‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield

‘Still’: Simon Armitage’s poetic response to photographs of the Somme battlefield

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

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

The Somme: they went over the top one hundred years ago this morning

The Somme: they went over the top one hundred years ago this morning

At 7.30 on a sunny morning one hundred years ago today more than sixty thousand British soldiers, each with a bayonet rifle in his hand, began climbing out of their trenches along a 13-mile front and walked towards the German line. By nightfall 20,000 British soldiers were dead. In just a few minutes whole communities in Britain had been devastated.  This was the start of the Battle of the Somme. It went on, with little gain, for nearly half a year. By then, more than a million men were dead or wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Continue reading “The Somme: they went over the top one hundred years ago this morning”

At the Imperial War Museum (3): Percy Delf Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death forbids

Percy Smith, Death forbids, from The Dance of Death series

While in London recently we saw the extensive Imperial War Museum exhibition, Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. Billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, it has needed three posts to do it justice. In this final post I want to highlight a suite of seven etchings by an artist who was completely new to me. The printmaker Percy Delf Smith’s series The Dance of Death, utilises the medieval allegory of the universality of death to express the macabre lottery of life on the Western Front. Continue reading “At the Imperial War Museum (3): Percy Delf Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’”

At the Imperial War Museum (2): The disturbing vision of William Orpen

At the Imperial War Museum (2): The disturbing vision of William Orpen

 

While in London recently we saw the extensive Imperial War Museum exhibition, Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. Billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, it has needed three posts to do it justice.  This one is concerned with the paintings of William Orpen.

At the outbreak of the First World War, William Orpen was a member of the Royal Academy and a highly successful society portrait painter. How did this artist, regarded as the epitome of conservatism, depict the war? Continue reading “At the Imperial War Museum (2): The disturbing vision of William Orpen”

Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Peronne Historial 1

L’Historial beside the lake of the Somme at Peronne

The Historial de la Grande Guerre is an excellent museum of the First World War in Peronne, the small town straddling the upper reaches of the Somme which was my base during the time I spent exploring the memorials and cemeteries there. The museum was opened in 1992 and houses presentations in three languages – French, English and German – to show how each nation experienced the war in this sector. It is not a military but a cultural museum which seeks to show how the lives of combatants and civilians were affected by the war. For me, the main attraction was a display of a complete set of Otto Dix’s series of etchings, Der Krieg (The War), his harrowing cycle of prints in which he documented the horrors of his own wartime experience.

Peronne Historial 2

The entrance to the Historial, through the gateway of the Chateau

The Historial is housed in the partly-ruined medieval Château de Péronne, in a modernist building of white concrete  on the banks of one of the placid lakes (etangs) of the Somme which make a stroll around Peronne such a pleasant experience.

Peronne Somme 2 Peronne Somme 3 Peronne Somme

Peaceful scenes on the Somme and the etangs around Peronne

Inside the museum there are displays of posters, lithographs, press clippings, objects, uniforms, postcards, photographs, and many other documents which provide an international panorama of the conflict. Among the most interesting of the exhibits are the tables on which is displayed the detritus of war – coils of barbed wire, helmets, some pierced by bullets, lead shot, water bottles, trenching tools, and so on – still being found in the fields of the region, as today’s farmers dig and work their fields with tractors.

Historial display 2 Historial display 3 Historial display

Displays at the Historial, Peronne

For almost the whole of the war, Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2 September 1918 by Australian troops.  Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war.

Ruins in Peronne, Hôtel de Ville, Arthur Streeton watercolour with pencil

Arthur Streeton, ‘Ruins in Peronne: Hôtel de Ville’, watercolour with pencil

The ruined church, Péronne, France, 5 September 1918

The ruined church in Péronne, 5 September 1918

Within days of Peronne being captured, the Australian troops had made their mark on the streets with signs painted on bits of old timber that reflected the Australian sense of humour:  Wallaby Lane, Ding Bat Alley, Digger Road, Dinkum Alley – but best of all, Roo De Kanga. The sign was photographed on  3 October 1918 and collected for Australian War Records shortly after.

‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne 2 ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

Rue de Kanga, Peronne, in 1918

Few towns in France have retained the street names given to them by the Australian forces.  However, in 1997 the commune of Peronne restored the name Roo De Kanga to a stretch of the rue de St Savour, by the Hotel de Ville, where the sign had hung briefly some seventy nine years before.

Street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

The street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’ in Péronne today

In the Historial, I was keen to see the complete set of Otto Dix’s etchings, Der Krieg.  Displayed in a dedicated gallery, this disturbing 20th century equivalent of Goya’s Disasters of War makes troubling viewing.

In 1914 Otto Dix, a 24 year-old student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts, enlisted in the German army and was sent in 1915 to serve on the Western Front. It was not until after the war, from 1920 onwards, that his work became overtly anti-militarist under the influence of Grosz, portraying his hatred for war in a style close to expressionism, full of pathos and violence.

The series of fifty etchings entitled Der Krieg, completed in 1924, sprang from the artist’s need to confront the horrors of his wartime experiences:

The fact is, being young at the time, you just don’t realize how profoundly scarred you are. For at least ten years after the war I kept getting dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through. The ruins were always there in my dreams. . .

In these etchings, destruction, deformation and appalling human mutilation emerge from encircling gloom to form a vision that is apocalyptic. Most of the scenes depicted recall memories of things seen by Dix in Somme or in Picardy, where he fought (he was at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916).

In Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940, GH Hamilton describes Dix’s series as:

Perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist, not even by [George] Grosz  …

Like the equally devastating Disasters of  War, Goya’s account of the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching methods and exploits the potential of a long sequence of images. Der Krieg mirrors Goya’s unflinching, stark realism and, like Goya’s cycle, reveals the artist both horrified and fascinated by the experience of war. For Dix, these prints were like an exorcism. The portfolio was circulated throughout Germany with a pacifist organization, Never Again War (for which Kathe Kollwitz created her memorable image of the same name). Dix, however, doubted that his prints would have any bearing on future wars.

Before I left for France I heard cartoonist Martin Rowson, whose own work is similarly direct and uncompromising to that of Dix, give a talk on Dix and Der Krieg on Radio 3’s The Essay, in a week of excellent talks entitled ‘Minds at War’ that also included Ruth Padel talking about Kathe Kollwitz’s Grieving Parents sculpture, and Heather Jones on Henri Barbusse’s novel Le Feu.

Rowson began his talk by placing Dix in the context of the New Objectivity artistic movement that flourished in Germany in the 1920s – challenging Expressionism by its unsentimental focus on reality and the objective world, as opposed to the more abstract, romantic, or idealistic tendencies of Expressionism. Otto Dix was one of its main practitioners, along with Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Their mercilessly naturalistic depictions portrayed Weimar society in a caustically satirical manner.

Otto Dix, 'Mealtime in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’

Speaking specifically of the engravings that form the sequence Der Krieg, Rowson described the effect of viewing them as claustrophobic, ‘just like being stuck in a trench eating lunch among your comrades’ rotting corpses’ (here referring to ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’, the thirteenth print in the series).

These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
And we,
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
– ‘Grotesque’ by Frederic Manning

Rowson explained the elements of the engravings which define them as modernist – in particular, Dix’s use of over-drawing, ‘one of the defining tricks of modernism: that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across all other lines’. For Rowson, ‘breaking the rules of realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth’.

In a key passage of his talk, Rowson compared John Singer Sargent’s Gassed with the third plate from Dix’s Der Krieg, ‘Gas Victims’, in which, ‘faces blackened by lack of oxygen and unrecognisable as being even human’, the victims of a gas attack lie apparently unnoticed while two medical orderlies stand nonchalantly by them. Sargent’s painting, Rowson argued, could only have emerged from the victorious nation –  exhibited in the new Imperial War Museum, whose name would have provoked a gunfight between armed militias in Germany, the nation defeated and therefore deeply divided about the meaning of the war. Even the act of remembering – as Otto Dix did in his etchings and paintings  – could be conceived as being in the worst possible taste.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Gas victims – Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916

Otto Dix, ‘Gas victims  (Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916)’

Rowson concluded by asserting that Der Kreig is ‘less about the Great War than its aftermath: while Dix claimed to be remembering the war and its horrors, the Nazi’s whole point was to re-enact them’.  In 1933 Dix was dismissed from his post as an art tutor at the Dresden Academy by the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards his work appeared in the Nazi government’s exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ (to be burned afterwards).  In 1935 Otto Dix left Germany for exile in Switzerland.

In 1963, explaining why he had volunteered in 1914, Dix had this to say:

I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Soldier's grave between the lines

 Otto Dix, ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’

The first plate from Der Krieg is ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’, a chaotic image of a churned up battlefield which is also a cemetery, constantly ploughed by continued shelling.

