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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ‘

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

Paul Nash and World War One: ‘I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever… and may it burn their lousy souls’

Paul Nash and World War One: ‘I am no longer an artist,  I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever… and may it burn their lousy souls’

Paul Nash was 25 at the outbreak of the First World War. He would come to see himself as a messenger to those who wanted the war to go on for ever, creating some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted, his outrage at the waste of life expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.

He had been a member of that remarkable pre-war cohort at the Slade School of Art that included Christopher Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth.  Nash had already gained a reputation as a painter of nocturnes and visionary landscapes when he reluctantly volunteered in September 1914, first joining the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles) for home service only.  But in February 1917, having completed officer training, he embarked for France, arriving in the Ypres Sector soon after.

Along with Nevinson and Spencer, Paul Nash is the First World War artist whom I most admire, so I was interested in Paul Gough’s account of his war years in A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War which I finished reading recently.

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘We Are Making a New World’, 1918

Nash arrived at the Ypres Salient at an unusually quiet time (though nowhere in the trenches could be considered safe or particularly quiet). At twilight, as he patrolled the trenches, Nash had time to absorb the strange beauty of the battlefront landscape.  He was impressed by the powerful continuity of nature in the midst of the bombed and battered countryside.In a letter home he wrote:

Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night, and a perfect crescent moon sits uncannily below pale stars.  As the dark gathers, the horizon brightens and again vanishes as the Very lights rise and fall, shedding their weird greenish glare over the land. … At intervals we send up Very lights, and the ghastly face of No Man’s Land leaps up in the garish light , then, as the rocket falls, the great shadows flow back, shutting it into darkness again.  … Maybe you can feel something of the weird beauty from this little letter.

Paul Nash, Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood’, 1917

Nash, like many other artists, writers and poets on the Western Front found himself, as Gough observes, ‘wrestling with the cruel irony that the destruction and depravity all around him was actually feeding his imagination. His early drawings from this period use a bright, even colourful, palette, depicting natural scenes which appeared undisturbed by war.  In a letter home he wrote:

Everywhere are old farms, rambling and untidy, some of course ruined and deserted, all have red or yellow or green roofs and on a sunny day they look fine. The willows are orange, the poplars carmine with buds, the streams gleam brightest blue and flights of pigeons go wheeling about the field. Mixed up with all this normal beauty of nature you see the strange beauty of war. Trudging along the road you become gradually aware of a humming in the air, a sound rising and falling in the wind. You look up and after a second’s search you can see a gleaming shaft in the blue like a burnished silver dart, another and then another…

Paul Nash, Existence, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Existence’, 1917

Nash’s sensitivity to the incongruity of spring unfolding amid the destruction is very similar to words that the poet Edward Thomas put down in his diary that same spring while stationed not far away, outside Arras:

Linnets and chaffinches sing in waste trenched ground with trees and water tanks between us and Arras. Magpies over No Man’s Land in pairs.

On another day Thomas records watching a French farmer ploughing a field just behind the lines, driving his team right up to a crest that was in full view of the German gunners at Beaurains, before turning slowly around. It’s impossible not to be reminded of the exquisite poem Thomas had written just before leaving for the front, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’:

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.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Ruined Country’, 1917

Imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled. The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which the water lies still and cold or heaped with mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war… In the midst of this strange country… men are living in their narrow ditches.

Nash wrote those words on Good Friday, 6 April 1917. Fifty miles to the south, Edward Thomas noted ‘infantry with yellow patches behind marching soaked up to line’. The Battle of Arras was about to begin, and on Easter Monday, as the British infantry attack began, Thomas was knocked down by the blast from an enemy shell, and killed instantly. ‘Thomas is dead…’ Nash wrote some time later after hearing the news. ‘I brood on it dully.’

Paul Nash, Indians in Belgium, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Indians in Belgium’, 1917

After only three months at the front Nash was injured after falling into a trench and invalided back to England. Convalescing at home a week later, Nash learned that his division had been virtually annihilated – with most of his fellow-officers killed – in an attack on the infamous Hill 60 that presaged the Messines Ridge offensive.

While on leave, Nash exhibited some war drawings in London. The work was noticed by the War Artists Advisory Committee and so, when he returned to France later that year, it was as an official war artist. He arrived in the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele, ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’ in the words of AJP Taylor, and now his eyes were truly opened to the horrors of war. In his notes he wrote:

I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like.  They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter.  If I can, I will show them….

