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
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
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.
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
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’, 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.
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 in 1917
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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. ‘
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.