Next to the black, waxen heads like Egyptian mummies, lumpy with insect larvae and debris, where white teeth appeared the hollows; next to poor darkened stumps which were numerous here, like a field of bare roots, we discovered yellow skulls, stripped clean, still wearing a red fez with a grey cover as brittle as papyrus. There were thigh-bones protruding from mounds of rags stuck together in the red mud, or a fragment of spine emerged from a hole filled with frayed material coated with a kind of tar. There were ribs scattered all over the ground like broken old cages, and nearby blackened pieces of leather, pierced and flattened beakers and mess tins had risen to the surface. Here and there, a longish bulge – for all these unburied dead finish up going into the ground – only a scrap of material sticks out, indicating that a human being was annihilated on this particular point of the globe.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

While the series began with a soldier’s grave between the lines, the second plate provides a graphic depiction of how such graves are produced. Soldiers react in horror as the earth collapse around them. In the instant before they are swallowed, Dix depicts them not as they are but as they will become, their faces reduced to depictions of skulls.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Corpse of a horse

Otto Dix, ‘Carcass of a horse’

The First World War produced many artistic renderings of dead horses – a reflection of the fact that there was nearly one for every man, and that the connection between horse and man was very close. This three-legged corpse, with its side ripped wide open is terribly realistic.

Otto Dix, Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares

 Otto Dix, ‘Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares’

Already by plate number four you sense that this is no ordinary series of etchings. Here, a night time flare illuminates a lunar landscape, illustrating the command of various print techniques which Dix demonstrates throughout the series.

A constellation like day; the horizon behind it by lights
and flares fingered and shrouded,

That went and came, fell or stood, restless, phantom-
like; and if it went, deep night fell,
And if it came, then somewhere a town lay, white,
shifting furtive a forest was made and a vale
Full of sleep, with torrents and indeterminate things,
with graves and churchtowers, smashed, with
climbing mists, moist, big-clouded,
With huts, where sleepers lay, where a dream walked,
full of fever, full of strangeness, full of animal
splendour,where abruptly a screen
Of cloud split open; and behind it swelled and ocean of
stars. a dominion of rockets, a light sprang from the
ravine,
Terrible, roaring, rumble of wheels on roads, and a
man stepped darkly into the dark,by a dreadful
nightmare amazed,
Saw the flight of fires migrating, heard butchery below,
saw behind the darkness the city that ceaselessly
blazed,
Heard in earth’s belly a rolling,ponderous, gigantic,
primeval, heard traffic travelling the roads, into the
void, into the widening night, into a storm, grim in
the west. Frantic, the ear
With the front’s countless hammers, with the riders
who came, stamping, hurrying, with the riders who
rode away, to turn into shadows, melt into the night,
there to rot,
Death slaughters them, and they lie under weeds,
heavy, fossil, with hands full of spiders, mouths
scabbed red and brown,
Eyes full of uttermost sleep, the circlet of shadow
around their brows, blue, waxen,decaying in the
smoke of the night
Which sank down, threw shadows far which spread its
vault from hill to hill, over forest and rottenness,
over brains full of dreams, over the hundred
none carried away,
Over the mass of fire, over laughter and madness, over
crosses in fields, over pain and despair, over rublle
and ash, over the river and the ruined town…

– ‘Nocturnal Landscape’ byAnton Schnack, 1920, translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Wounded soldier – Autumn 1916, Bapaume

Otto Dix, ‘A Wounded Soldier (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)’

Dix was a machine gunner during the battle of the Somme, an experience that left him with obsessive memories of death. Here he depicts unblinkingly the agony of a comrade wounded in the abdomen, expressed in his bulging eyes, clenched right hand and twisted left arm. This image is an unmitigated symbol of human suffering.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

Dix fought in Champagne, on the Somme, near Verdun, in Russia, and in Flanders – the latter experience leading him to paint Flanders in  1924: with its echoes of Breugel’s apocalyptic visions, it was subtitled ‘Adapted from Barbusse’s Under Fire‘.

Now, in the sinister light of the storm beneath black dishevelled clouds, dragged and spread across the earth like wicked angels, they seem to see a great livid white plain extend before them. In their   vision, figures rise up out of the plain, which is composed of mud and water, and clutch at the surface of the ground, blinded and crushed with mire, like survivors from some monstrous shipwreck. These men seem to them to be soldiers. The plain is vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes, and the shipwrecked men trying to extract themselves from it are a great multitude . . . But the thirty million slaves who have been thrown on top of one another by crime   and error into this war of mud raise human faces in which the glimmer of an idea is forming. The future is in the hands of these slaves and  one can see that the old world will be changed by the alliance that will   one day be formed between those whose number and whose suffering  is without end.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu, chapter 1

Otto Dix, Flanders, 1924

Otto Dix, ‘Flanders’, 1934

When Dix began painting Flanders, he had already been dismissed from his post as art tutor at the Dresden Academy. Dix’s dismissal letter said that his work ‘threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves’. In addition, two of Dix’s paintings, The Trench and War Cripples, had appeared in the exhibition in Dresden Town Hall of ‘degenerate art’  intended by the Nazis to discredit modern art. Dix’s response was to begin painting Flanders – another powerful anti-war painting.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Stormtroops advancing under a gas attack

Otto Dix, ‘Stormtroopers advancing under a gas attack’

‘Storm-troopers advancing under a gas attack’ is probably the print from the series that is most often reproduced. Dix portrays five soldiers in close-up, as seen through the eyes of French defenders, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land during a gas attack. When soldiers wore their gas masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix presents them as symbols of terror.

Otto Dix, 'Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

Otto Dix, ‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

What is this war? It is mud, trenches, blood, rats, lice, bombs, pain, barbed wire, decaying flesh, gas, death, rain, tears, bullets, fear and a loss of faith in all that we once believed in.

– Otto Dix

Otto Dix, 'The Ruins of Langemark

Otto Dix, ‘The Ruins of Langemark’

Langemark was where gas used by the Germans for the first time in April 1915.  During the Third Battle of Ypres, British troops captured Langemarck (which is close to Passchendaele). A German counter-offensive then re-captured most of the ground around Langemarck. This print probably depicts Dix’s memory of what was left of the town after he and the Germans returned.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, A Dying soldier

Otto Dix, ‘A Dying Soldier’

The Historial’s caption to this print gets it exactly, terrifyingly right, pointing out that the title is ‘dying’, not ‘dead’ despite the unprecedented wounds inflicted by artillery and gunfire.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Lens bombarded

Otto Dix, ‘Lens is bombarded’

Lens was located in German occupied territory, still inhabited by elderly French civilians, women and children.  Dix focusses on one street.  A British or French plane flies low over homes in order to bomb enemy targets, but killing civilians in the process. Dix portrays the terror of women in the foreground, while bodies lie strewn across the street behind them.  Here is where it all started – the concept of ‘total war’ in which civilians are deliberate targets (in order to demoralize) or are simply ‘collateral damage’.  Think Gaza, Syria, Ukraine right now.

Otto Dix, 'Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches’

Dix represents what no war photos could show – the act of a German soldier stabbing with force a knife into the heart of his enemy.  The tension of the arm, the direction of the body, the blade piercing the body – force us to look at the killer’s grinning action

We are unfeeling dead who, through some dangerous trick of magic, are still able to run and kill. A young Frenchman falls behind; they catch up with him and he puts his hands up; in one of them he is still holding his revolver; we cannot tell whether he wants to shoot or to surrender. A stroke with a shovel splits his face in two. Another seeing this tries to escape, but a bayonet whistles into his back. He jumps in the air and, arms outstretched, stumbles screaming as the bayonet moves up and down in his spine.

– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Otto Dix, 'Shelter in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Shelter in the Trenches’

By a lamp, German soldiers sleep, play cards, smoke.  On the left, a naked soldier kills fleas on his shirt with his finger nails. Looking at this brought to mind ‘Vigil’, a poem dated 23 December 1915, by the Italian, Giuseppe Ungaretti which I first read in Jon Silkin’s 1979 Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – still, I think, the best collection.

A whole night long
crouched close
to one of our men
butchered
with his clenched
mouth
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
thrust right
into my silence
I’ve written
letters filled with love

I have never held
so hard
to life

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt, 1914

Otto Dix, ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt’, 1914

See also

The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front

The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front

Before I left for my trip along the cemeteries and memorials of the Western Front I had been fascinated by a talk given by the Chinese-born author, Xiaolu Guo for Radio 3’s The Essay in which she discussed the part played by the Chinese Labour Corps on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. They are almost entirely forgotten now, but between 1916 and 1920 the British Army recruited around 100,000 labourers in China who were shipped to Europe to work in harsh and dangerous conditions at the Front. And, following on from yesterday’s post, ten of these ‘coolies’ were shot at dawn for murder, or offences relating to murder. Mainly illiterate and socially isolated, many Chinese workers eventually succumbed to traumatic stress disorders brought on by the war and turned to violence, rape and murder in their despair and loneliness.

