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

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

Isaac Rosenberg, ‘The Road’, 1911

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

Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg self portrait

Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915 (detail)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac Rosenberg, possibly taken October 1917

Isaac Rosenberg, photograph possibly taken October 1917

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

Bailleul Rd East Cemetery

A general view of Bailleul Road East Cemetery

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

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

Rosenberg grave

Isaac Rosenberg’s grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Thomas

Thomas

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

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

Agny military cemetery approach

The approach to Agny military cemetery

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

Agny military cemetery

Mowing the lawns in Agny military cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Thomas grave

P.E. Thomas: ‘poet’

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

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

– ‘In Memoriam’ (Easter 1915)’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Saturday April 7, Thomas wrote to Helen Thomas:

Dearest,

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

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

All and always yours Edwy

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

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

Thomas’s commanding officer wrote to Helen:

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

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

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

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

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

Wilfred Owen

Owen

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

WIlfred Owen Forester's House original

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

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

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

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

Owen Foresters house Owen Foresters house 2

Simon Patterson’s newly-realised Forester’s House

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

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

Wilfred Owen letter Maison Forestiere

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

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

Owen Foresters house basement

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

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

[2nd Manchester Regt.]

Dearest Mother,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever Wilfred x

Owen last letter

Owen’s last letter

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

Dulce et Decorum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ors canal

The Sambre-Oise canal where Owen and his companions died

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

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

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

Ors communal cemetery Owen grave

Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ors communal cemetery 2

Ors Communal Cemetery

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Wilfred Owen's regiment

Doomed youth: Wilfred Owen’s regiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near Thiepval 1

Storm approaching over the Somme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tavistock Square memorial

The  memorial stone for conscientious objectors in Tavistock Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Bob Dylan, ‘With God on Our Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near Thiepval 4Near Thiepval 5

North of the Somme: through fields of gold 

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

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

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

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

CRW Nevinson,The Road from Arras to Bapaume

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

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

Near ThiepvalNear Thiepval 2Near Thiepval 3

Approaching Thiepval

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

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

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

The ruins of Thiepval village, 1917

The ruins of Thiepval village in 1917

William Orpen Thiepval

William Orpen, Thiepval, 1917

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

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

Thiepval 2

The Thiepval Memorial

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

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

Thiepval 6b

The main arch of the Thiepval Memorial

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

Thiepval 4

The Stone of Remembrance at Thiepval

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

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

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

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The Missing

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

Thiepval 6 Thiepval 12Thiepval 10Thiepval 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Men who died in this battle?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thiepval 14

The Missing of the Somme: display in Thiepval Visitor Centre

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

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

Butterworth Thiepval

George Butterworth’s name on the Memorial at Thiepval

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

Thiepval 5

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

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

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

 – ‘Grass’, Carl Sandburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menin Gate 1Menin Gate 1c

The Menin Gate, Ypres

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

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

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

The names of the Missing

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

Menin Gate Last Post  Menin Gate Last Post 2

Crowds gather for the Last Post in August 2014

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

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

Menin Gate Last Post 3

An Ypres newspaper image of the Last Post ceremony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

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

Ypres Cloth Hall

The Cloth Hall today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menin Gate 4

 

The 1WW trip

‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

She began with Dorothy Wordsworth walking the Lakeland fells in May 1800 and continued by way of Karl Marx, prehistoric cave painting, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,  John Maynard Keynes, Degas and the Arts Council, to arrive at the First World War and Wilfred Owen.  All this in the space of  a brilliant fifteen minute essay by Jeanette Winterson broadcast on Radio 3 last week.

Winterson’s essay was one of a series in which writers from different countries were asked to reflect on the meaning of the First World War for them personally, and as a creative artist. Lavinia Greenlaw, who curated the series, gave the contributors only the loosest of frameworks, borrowing the title, Goodbye to All That, from Robert Graves’s famously ‘bitter leave-taking of England’ in which he wrote not only of the First World War but also of the questions it raises: how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write.