Paul Gough’s account draws heavily upon Nash’s writing, revealing it to be amongst the most vivid to come out of the war. In late 1917, for instance, he wrote to his wife:

I have just returned, last night, from a visit to Brigade Headquarters up the line and I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable. In the fifteen drawings I have made I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature and of what our men in France have to face. We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle, and can conjure up with the aid of some of the more inspired war correspondents and the pictures in the Daily Mirror some vision of battlefield; but no pen or drawing can convey this country – the normal setting of the battles taking place, day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave that is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

As the messenger, Paul Nash created some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted, his outrage at the waste of life was expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.  In a perceptive opening to his chapter on Nash, Paul Gough observes that ‘of all British artists of the last century, Paul Nash is perhaps the one most readily associated with the sanctity and loveliness of trees’. As a visionary painter, Nash sensed the metaphysical power of trees – how they ‘linked the underworld, the earth’s surface and the skies’.  Nash was sensitive, not only to the human carnage he witnessed, but also to the devastation of the verdant plains of Flanders, Artois and Picardy, where trees had offered ‘vantage and protection, raw materials and nourishment’, in thick forests and neat copses.

Once cherished as a place of refuge and shade, copses or small woods now became death traps, infamous killing grounds.  Trees were cleared for safety by artillery shelling or felled for military use.  Nash saw all this, writes Gough:

He was aghast at the sight of splintered copses and dismembered trees, seeing in their shattered limbs an equivalent for the human carnage that lay all around or even hung in shreds from the eviscerated treetops.  In so many of his war pictures, the trees remain inert and gaunt, failing to respond to the shafts of sunlight; their branches dangle lifelessly ‘like melancholy tresses of hair’, mourning the death of the world and its values that Nash held so dear’.

Myfanwy Piper later observed that:

The drawings he made then, of shorn trees in ruined and flooded landscapes, were the works that made Nash’s reputation. They were shown at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 together with his first efforts at oil painting, in which he was self-taught and quickly successful, though his drawings made in the field had more immediate public impact. His poetic imagination, instead of being crushed by the terrible circumstances of war, had expanded to produce terrible images – terrible because of their combination of detached, almost abstract, appreciation and their truth to appearance.

Paul Nash, After the Battle, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘After the Battle’, 1918

Paul Nash, Rain: Lake Zillebeke, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Rain: Lake Zillebeke’, 1917

Nash’s anger, writes Gough, was converted into a suite of taut drawings, ‘each one scooped out of the muddy places, barren ridge lines, and filthy puddles of the Salient’.  In works such as Rain: Lake Zillebeke or After the Battle, Nash ‘created a new calligraphy of war’:

His drawings are scored and scratched with uncompromising diagonals, the incessant rain is engraved in stabbing lines across the surface, the ashen wastes of the battlefield are dense with impenetrable strokes of his pen. […] Nash had created a distinctive vision of war, one that brought new insights into the way that artists could depict the absences, the emptiness, the abraded surfaces, and the defiled hollows that were the essence of the Western Front.

Paul Nash, Poster for Void of War Exhibition, May 1918

Paul Nash, Poster for The Void of War exhibition, May 1918

In May 1918 The Void of War, an exhibition of pictures by Paul Nash, opened in London.  The most acclaimed work in the exhibition was the heavily ironic We Are Making a New World (above), ‘a brazenly symbolic canvas developed from a drawing of a sunrise at Inverness Copse, a derelict woodland deep in the Ypres Salient’.  The painting has become one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.

Paul Nash, Sunrise Inverness Copse, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘Sunrise Inverness Copse’, 1918

5.1.5

Paul Nash, ‘Void’, 1918

In these key drawings and paintings, Nash was beginning to work out a means of portraying the battlefield in concrete terms.  His use of colour had become more ambitious, and in Void, one of the most powerful paintings exhibited in London, acidic colours depict the total devastation of war in a shocking, hellish scene that, far from commemorating valour, rather reveals the desolation, destruction, and terror of war.

Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘The Ypres Salient at Night’, 1918

The Ypres Salient at Night shows three soldiers on the fire step of a trench surprised by a brilliant star shell lighting up the view over the battlefield. The painting shows us a fragmented world of chaos, where the demarcation of day and night, order and disorder, no longer exists as bombing continues throughout the night.