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps in France
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps in France

In her talk Xiaolu Guo told of travelling to Noyelle-sur-Mer with Li Ling. a 52 year old woman from Qingdao whose daughter Xiaolu had taught 15 years before in China.  Li is the granddaughter of one of the Chinese labourers or ‘coolies’ who died along the Somme during WW1.  Xiaolu explained that in China, ‘coolie’ means ‘bitter labour’ or ‘bitter strength’.  Bitterness, she added, is an important concept in Chinese, ‘something that has to be accepted … part of life’. In China hard physical labour is viewed as something which can keep a person alive, so ‘coolie’ does not bear the negative connotations the term has in the west, where it is associated with imperialism and exploitation, having been used from the 18th century to describe the slaves despatched from China to serve the west in various parts of the world.

Li’s grandfather was illiterate, so he sent no letters home.  His war service left no documentation,  only his labour number – 4621 – given by the British government on the Chinese shore before he embarked for Europe.  He was 19 years old, just married to a servant girl, and had a 10 month old baby:

He had been seduced by the promise of earning one French franc per day and was told he would be at least ten miles from the firing line, nowhere near the Front. A few weeks later, with a rising number of casualties on the Western Front, 40,000 coolies were also recruited by the French Army to dig trenches in northern France. After being sprayed head to foot with disinfectant, and having had their ponytails chopped off, these men were packed like cargo and shipped towards the West.

In the winter of 1916, after the massacre on the Somme, the British government was desperate for manpower. China agreed to supply Britain with ‘bitter labour’ and from 1917 onwards, large numbers of Chinese (altogether 100,000) were recruited by the British in Shantung Province, as volunteers – but under military discipline. The initial British Chinese Labour Force encampment on the Western Front was at Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Somme estuary.

Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery

The entrance to the Chinese Cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer 

Noyelles-sur-Mer was where Xiaolu Guo and her companion  Li Ling were headed, Li Ling hoping to find the grave of her grandfather. Xiaolu described the moment when Li found the grave:

Noyelles-sur-Mer is one of the graveyards where the largest number of coolies are buried. There are 842 gravestones carved with Chinese names, along with the numbers the coolies were given by the Labour Corp. Li Ling, holding her flowers, searches each stone for her grandfather. I help her, scanning those strange yet familiar Chinese names. After looking at about 300 gravestones, we find the right one. The stone is covered in moss, yet the man’s name and number are clearly visible:

               Li Changchun, British Chinese Labour Corps 4621. Died 12th January 1919.

I am surprised. So he died here not during the war but after the war! “How?” I ask Li Ling. She doesn’t know. Did he die from a random explosion during mine clearances? Or from starvation?  Or was he killed for desertion? There is no clue. Only some blackbirds flapping their wings in the distance. Then, beside Li Changchun’s Corps number, I see this phrase:Faithful unto death.

I look away. I can’t bear the hypocrisy let alone the indifference with which this phrase has been foisted on this man. My eyes wander along the rows of Chinese names. The inescapable wind buffets the graves, otherwise there is silence. I look back. Li Ling is carefully placing her bunch of yellow chrysanthemums on her grandfather’s tomb.

The conditions under which the Chinese labourers were employed on the Western Front were harsh, even by the standards of the time. Their contracts stipulated a seven-day working week of 10-hour days. Daily rates of pay ranged from 1 to 3 French Francs. Apart from a few demonstrations demanding better working conditions and food – a notable example being one at Etaples in 1917 – which were ruthlessly suppressed by British troops, there was generally little in the way violent protest or strikes.

From the start there was a mutual understanding that the celebration of certain essential Chinese customs, such as Chinese festivals and the ceremonial disposal of the dead, would be allowed. On the other hand, there was a strict policy of maintaining the segregation of the Labour Force from the military canteens and the civil population, particularly white women. Accordingly, other than when working, the labourers were rigorously contained within their camps.

Chinese Labour Corps IWM

An entertainment at the open-air theatre of the Chinese Labour Corps at Etaples, 23 June 1918.  Note the fence segregating members of the audience (Imperial War Museum)

These men did not take part to actual combat. They supported the frontline troops, unloading ships, building dugouts, repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and filling sandbags. Some worked in armaments factories, others in shipyards. However, when the war ended some were used for mine clearance, or to recover the bodies of soldiers and fill in miles of trenches. According to the records around 2,000 of them died during the war, most from the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic. Those who died, classified as war casualties, were buried in several French and Belgian graveyards in the North of France. The largest number of graves is located at the Chinese Cemetery of Noyelles sur Mer close to the Somme estuary, where 849 men are buried.

An article on the Western Front Association website, Forgotten Hands With Picks And Shovels, provides details of the 10 Chinese labourers who were executed by the British Army.  The ten (all listed as ‘coolies’ in the official records) were all executed by a British firing squad – shot at dawn – for murder, or offences relating to murder.

All the death sentences of the Chinese Coolies were passed between 1918 and 1920, and all the offences took place on the western Front in either France or Belgium in 1918-19. There is no explanation in official documents for these capital crimes: perhaps the stoic but socially isolated Chinese workers succumbed to stress brought on by the war, turning to violence, rape and murder in despair and loneliness.

In the town hall at Poperinge , near Ypres, a First World war execution post is on display – said to be the one to which was tied, on 8 May 1919, Wang Ch’un Ch’ih of the 107th Chinese Labour Corps, sentenced to death for murder. He is buried at Poperinge Old Military Cemetery.

Firing post, Poperinge

The firing post at Poperinge Town Hall

Researching this piece, I was surprised to learn from a BBC report that three of the Chinese men recruited for the Labour Corps are buried in Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool – amongst the 445 Commonwealth war graves from World War One in that cemetery. They would be men who fell ill en route from China, and were hospitalised on arrival in England. Anthony Hogan, researching the local remembrance website, tried to find out details of the three men – but it appears that the writing and the names in translation on the headstones may be incorrect. He writes:

The men would have been brought back to the UK injured or sick and taken to hospitals.The Belmont Road hospital is where these men may possibly have been transferred as it dealt with a lot of non British war sick and wounded, plus its location was around 1 1/2 miles from Anfield cemetery.

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On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets

On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets

Isaac Rosenberg, ‘The Road’, 1911

The road leads me to the last resting places of three English poets whose lives were cut short by the war of 1914-18: Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen.  Along with Siegfried Sassoon’s often bitter poems of war, the verses of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg exerted a powerful influence on me during my teens, and have – more than any other single factor – shaped my understanding of the war.  Edward Thomas came later for me, and is not really a ‘war poet’ at all, since all of his poems that deal with the war (somewhat obliquely) were written before he embarked for the Front in late January 1917. Unlike the others, he did not record his first-hand experience of the horrors of war.

Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg self portrait

Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915 (detail)

It was poems by Isaac Rosenberg such as ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ (with its ‘queer sardonic rat’) and the horrifyingly visual ‘Dead Man’s Dump’which had the most powerful effect upon when I first read them in the 1960s.  Unlike the officer-poets of the Great War like Sassoon, Blunden, Brooke  and Owen, Isaac Rosenberg was a private soldier who came from a poverty-stricken East End background.

Rosenberg’s parents were Russian Jews who had fled from pogroms in Lithuania to settle in one room in a house in Cable Street, in the heart of the Jewish community in the East End of London.  Jean Moorcroft Wilson has written of his early years:

It was an existence on the edge of destitution and would remain so for most of Isaac’s childhood and teenage years. It is against this background of severely limited horizons that we must measure his achievements. For his poverty, as much as his Jewishness, marked his life and shaped his work.

From a young age, Rosenberg was interested in both visual art and poetry but poverty forced him to leave school at 14 and take a job. His mother managed to find him an apprenticeship with an engraver (with the unlikely name of  William Blake), but Rosenberg found engraving tedious.  He took night classes in art at Birkbeck College, winning several prizes between 1907 and 1909, but longed to give up the apprenticeship to study art full-time. In 1911, three wealthy Jewish women offered to pay his fees  at the Slade School of Art, where he studied studied alongside David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington.

He was writing poetry, too, gaining some recognition with poems published in Poetry magazine on Ezra Pound’s recommendation. However, suffering from chronic bronchitis, and afraid it would worsen, Rosenberg decided to emigrate to the warmer climate of South Africa, where his sister Mina lived. It was in Cape Town that he heard that war had been declared, and wrote ‘On Receiving News of the War‘, a poem that expresses a deep sense of foreboding:

Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

While others wrote about war as patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical of the war from its onset. According to Jon Stallworthy, writing in Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War, the Rosenbergs were Tolstoyans and Isaac, ‘the most vulnerable of men’, hated the idea of killing. However, Rosenberg returned to England in October 1915 to enlist in the army. Jean Moorcroft Wilson again:

When Rosenberg did finally enlist towards the end of 1915, he was entirely frank about his motives: ‘I never joined the army for patriotic reasons,’ he wrote … from his training depot. ‘Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over.’ Another incentive, he admitted, had been money: ‘I thought if I’d join there would be the separation allowance for my mother.’