Jeanette Winterson used her fifteen minutes to sing a hymn of praise to creativity – ‘the heartbeat of who we are’ – and to indict the capitalist system and its drive to maximize profit for fostering inequalities which eliminate for the great majority the opportunity to be creative or to enjoy the creative arts. ‘Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet’, she argued, ‘is the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human.’ For Winterson, the question posed by the First World War and all those that have followed is: ‘Why is it that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

Winterson began with Dorothy Wordsworth in May 1800, walking in Ryedale and meeting a friend who observes that ‘soon there will only be too ranks of people, the very rich and the very poor’.  She notes how Dorothy’s journals were alert to both ‘the flow of beauty – and poverty’, and how her friend, at their meeting in 1800 – alert to the implications of the emerging industrial revolution – had prophesied ‘the present state of our world in which the richest 85 people control more wealth than the poorest three and a half billion’.

A few decades later, Winterson continues, Marx envisaged a socialist future where our basic needs – food, water, shelter, health, rest and so on – could be met collectively, so that people might have the means and the leisure to supply their human needs – education, books, music,art, friendship, and curiosity. In other words – creativity.

In a spell-binding section of her talk Winterson unpacks her understanding of ‘creativity’: she gives examples of daily activities which reveal its presence.  Creativity is there ‘every day in everything we do’ (or at least, it should be, or could be, she insists).  Creativity is revealed in cave paintings from prehistoric times – ‘the earliest expressions of what it means to be a human being’.

Hargreaves’ spinning jenny represented that creativity, too.  But whereas the technology of the Industrial Revolution ought to have been liberating, instead it ‘became a measure of what had been lost’. With all the technological advances since then, Winterson argues, ‘we should be working less, not more’.  That we are not is because ‘profit is more important than people’.

In 2008, when the crisis happened, recalls Winterson, it seemed like a golden opportunity to act a basic question: ‘is the economy for human beings – or are human beings for the economy?’  Instead, as she crisply expresses it, ‘politicians talked about capitalism like a powerful car, stolen for a while by a few crazy teenagers and driven too fast and crashed.  Fix the car, get decent drivers back behind the wheel, and off we go towards the sunshine.’

From there, it’s a short hop to Thomas Picketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century challenged whole basis of modern capitalism by bringing economics back to the key question of inequality. Exploring the nature of inequality and deprivation, Winterson concludes:

I do not believe that the point of being human is for the majority to scrape a living with not a chance at the imaginative, open, ingenious, curious, playful, creative life that we see in every one of our children. How can we dream if we can’t sleep in safety?  What chance to read a book, let alone write one, without a home? How can you buy even the cheapest theatre ticket when you need two jobs just to feed the kids?

Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet, she argues, is ‘the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human’.  Which brings her, at last, to the significance of the First World War.  ‘Why is it’, she questions, ‘that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

War dead

Winterson concludes by reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, written in May 1918, not long before he was killed in a particularly futile effort in the last moments of the war:

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?

At the end of the First World War, notes Winterson, the motto became ‘lest we forget’. Recalling that John Maynard Keynes, tasked with negotiating the French war debt to Britain, secured an agreement that a collection of paintings by Degas (modern art!) should be accepted in lieu of payment – and then displayed, free of charge, to the public in the National Gallery, Winterson incisively compares that act with the recent Arts Council cuts in support for the arts forced in consequence of bailing out the collapsed banks.  That same Arts Council, she notes, that was established by Maynard Keynes. No Marxist, Keynes did believe, argues Winterson, that wealth should be in the service of human beings.

‘Lest we forget’: what it means to be human.  Creativity, insists Winterson, is not ‘ornament or luxury’, but ‘the heartbeat of who we are’

Better to hear Jeanette Winterson read the essay herself.  It’s available for a year on iPlayer or permanently as a downloadable podcast. Or you can read it here on the 14-18 website.