Paul Nash, The Mule Track, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘The Mule Track’, 1918

In The Mule Track, Nash presents the viewer with another terrifying scene. Amidst the chaos of a heavy bombardment the small figures of a mule train are trying to cross the battlefield. They are reduced to defenceless puppets at the mercy of terrible forces. The animals rear and panic at nearby explosions, as the water in the flooded trenches wells up like geysers and rubble is thrown high into a sky obscured by large clouds of yellow and grey smoke.

Paul Nash, Men Marching at Night, 1918
Paul Nash, ‘Men Marching at Night’, 1918

In a very fine drawing from this period, Nash shows a view along a straight road lined with tall trees that loom over a column of British soldiers marching down the road. The rain drives across the composition from the left, and the soldiers huddle beneath cloaks whilst marching. There are echoes in this work of CRW Nevinson’s handling of a similar subject matter in his war work, Column on the March from 1914 (see my earlier post). Nash certainly admired Nevinson, and recorded in a letter in July 1917 that they had just met.

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘Wire’, 1918

Wire is a poignant watercolour of a desolate landscape, described by the artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge in these terms:

Great bomb craters filled with sullen waters, possibly concealing rotten corpses; the pitiful paths up and down dunes that speak of some hidden human presence; the pall of smoke partly filling the sky; the imagined stench. We assume that it is winter from the degraded palette, but it could just be the winter of the soul – war allows no other season than that of desolation. What makes this painful watercolour so memorable is the blasted tree, a great ripped phallic symbol enmeshed with barbed wire. There is a long tradition in Western landscape art of decaying tree stumps as symbols of destroyed civilisations. In sixteenth and seventeenth-century landscapes such signs of decay signify renewal, but in this modern work about the horrors of war, rebirth has been suspended.

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919

Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, 1919

A month before the London exhibition opened, Nash had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information to make a large oil painting – originally to have been called A Flanders Battlefield – that was to feature in the planned Hall of Remembrance, alongside paintings by William Orpen and John Singer Sargent. The intention was that both the art and the setting would celebrate national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. However, the Hall of Remembrance was never built and the artists’ work ended up with the Imperial War Museum.

Nash worked on the painting from June 1918 to February 1919, choosing as his subject the main road between Ypres and Menin.  He would remember it as a road in name only, torn up by shellfire and deserted in daylight. It was one of the most dangerous parts of the Western Front with notorious sites of battle – Sanctuary Wood, Hooge Crater, Inverness Copse and Hellfire Corner – strung out along the road. (As an inscription for the painting, Nash suggested: ‘The picture shows a tract of country near Gheluvelt village in the sinister district of ‘Tower Hamlets’, perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War.’)

Gough discusses the ‘highly sophisticated image’ that resulted from months of work in a temporary studio at Chalfont St Giles shared with his brother in these terms:

By subtly dividing the canvas into three broad bands – a deep foreground of water-filled craters, the lateral axis of the road in the middle band, and the shattered landscape in the distance – [Nash] drew out the different directional properties in each of the three zones without losing either the phantasmagoric properties of the emptied landscape, nor the nullity of a place that had been relentlessly stripped of its former identity.

As so often in Nash’s war work, the foreground is crammed with insurmountable obstacles – pools of water that cannot easily be crossed, pyramidal blocks that bar the way into the interior space of the painting, piles of debris that clutter the ground plane.

The viewer, writes Gough, seeks a way through the obstructions ‘into the distance where the ‘Promised Land’ of the horizon is unreachable, locked in some unimaginable future’.

Nash considered The Menin Road to be the best thing he had ever done. ‘He was right’, argues Gough, concluding that Nash had emerged from the war as by far the most important and original young artist in Britain (he was just 28 at the war’s end).  Ahead, wrote Nash in 1919, lay the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.  He could not have known then that in another 20 years he would, once again, be appointed an official war artist.

The Missing of the Somme: Have you forgotten yet?

The Missing of the Somme: Have you forgotten yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Nash, The Menin Road

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

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

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

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

10495 PRIVATE
A. INGHAM
MANCHESTER REGIMENT
1st DECEMBER 1916

SHOT AT DAWN
ONE OF THE FIRST TO ENLIST
A WORTHY SON
OF HIS FATHER

Ingham memorial Bailleulmont

A worthy son of his father…

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

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

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

Thiepval Memorial and graves

The Thiepval Memorial and graves

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

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

Missing of the Somme Thiepval

Thiepval: The Missing of the Somme

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

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

Cenotaph 1919

At the Cenotaph in 1919

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Watch out!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Aftermath’, written by Siegfried Sassoon in 1919:

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

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

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

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

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