Isaac Rosenberg, possibly taken October 1917

Isaac Rosenberg, photograph possibly taken October 1917

Private Rosenberg was eventually assigned to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. He was sent to the Somme where he was killed, aged 27, returning from a night patrol at dawn on 1 April 1918.  He was first buried in a mass grave, but in 1926, his grave was moved to Bailleul Road East Cemetery, near the village of St. Laurent-Blangy, outside Arras.  Which is where I found his grave.

Bailleul Rd East Cemetery

A general view of Bailleul Road East Cemetery

During a German offensive, the English made an attempt to capture Arras on the 28th of March 1918. Isaac’s brigade was holding the line south of Gavrelle when the front line was overwhelmed and pushed back to Fampoux. Isaac was at rest behind the line on the 28th but his company was brought up to the north of Fampoux to help reinforce the new front line. Rosenberg was killed somewhere near the village of Fampoux. He died in close combat during a German counter attack.

Buried initially in a mass grave, his body could not be identified during operations in 1926 to concentrate Commonwealth graves in Bailleul Road East Cemetery, which is why his headstone bears the words, ‘Buried near this spot’.  Whether here or in some unknown field, his remains lie where the ‘poppies whose roots are in men’s veins drop, and are ever dropping’ (‘Break of Day in the Trenches’).

Rosenberg grave

Isaac Rosenberg’s grave

Rosenberg’s headstone is engraved with the badge of the King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment above the star of David, in accordance with his Hebrew faith.  Beneath are engraved the words ‘Artist and Poet’.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell’s landmark study of the literature of the First World War, Fussell identifies Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches as ‘the greatest poem of the war’.  Jon Stallworthy regards it as  one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, harking back to the tradition of  pastoral poetry whilst also subverting it and communicating a strong flavour of the soldiers’ everyday life in the trenches. The ‘queer sardonic rat’ offers its own critique of heroic, muscular values prevalent when the war began. The poem was written in early 1916, shortly after Rosenberg had arrived in France with the King’s Own Lancaster Regiment. It was included in a letter to a friend in London, described as ‘a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk’:

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

Another poem written in 1916, though the title refers to the first month of the war, was ‘August 1914′, written  while Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.  It offers a stark contrast to all those poems that welcomed the war, such as Rubert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’:

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

‘In the Trenches’ was written in the autumn of 1916.  Rosenberg described it in a letter to a friend as ‘a bit commonplace’. Carol Rumens, writing in the Guardian, regards it as unfinished: ‘one of those poems a poet in a hurry considers finished, only later to discover, it was actually draft’:

I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast …
Down – a shell – O! Christ,
I am choked … safe … dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.

However, there is unanimous agreement that ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ is Rosenberg’s masterpiece.  Its powerful, almost cinematic imagery invokes a soldier going ‘wiring’ – setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land.  The wire is transported across the battlefield on a limber, or cart, pulled by a mule.  It passes dying men and runs over the bodies of the unburied dead. In a letter to a friend, Rosenberg described the genesis of the poem: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine.’  It remains one of the most detailed, explicit and brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War:

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.

‘Returning, We Hear Larks’ is one of the last poems that Isaac Rosenberg wrote, scribbled on scraps of paper in circumstances hardly conducive to poetic creativity. Carol Rumens, writing in the Guardian, described the poem as:

Neither impressionistic sketch nor realist narrative, though drawing on both, partly rhymed and partly free, haunted by an antithesis of innocence and experience almost too painful to translate into language, the poem seems to look into the heart of Romantic epiphany and find an abyss. Less than a year later, on 1 April 1918, Private Rosenberg was killed at dawn after a night patrol.

Jon Stallworthy observes that the poem is Rosenberg’s ‘most complex version of pastoral’, obliquely evoking Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, whose ‘unbodied joy ,,, showers a rain of melody’:

Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

Edward Thomas

Thomas

“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God,
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”

It was only after driving round and round in circles that I found the place where Edward Thomas is buried. Agny military cemetery is situated in a busy suburb on the outskirts of Arras.  I had set the sat-nav on my mobile phone, but every time the voice asserted that ‘you have arrived at your destination’ I could see nothing.  On the third attempt, however, I noticed a small sign pointing down a cinder track that ran behind the gardens to the rear of some suburban houses.  I had been looking for a more typical and substantial roadside cemetery, but Agny military cemetery is of a type that I later encountered several times on my trip: small, tucked away behind houses or farms, the world of today encroaching tightly on all sides.

Agny military cemetery approach

The approach to Agny military cemetery

As I reached the trees at the end of the track that ran alongside back gardens where vegetables grew in profusion, the heavens opened and I took shelter, along with a group of French men who were mowing the grass around the graves.  As we waited for the rain to pass we fell into conversation, and I explained in halting French that I was looking for the grave of an English poet.  Without hesitation they directed me to the spot.

Agny military cemetery

Mowing the lawns in Agny military cemetery

The cemetery comprises six rows of the usual identical white headstones, and – as with all cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves commission – it was immaculately kept. Red roses bloomed between the well tended graves, and the cemetery probably felt smaller than it actually is, being surrounded on all sides by large trees. There are, in fact, 413 headstones here, though less than half have any name upon them, many simply engraved with the words; ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.

The grave of Edward Thomas names him as ‘Second Lieutenant PE Thomas’ and states the date of death, 9 April 1917. He was aged 39, much older than many of his fellow-soldiers. Right at the bottom of the headstone, partly obscured by rose leaves was the simple engraved inscription, ‘POET’. I stood and thought of the roads that had led him to this place:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living, but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

Edward Thomas grave

P.E. Thomas: ‘poet’

Edward Thomas enlisted as a private in the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915, after a period of much soul-searching.  He was sent to Hare Hall Camp at Romford in Essex, where he worked as a map-reading instructor and was promoted to lance-corporal, then full corporal. In November 1916, he volunteered for service overseas, and left England for France in January 1917. On 9 April he was killed by a shell blast in the first hour of the Battle of Arras, whilst directing fire from an observation post.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

– ‘In Memoriam’ (Easter 1915)’

Unlike Wilfred Owen, who trained alongside Thomas at Hare Hall Camp, Edward Thomas’s poetry was all written before he embarked for the Front in January 1917, though almost none of it was published until after his death. His poetry, when it deals with the war (which is rarely) is concerned with the impact of the war on his mind rather than being a response to the experiences of battle. The deeply melancholic ‘Rain’ was written on 7 January 1916 in Hut 51 at Hare Hall Camp:

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

A year earlier, in January 1915, he had written ‘A Private’, a memorial to those lost in the war in which he linked the familiar world of everyday rural life with the distant din of battle. It’s full of wry humour, portraying a drunken ploughman whose work rooted him to the soil of his village:

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
“At Mrs Greenland’s Hawthorn Bush,” said he,
“I slept.” None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover’, a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -that, too, he secret keeps.

For a year before he joined up, Thomas had been undecided about his role in the conflict.  He was uncomfortable with the jingoist exultation over the announcement of war. In December 1915 , in ‘‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, he
asserted that he did not hate Germans, ‘nor grow hot/With love of Englishmen, to please
newspapers’.  In a letter to Robert Frost he wrote about his differences with his father:

People get fined occasionally for speaking well of the Germans at private parties—under the Defence of the Realm Act. I don’t wonder. My father is so rampant in his cheery patriotism that I become pro German every evening.

But indecisiveness and self-doubt were a recurring element in Thomas’s melancholia. One element of that self-doubt was his conviction that he was a coward, a feeling reinforced by an incident when he and Robert  Frost had encountered an aggressive gamekeeper. Thomas was convinced he had been a coward during the contretemps.

But he eventually made his decision, and – as Matthew Hollis recounts in Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, in the spring of 1917, at an exposed crossroads on the outskirts of Arras known as the ‘Windy Corner’, Thomas surveyed his most dangerous observation so far:

There stood one of the few factory chimneys that had not been destroyed by shelling: two hundred feet high, it promised a key vantage point from which to observe the German lines; but it was horribly vulnerable and had been hit three times already by small fire, loosening parts of the brickwork.

From reconnaissance, Thomas knew that iron rings inside the chimney served as a ladder, and that one of the rings was loose, but he did not know which one. Worse still, the funnel tapered, so that in climbing the inside of the chimney he would hang further out over the ground below with each rung he ascended. He tested the first rings and began to climb. A shell exploded close  by and shook the chimney. Then another and another. Thomas’s nerve failed him. ‘It was impossible and I knew it,’ he explained  to Frost. ‘As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper.’

The incident with the keeper haunted him until the very end.

The following day was calm: the first thrush appeared, and from the orchard that was his billet Thomas watched a ploughman take his team of horses up and down the misty field; each time they climbed the ridge they came into view of German artillery, but not a shot was fired. The night brought heavy bombardment. Thomas had barely slept for the pounding; when he did, he dreamed almost for the first time since leaving England. In his dream he was at home again, but as he told Helen in a letter, ‘I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea.’ It was a very feeble dream, he told her, but in his mind it clearly signified something more: ‘You must not convince yourself you are merely waiting, you know.’

