaine Greer once wrote of Jane Bown: ‘If we are to assess the best of her photojournalism it is to Cartier-Bresson that we must turn to find her soulmate.’

See also

Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers

Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers

‘I lived in Bohemia, and Bohemia is a tolerant place.’

My daughter and I share a love for David Hockney, so on Tuesday evening we joined those attending cinemas across the country for first screening of the feature-length documentary about the artist, to be followed by a Q&A with Hockney live from his Los Angeles home.

It’s a superb film, directed by Randall Wright, who also made the excellent Lucian Freud: Painted Life and David Hockney: Secret Knowledge for the BBC. Intimate and affectionate, Hockney‘s emotional punch comes from the artist having, for the first time, given access to his personal video and photo library. Like today’s selfie and Instagram devotees, but decades earlier, Hockney assiduously documented his own life on film, starting with the house he grew up in in Bradford, to his new life as a blond in the Mediterranean sunlight of southern California, where he found the space and colour he transmuted into iconic paintings. Continue reading “Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers”

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