The sight of the ploughman with his team of horses must surely have brought to Thomas’s mind the poem he had written at Hare Hall Camp two years earlier. ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is perhaps the finest of his poems in which he reflects on the war:

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

On Saturday April 7, Thomas wrote to Helen Thomas:

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds  . . . Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village. I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks.  But the sun shone and larks and partridge and magpies and hedge sparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us . . . One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice – days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do . . .

Sunday. I slept jolly well and now it is sunshine and wind and we are in for a long day and I must post this when I can.

All and always yours Edwy

Thomas spent the day before he died under particularly heavy bombardment.  Matthew Hollis describes his lucky escape that day, one that was not to be repeated on the next day:

The shell that fell two yards from where he stood should have killed him but instead it was a rare dud. Back at billet, the men teased him on his lucky escape; someone remarked that a fellow with Thomas’s luck should be safe wherever be went. The next morning was the first of the Arras offensive. Easter Monday dawned cold and wintry.  The infantry in the trenches fixed their bayonets and tightened their grip around their rifles; behind them, the artillery made their final preparations to the loading and the fusing of the shells. Thomas had started late to the Observation Post; he had not rung through his arrival when the bombardment began. The Allied assault was so immense that some Germans were captured half-dressed; others did not have time to put on their boots and fled barefoot through the mud and snow. British troops sang and danced in what only a few hours before bad been no-man’s-land. Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.

Thomas’s commanding officer wrote to Helen:

We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery, the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson. As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time.

On 25 May 1916, at Hare Hall Camp in Essex where members of the Artists’ Rifles undertook their training before heading off to fight in the trenches, Thomas wrote lines that were a conscious response to Brooke’s popular sonnet:

“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”
Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.

But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the bugles know
What the bugles say in the morning;
And they do not care when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning.

– ‘No One Cares Less Than I’, first published in the New Statesman, 1 June 1918

Wilfred Owen

Owen

Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, on the Sambre Canal which passes through Ors, a village in a wooded valley some twenty miles to the east of Peronne and the Somme river.  Owen and his platoon had spent the previous night in the cellar of a Forester’s House in the wood outside Ors.  Owen is pretty much unknown in France, but I had read that the villagers, noticing that a great number of British visitors came looking for Owen’s grave and the exact spot where he had been killed, and asking to visit the cellar of the Forester’s house, had decided to turn the Forester’s House into a monument to the poet, commissioning the British artist Simon Patterson to turn the building into a place for reflection and meditation.

WIlfred Owen Forester's House original

La Maison Forestiere as it appeared before Simon Patterson’s intervention

The house, slate-roofed and of red brick with grey shutters, stands on a main road into the nearby town of Le Cateau-Camresis.  Patterson decided to preserve the exterior of the house, but to remove the roof and gut the interior.  The roof was replaced by a structure that appears normal when viewed from the road, but from other angles takes the form of an open book, with spine uppermost, the ‘pages’ constructed out of glass to admit maximum daylight into the interior.

Most dramatically, Patterson had the entire building rendered in brilliant white,  giving it the appearance of a solid sculptural object, and making  the house will stand out like ‘bleached bone’ (Patterson’s words) against the dark forest beyond.  You are reminded, too, of the rows of white gravestones in a British war cemetery.

The brick-lined cellar where Owen and his platoon spent their last night remains untouched, but the interior of the house has been gutted, leaving an open white space, lit from above, and the walls clad with translucent glass onto which are etched drafts of Owen’s poems.

Owen Foresters house Owen Foresters house 2

Simon Patterson’s newly-realised Forester’s House

Once I learned of this place I was keen to visit.  But I was disappointed to discover that on the day that I would be at Ors, the Forester’s House would be closed.  However, the tourist office website indicated that it was sometimes opened at other times for group visits.  I emailed to ask whether a group would be visiting on the afternoon I passed by, and whether I could tag along.  To my surprise, I received a reply offering to open the House just for me.

I arrived at the agreed time, and was met by a guide from the tourist office at Le Cateau-Cambresis who first of all took me down the steps into the cellar, which remains untouched and is accessed by a curved ramp, alongside which runs the text of Owen’s last letter home to his mother.

Wilfred Owen letter Maison Forestiere

Owen’s last letter inscribed on the ramp to the cellar of La Maison Forestiere (photo: magicspello.wordpress.com)

Entering the cellar, you are struck by how crowded it must have been that night when 29 soldiers were holed up here, smoking like chimneys.  As you begin to absorb the surrounding a recording begins of Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s last letter to his mother.  It is observant, amusing – and deeply moving.

Owen Foresters house basement

Owen’s letter was designed to reassure his mother, saying nothing about the impending attack, but instead poking fun at his comrades (‘So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts’) and offering witty pen-portraits of the men (‘a band of friends’) crammed into the small space around him:

To Susan Owen
Thurs. 31 October [1918] 6:15 p.m.

[2nd Manchester Regt.]

Dearest Mother,

I will call the place from which I’m now writing ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House’. I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack.  My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight,  & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Company Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me.  At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Company in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.

Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.

It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.

There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Ever Wilfred x

Owen last letter

Owen’s last letter

From the cellar, my guide led me into the main house where you enter a large, empty space with no photographs or war memorabilia – just Owen’s handwritten draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ reproduced along the walls.  The lighting is dimmed and the words of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the poet’s own handwriting is projected onto the facing wall as Kenneth Branagh reads the poem.

Dulce et Decorum

The interior of the Forester’s House (photo: Zoe Dawes, www.thequirkytraveller.com)

As a teenager, knocked out by the power of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, I would never have imagined that one day I would be here, in the place where Owen spent his last hours.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Ors canal

The Sambre-Oise canal where Owen and his companions died

Shaking hands with my helpful guide, I left for the place where Owen and his companions met their fate, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal just outside the village of Ors.  The operation planned for 4 November 1918 seems almost suicidal. In order to cross the canal, the British soldiers had to install a floating bridge under fire from the German machine-guns positioned on the opposite bank.

At 05:45 on 4 November, Owen’s battalion went into action. Accompanying them were men of the Royal Engineers whose task was to assemble, on the canal bank, the sections of the prefabricated floating bridge. The operation had barely started before it was over. A few men managed to cross the canal, but the bridge was destroyed. Hopelessly exposed, a great number of the British soldiers fell under German  machine-gun fire. Among them was Wilfred Owen. Futility?

He was twenty-five years old, had published four poems and had written a hundred other unpublished texts half of which had been produced between 1916 and 1918. Two days later, on 8 November, Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his exemplary conduct in an earlier action. On the same day, he was buried in the small square reserved for British military graves in Ors village cemetery. The war ended three days later, and in Shrewsbury, on 11 November, as the bells rang to celebrate the Armistice, Owens’ parents were handed the telegram that all parents feared receiving.

Ors communal cemetery Owen grave

Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery

From the canal, I went to the communal cemetery in the village of Ors, where Owen is buried, along with his companions who also died in the doomed action on the canal. While I stood there, the last line of another of Owen’s great poems came to mind: ‘Let us sleep now …’. ‘Strange Meeting’ was written in the spring or early summer of 1918. Siegfried Sassoon thought it Owen’s passport to immortality:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . . .”

In his lifetime Owen published only four poems. It was after the war, championed by the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, that Owen  would finally gain the recognition he deserved.

Ors communal cemetery 2

Ors Communal Cemetery

In The Ghost Road, Pat Barker’s novel which featured historical figures such as Owen and Siegrfried Sassoon, alongside fictional characters like Billy Prior, she vividly imagines the disaster at the canal bank:

Bridges laid down, quickly, efficiently, no bunching   at   the   crossings,   just   the   clump   of  boots on wood, and then they   emerged from beneath the shelter of the trees and out into the terrifying openness of the bank. As bare as an eyeball, no cover anywhere, and the machine-gunners on the other side were alive and well. They dropped down, firing to cover the sappers as they struggled to assemble the bridge, but nothing covered them. Bullets fell like rain, puckering the surface of the canal, and the men started to fall. Prior saw the man next to him, a  silent, surprised face, no sound, as he twirled and fell,  a slash of scarlet like a huge flower bursting open on his chest.  Crawling  forward, he fired at the bank opposite though he could hardly see it for the clouds of smoke that drifted across. The sappers were still struggling with the bridge, binding pontoon sections together with wire that sparked in their hands as bullets struck it. And still the terrible rain fell. Only two sappers left, and then the Manchesters took over the building of the bridge. Kirk paddled out in a crate to give covering   fire, was hit, hit again, this time in the face, went on firing directly at the machine-gunners who crouched in their defended  holes only a few yards away. Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn’t feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.

He tried to turn to crawl back beyond the drainage ditches, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was hit again, but the gas was thick here and he couldn’t reach his mask.  Banal, simple, repetitive thoughts ran round and round his mind. Balls up. Bloody mad. Oh Christ. There was no pain, more a spreading numbness that left his brain clear. He saw Kirk die. He saw Owen die, his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell. It seemed to take for ever to fall, and Prior’s consciousness fluttered down with it. He gazed at his reflection in the water, which broke and reformed and broke again as bullets hit the surface and then, gradually, as the numbness spread, he ceased to see it.

[…]

On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and the dead are left alone. The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they succeeded in building   was   destroyed by a single shell.  Further down the canal another and more successful crossing is being attempted, but the cries and shouts come faintly here.

The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields.

Wilfred Owen's regiment

Doomed youth: Wilfred Owen’s regiment

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

In his new biography of Owen, published this year, Guy Cuthbertson offers this assessment of the poet:

Wilfred Owen remains contradictory: not quite a pacifist, he even  hated ‘washy pacifists’; he wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but he also wanted chivalry; he was the eternal boy who was a grown-up voice in an infantile war; he loved home but was eager to escape it; he was a  Christian of a kind, who disliked the Church; conservative and radical, normal and abnormal; the snobbish supporter of the downtrodden; the poet of modernity who was in love with the past; the realist and romantic; he was an innovative and traditional writer who was devoted to poetry and wrote, in the preface to his poems, ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry’; he longed for friendship and solitude; he fought gallantly, and urged his men to fight bravely, in a war he had been reluctant to join and then came to oppose bitterly. This is another part of why the man and his poems are so popular – he can appeal to everyone, and remains intriguing.

Related

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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 Long Shadow: time removes everything but the memory

The Long Shadow: time removes everything but the memory

David Reynolds The Long Shadow

David Reynolds, author of ‘The Long Shadow’

At one point in The Long Shadow, his impressive survey of  the impact of the First World War and how interpretations of its meaning have changed in the past century, David Reynolds quotes fellow-historian John Keegan. Concluding his The First World War (1998), Keegan mused that the First ‘World War remained ‘a mystery’, both in its origins and its course. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success . . . choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world on the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?’

For me, too, that sums up why the conflict continues to gnaw away in my conciousness, and why, as the centennial of the war’s beginning approaches, I keep reading about it. But, it seems, the more I read, the less the mystery dissolves: the conflict continues to be inexplicable.  David Reynold’s thought-provoking book is by a historian who understands that history is not a matter of science: rather, it is a process by which every generation (and every nation) reinterprets the meaning of the past.  Few events in history reveal this more clearly than the conflict of 1914-18.

David Reynolds’ contention is that this was a war that changed the shape of history, that made the 20th century. At the same time, the 20th century has kept looking back on the war and seeing it in different ways at different times. The war shaped the century, and the century shaped the war.  For those of us whose view of the war was shaped in the 1960s – by that decade’s critical historical reinterpretations, by the war poets and Oh! What a Lovely War – it’s a book that challenges the accuracy of our perceptions, or at least helps place them in a broader context.

In an interview published in BBC History Magazine, David Reynolds spoke about the aim of his book (soon to be translated into a BBC TV series) being to question a caricature of the war that has come to dominate perceptions in Britain:

I’m considering whether, for example, we’ve become too focused on the trenches and too readily seen war poets as the only authentic voice of the war. I am trying to move away from that perspective without in any way denigrating it. The caricature is a sense that the only real story about the war is trenches, and that sense is associated particularly with the first day of the Somme, which is 1 July 1916. It is, in terms of the death toll, the worst day in the history of the British army. Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict. That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on. This is a war that goes on for four years and it has multiple fallouts, which rumble on through the 20th century. We need to pay some attention to those as well as key moments like 1 July 1916.

Reynold’s book is unusual in that it is concerned with the two-way historical dynamic between the Great War and the 20th century.  Whilst drawing extensively on the cultural  turn in the work of historians in the 30 years – work that has explored the public memory and memorialization of the conflict – it contends that this approach has sometimes obscured other political, economic and social impacts of the war.

The book is divided into two parts.  The first, ‘Legacies’, outlines some of the diverse and momentous ways in which the war had an impact on the 1920s and 1930s, both positive as well as negative.  Reynolds examines democracy, nationalism, capitalism, attitudes to empire, attitudes to art and culture, and the question of peace – viewing them through the prism of the ‘post-war’ years, rather than the ‘inter-war’ years, seeing developments as if through the eyes of people who didn’t know that there was going to be another world war.

After 1939, however, the events of 1914-18 looked different when refracted through the conflict of 1939-45, when the ‘Great War’ became the ‘First World War’. In the second part, ‘Refractions’, Reynolds traces what happened to the memory of the Great War after 1939-45 when it came to be reinterpreted as the prelude to the Second World War and the Holocaust.  So the second half of the book is about how the 20th century has reshaped our attitudes to the First World War. It was during this second phase, Reynolds argues, that the Great War assumed its iconic status (primarily in Britain) as a war fought in the trenches, captured in the amber of the war poets, a futile war of wasted lives.

This is a book which may disconcert some readers, in that it ranges in time across the 20th century – up to the end of the Cold War and beyond – and which concerns itself with each of the major belligerent countries of 1914-18. However, although considering responses to the conflict in France, Germany, Russia and America, Reynolds does places the United Kingdom in the foreground of his account. For, he argues, the British were distinctive in their experience both of the war and of its post-war impacts.

Britain stands out in the way that it has remembered the conflict in public culture. This contrasts with the broad patterns of experience and memorialization on the continent. Reynolds advances some thoughts on what is distinctive about the British story.

First, he argues that in 1914 the United Kingdom was not fighting directly for the homeland, either to protect it from invasion or add to its territory. By contrast the Belgians, the French and the Serbs were resisting invasion, while the French hoped to recover Alsace and Lorraine, and Germany, Russia and the Hapsburg Empire all justified their mobilization as an act of pre-emptive defence. It was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality (which Britain had treaty obligations to protect) that pushed Britain into war, with public anger accentuated by exaggerated reports of German atrocities against Belgian civilians. Essentially, states Reynolds:

Britain’s public case for war was grounded more in morality than self-interest: this was seen as a war to defend the principles of freedom and civilisation.

Also significant, he contends, was the fact that for two years Britain fought the war with a volunteer army. Britain, alone among the belligerent nations did not impose conscription – it was only introduced in 1916. Freely fighting for the freedom of others was what made the British feel distinctive, Reynolds suggests.  Crucially, when the death toll mounted and disenchantment set in, this would lead to a more critical questioning of the war’s purpose and leadership, when set against the bravery of  those who had volunteered and the scale of the losses – 720,000 dead and more than a million who came home maimed in body and mind.

In the aftermath, in order to cope with this trauma, Britain, like most belligerent nations except the Soviet Union, memorialized war deaths as ‘sacrifice’.  And they did so in forms that were distinctive:

The Cenotaph, the Silence and the Poppies. The necklace of war cemeteries gracing the scar-torn Western Front.  The Names chiselled on the Memorials to the Missing at Ypres and Thiepval.  In time these would all become highly-charged sites of memory, expressing Britain’s peculiarly statist-democratic project of remembrance, honouring the dead as individuals but in standardized forms.

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918

Paul Nash, Wire

Also unique to Britain was the war art.  Britain commissioned over 100 artists, affording them remarkable artistic freedom, which resulted in avant-garde techniques being applied to the subject of war, ‘yet with more humanity than in the nihilistic expressionism’ of Germans like Otto Dix, Reynolds contends. Finally, there was the unusual  case of Britain’s war poetry that emerged from the Europe-wide patriotic rhetoric of 1914 to flower into something quite distinctive: in the verses of  Owen, Sassoon, Thomas and Gurney war poetry ‘became an encounter between bookish soldiers rooted in the English pastoralist tradition and the grotesque violations of nature inflicted by industrialized warfare’. Alongside the war memorials, British art and poetry created vivid, perhaps indelible, impressions of the war for posterity.

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a 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 heavens 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-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!

– ‘Aftermath’ by Siegfried Sassoon, March 1919.

Uniquely in Britain in the post-war years, art and poetry reinforced the idea that the suffering of the soldiers might still be justified if the Great War did prove to be ‘the war to end wars’.  It’s interesting to learn from Reynold’s account how different were post-war responses in Britain compared to the other main belligerents – France, Germany and the United States. In the 1920s Britain had the least significant veterans’ movement of all these nations (with right-wing veterans in Germany complaining about a lost victory that could only be redeemed through another war), while by the 1930s it boasted the biggest and most committed peace movement in the world, as shown by the Peace Ballot of 1934-5. Most of those involved, Reynolds hastens to point out, were not pacifists but peace activists, hoping to mobilize the League of Nations to deter future aggression.

Peace Ballot 1935

The Peace Ballot of 1935 – signed by 11.6 million people, over a third of the British population.

Central to Reynold’s thesis about how 1914-18 has come to be seen in the UK is how the Great War ‘took on a different aspect once it became the First World War, always to be contrasted with the Second’. Reynolds contrasts the way Britain went to war in September 1939 after a ‘gathering storm’ (in Churchill’s phrase) that had been brewing for years, rather than ‘out of the blue’ as in the July crisis of 1914. The pros and cons of resisting Hitler had been the subject of long and intense public debate since 1933.

Although the immediate trigger for war was once again Britain’s guarantee of a country’s territorial integrity – this time Poland – the war became one of self-defence once the British Isles were blitzed in 1940 and threatened with invasion. ‘The theme of Britain alone in its ‘finest hour’ offered a heroic saga at odds with anything in 1914-18′.   In the narrative of  1939-45 there was nothing quite like the Somme. Then, in 1945, the war’s moral justification became evident when the Nazi death camps were opened. In short, Reynolds states, 1939-45 was ‘a good war, with Britain and its people playing a heroic role, at the end of which the enemy was totally defeated with roughly half the losses incurred by Britain in 1914-18’.

In contrast, observes Reynolds, for France the shame of defeat and collaboration in 1940-4 tended to obscure any sense of nobility in the sacrifice of 1914-18.  Like Britain, the Soviet Union turned its resistance to German Nazism into a national myth, but 1914-17 remained consigned to ideological oblivion, overshadowed by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The construction of new narratives about 1914-18 did not stop in the aftermath of the Second World War. Reynolds observes how for both the French and the Germans, 1939-45 posed huge political and moral problems.  Yet in the 1950s, he writes, they managed to shake off the historical burden of having gone to war three times in 70 years to forge the European Economic Community. ‘This was an astounding development, whose historical significance is often ignored in Britain today’, he states, quite rightly.  Alone among members of the European Union, the UK does not celebrate Europe Day each 9 May,or subscribe to the idealism of its founding years.

Reynolds is right to state that the process of European integration was predicated on a new narrative in which the French and German peoples saw themselves as moving on from a cycle of war into a cooperative relationship that could serve as the engine of Europe’s future peace and prosperity. By contrast, when Britain finally applied for membership in the 1960s in Britain, it was not for idealistic but purely pragmatic reasons: the British Empire had fallen apart, we had lost sources of cheap raw materials and ready markets for our exports, and we found ourselves outside a booming Common Market.

In this mood, a certain national despondency set in about what had the two world wars achieved, just as the 50th anniversary of the Great War arrived in the mid-1960s. Here Reynolds steps heavily in the footsteps of cultural historians such as Paul Fussell and Jay Winter, recounting how British conceptions of the Great War became set in this period – as a human tragedy, bogged down in the trenches, illuminated only by poetry.  Key cultural markers in the sixties such as the BBC TV series The Great War and Joan Littlewood’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War were followed in subsequent decades by the work of novelists such as Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks.

However, Reynolds concludes his survey of reinterpretations of the Great War with a question: What are we missing by this tight focus on the trenches, on the Somme and 1 July 1916, and on the war poets?  His response is to suggest that we need a greater appreciation of ‘the whole diverse war from 1914 to 1918’.  We should recognise that it was not all stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front, that ‘even in the ‘trench era’ of 1915-17, offensives were the exceptions rather than the rule and it was perfectly possible for an infantryman to spend two years on the Western Front without actually going over the top at all’.  We also overlook the fact that this was a war in which the home front mattered almost as much as the battle front. Mobilizing the whole economy was crucial for modern warfare, and that included woman power in factories, transport, farming and clerical work.

Further, Reynolds adds that we should think more critically about the iconic war poets. Remarkable they were, he accepts, but typical they were not.  Most of those who who wrote poems during the conflict were working class, while a quarter of the poets were women –  and most poems were patriotic. We should also broaden our horizons, he argues. The war was fought in many places besides the Somme – the Balkans, for instance, where the trouble began.

He’s right on all these points – but surely misses a central point about remembrance.  The historian can recall the past through a diligent and methodical sifting of all the available evidence.  But how a people remember a conflict like the First World War is to make sense of it through imagery, symbols and words that capture its essential truth.  It’s myth-making, for sure, and it’s not necessarily rational.  But I’m heartened to be the citizen of a country that has evolved a narrative of the Great War that recalls the sacrifice of those who fought without the bluster of patriotism or nationalism, and which mourns the futility of the endeavour.

In 1964 Gene Smith wandered the Western Front, noting how the war was remembered: the monuments, memorials and cemeteries. He found one headstone with the inscription: ‘Time removes everything but the memory’. We have now left behind the years when the meaning of the conflict could be understood through its survivors. Yet the Great War endures, as Reynolds recognises in the closing passage of The Long Shadow.  It endures because of the continued human presence of the past in the form of letters, journals and photographs: portraits of men taken to remember them before they marched off to war, and snapshots of women – girlfriends, wives or mothers -kept close to the heart in a soldier’s pocket book.  As Reynolds points out, the significance of these photos was captured in Ivor Gurney’s 1917 poem ‘Photographs’:

Lying in dug-outs, joking idly, wearily;
Watching the candle guttering in the draught;
Hearing the great shells go high over us, eerily
Singing; how often have I turned over, and laughed 

With pity and pride, photographs of all colours,
All sizes, subjects: khaki brothers in France;
Or mother’s faces worn with countless dolours;
Or girls whose eyes were challenging and must dance,

Though in a picture only, a common cheap
Ill-taken card; and children – frozen, some
(Babies) waiting on Dicky-bird to peep
Out of the handkerchief that is his home

(But he’s so shy!). And some with bright looks, calling
Delight across the miles of land and sea,
That not the dread of barrage suddenly falling
Could quite blot out – not mud nor lethargy. 

Smiles and triumphant careless laughter. O
The pain of them, wide Earth’s most sacred things!
Lying in dugouts, hearing the great shells slow
Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings. 

But once – O why did he keep that bitter token
Of a dead Love? – that boy, who, suddenly moved,
Showed me, his eyes wet, his low talk broken,
A girl who better had not been beloved.

Alongside such tokens there are the stones – the war graves where the past is present on a gigantic scale, ‘fusing the pity of war for individual human beings with the epic of war in the arena of nations’.  Without these meticulously tended graves, observes Reynolds, the borderlands of France and Belgium would have become simply a ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in the words of Isaac Rosenberg’s poem – a place of mass graves and random burials that would quickly have  decomposed into oblivion:

In the garden cemeteries along the Western Front and on the Memorials to the Missing at Ypres and Thiepval, the dead were religiously named for perpetuity; likewise on local war memorials in British towns and villages. Even after a century these ‘nameless names’ exert their own power over the living, stirring our imagination to call back the men from the shadows.

A poem, a photograph, a memorial stone.  How we remember.  The lessons we learn, the consolation we seek.  All come together with an early poem by Ted Hughes that was inspired by a photograph of six young men taken just before they volunteered for war. The photo belonged to Hughes’ father, and captured six of his friends on an outing to Lumb Falls near Hebden Bridge.  Six months later all six men were dead.  In November 2007 the Elmet Trust placed a plaque at Lumb Falls in remembrance of those six young men:

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

Six Young Men memorial at Lumb Falls, Yorkshire

Time removes everything but the memory.

Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War

Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney was the least-known to me of the War Poets – at least until this week’s excellent BBC 4 documentary, The Poet Who Loved the War, presented by University of Exeter Professor Tim Kendall who argued for a major re-evaluation of the Gloucestershire poet’s work. Unusually, Gurney wasn’t an officer like most of the rest of the famous war poets (with the exception of Isaac Rosenberg), but a private who bizarrely joined up in the hope that the discipline and routines of army life would help ease a mental health condition. Initially this shock therapy worked but, invalided home after being shot and gassed, he spent the last 15 years of his life in a mental asylum.

The documentary was done well, with sensitive readings from Gurney’s poems and Gurney’s music  on the soundtrack (he was a highly successful composer, and is best known for this aspect of his work). The use of nostalgic and romantic dramatic reconstruction in which the poet was seen skipping along Gloucestershire lanes was thankfully limited.  With the help of knowledgeable expert witnesses, Kendall presented a serious account of Gurney’s deeply sad life.  Above it all it was the poetry that gripped your attention – poetry that powerfully captured the experience of the ordinary soldier and which, Kendall argued,  is the equal of the work of any of the more well-known soldier-poets of World War One.

Gurney was one of four children from a poor Gloucestershire family, a musically gifted boy who first gained a chorister scholarship to the King’s School Gloucester, and then to the Royal College of Music.  By 1912, Gurney was recognised as a composer of great promise, who had begun setting poems to music.  At about that time he began to write poetry himself.

At the same time, Gurney was already experiencing mental health issues, eventually leading to a breakdown. In 1914 he was keen to enlist, but was rejected by the army on grounds of defective eyesight, but a year later he was accepted and, in May 1916, crossed to France with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. In the film, Professor Kendall argued that Gurney’s sole motivation for enlisting was his belief that the discipline of army life would help him overcome his mental instability.

The letters, poetry and the music that Gurney wrote while serving on the Somme suggest, argued Kendall, that his time at the front was, in fact, the happiest of his life:

The war years were pretty much the most stable of Gurney’s adult life, and it was after the war that he broke down completely. He associated war with all the horror and brutality, but also with the comradeship, that sense of belonging, that sense of place.  That’s why Gurney thought, when war broke out, ‘This is going to help me, the whole discipline of army life.’ Army life gave him that sense of regimentation and discipline that otherwise he wouldn’t have.

By 1917, Gurney had enough poems for a first book, called Severn and Somme.  Kendall discussed how in these poems, deeply sensitive to the landscape and natural world around him, Gurney reveals ‘an intense attention to place’. He sees the meandering river Severn of his Gloucestershire childhood mirrored in the the one that had given its name to the battle in which he had been fighting.  One from that first collection, read during the programme, was ‘Trees’ which name-checks Cooper’s Hill, near Cranham in Gloucestershire.  It brought to mind the haunting war paintings of ‘torn trees’ by Paul Nash, who also expressed his rage at the waste of life in images of the violation of nature:

(“You cannot think how ghastly these battle-fields look under a grey sky. Torn trees are the most terrible things I have ever seen. Absolute blight and curse is on the face of everything.”)

The dead land oppressed me;
I turned my thoughts away,
And went where hill and meadow
Are shadowless and gay.

Where Coopers stands by Cranham,
Where the hill-gashes white
Show golden in the sunshine,
Our sunshine — God’s delight.

Beauty my feet stayed at last
Where green was most cool,
Trees worthy of all worship
I worshipped then, O fool,

Let my thoughts slide unwitting
To other, dreadful trees,
And found me standing, staring
Sick of heart — at these!

Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, 1919

Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, watercolour, 1919

On Good Friday, 1917, at Passchendaele, Gurney was first wounded (though not seriously), then gassed.  He was sent home.  Two years later he produced his second collection, War’s Embers, that contained the poem ‘To His Love’ that is considered his masterpiece, the song-like elegy composed for his friend from childhood, Will Harvey, who Gurney believed to be dead (in fact Harvey had been captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war):

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

That raw, colloquial ‘red wet / Thing’ of the final stanza has as much shattering force as anything in the body of First World War poetry.

Despite the pain and horror of war, Gurney had relished the camaraderie of the war.  In his poems he captures the voices of the soldiers, whether from Gloucestershire – or the men of Wales, ‘Hiding in sandbag ditches,whispering consolatory / Soft foreign things’ in ‘First Time In:

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

Another example of his delight in the varieties of human voice – listening with a musician’s ear, perhaps – comes in ‘The Silent One’, with its ‘lovely chatter of Bucks accent’ and the ‘finicking accent’ of the officer. The poem emerged from an incident experienced by Gurney during an advance on German lines:

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes – and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music – and swore deep heart’s oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.

One aspect of Gurney’s poetry that distinguishes him from other war poets, Professor Kendall observed, is his naming of people and places, and his itemising of the small, ordinary things of the soldiers’ days.  ‘Laventie’ (named for a small town on the front line near Lille) illustrates this:

One would remember still
Meadows and low hill
Laventie was, as to the line and elm row
Growing through green strength wounded, as home elms grow.
Shimmer of summer there and blue autumn mists
Seen from trench-ditch winding in mazy twists.
The Australian gunners in close flowery hiding
Cunning found out at last, and smashed in the unspeakable lists.
And the guns in the smashed wood thumping and grinding.

The letters written there, and received there,
Books, cakes, cigarettes in a parish of famine,
And leaks in rainy times with general all-damning.
The crater, and carrying of gas cylinders on two sticks
(Pain past comparison and far past right agony gone,)
Strained hopelessly of heart and frame at first fix.

Cafe au lait in dugouts on Tommies cookers,
Cursed minnie werfs, thirst in 18 hour summer.
The Australian miners clayed, and the being afraid
Before strafes, sultry August dusk time than Death dumber —
And the cooler hush after the strafe, and the long night wait —
The relief of first dawn, the crawling out to look at it,
Wonder divine of Dawn, man hesitating before Heaven’s gate.
(Though not on Coopers where music fire took at it,
Though not as at Framilode beauty where body did shake at it)
Yet the dawn with aeroplanes crawling high at Heaven’s gate
Lovely aerial beetles of wonderful scintillate
Strangest interest, and puffs of soft purest white —
Soaking light, dispersing colouring for fancy’s delight.

Of Maconachie, Paxton, Tickler, and Gloucester’s Stephens;
Fray Bentos, Spiller and Baker, Odds and evens
Of trench food, but the everlasting clean craving
For bread, the pure thing, blessed beyond saving.
Canteen disappointments, and the keen boy braving
Bullets or such for grouse roused surprisingly through (Halfway) Stand-to.
And the shell nearly blunted my razor at shaving;
Tilleloy, Pauquissart, Neuve Chapelle, and mud like glue.

But Laventie, most of all, I think is to soldiers
The Town itself with plane trees, and small-spa air;
And vin, rouge-blanc, chocolats, citron, grenadine:
One might buy in small delectable cafes there.
The broken church, and vegetable fields bare;
Neat French market town look so clean,
And the clarity, amiability of North French air.
Like water flowing beneath the dark plough and high Heaven,
Music’s delight to please the poet pack-marching there.

Or the memory of marching, in October 1916, ‘Towards Lillers’, just a few miles along from Laventie, dreaming of ‘a quench for thirsty frames’, estaminets and ‘longed for cool wine or cold beer’, but remembering ‘two ditches of heart-sick men’, barb-wire to the front, and ‘the times scientific, as evil as ever again’:

 In October marching, taking the sweet air.
Packs riding lightly, and homethoughts soft coming,
‘This is right marching, we are even glad to be here,
Or very glad?’ But looking upward to dark smoke foaming,
Chimneys on the clear crest, no more shades for roaming,
Smoke covering sooty what man’s heart holds dear,
Lillers we approached, a quench for thirsty frames,
And looked once more between houses and at queer names
Of estaminets, longed for cool wine or cold beer.
This was war; we understood; moving and shifting about;
To stand or be withstood in the mixed rout
Of fight to come after this. But that was a good dream
Of justice or strength-test with steel tool a gleam
Made to the hand. But barb-wire lay to the front,
Tiny aeroplanes circled as ever their wont
High over the two ditches of heart-sick men:
The times scientific, as evil as ever again.
October lovely bathing with sweet air the plain

Back in Gloucester after the war, Gurney faced a seemingly hopeless future: instability and depression had descended into a profound mental collapse. From 1919 to 1922 Gurney drove himself hard, physically as well as creatively, taking jobs where his labours included digging, delving and felling trees, believing that physical exertion was essential to settle his nerves and to still the imagined voices and radio waves with which he now felt himself to be bombarded.

He alarmed his family with his terrified conviction that the police were torturing him, bombarding him with radio waves. Medical help was sought, and in September 1922 Gurney was certified insane and admitted to Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester.  Gurney made a desperate night-time escape from Barnwood, running off in his pyjamas (this made me think of John Clare). He was recaptured by the police, and transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford, where he wrote and composed with feverish intensity, at one point producing a poem a day for a year.

Incarcerated for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney was all but forgotten, though he received visits from friends.  There was Marion Scott (the writer and musicologist who had met Gurney at the Royal College of Music; they had formed an enduring friendship recounted in the documentary, with Scott championing both his music and his poetry.  His old friend Will Harvey visited  – and Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas. She discovered that Gurney refused to go into the asylum’s grounds because ‘it was not his idea of the country at all – the fields, woods, water-meadows and footpaths he loved so well, and he would have nothing to do with that travesty of something sacred to him’. In the BBC 4 film, Kendall read this moving extract from her diary, describing one of her visits:

We arrived at the asylum which looked like – as indeed it was – a prison. [… ]We were walking along a bare corridor when we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He
gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said: ‘You are Helen, Edward’s widow and Edward is dead.’ I said, ‘Yes, let us talk of him’ [. . .]

We spoke of country that he knew and which Edward knew too and he evidently identified Edward with the English countryside, especially that of Gloucestershire. […] The next time I went I took with me one of Edward’s own well-used Ordnance maps of Gloucester where he had often walked. This proved to have been a sort of inspiration, for Ivor at once spread it out on his bed and he and I spent the whole time I was there tracing with our fingers the lanes and byeways and villages of which he knew every step and over which Edward had walked. He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. He trod, in a way we who were sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well, his guide being his finger tracing the way on the map. It was most deeply moving, and I knew that I had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else I could have thought of.

During those last fifteen years in the asylum, Gurney constantly wished for death; as Professor Kendall explained, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to a lingering torture. He died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day, 1937, aged 47. Only then did he return to his beloved Gloucestershire to be buried near Twigworth.

Ivor Gurney gravestone

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For other’s delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.