Philip Johnstone: High Wood

November 5, 2018

2013-09-21 09.44.12 sommeLadies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

When I first used this poem in school many years ago, I imagined it must be some sardonic reflection from long after the Great War, and I was rather shocked to discover that it had been written in 1918. Certainly, tourism of the former Western Front took off pretty rapidly after the end of the war, and the removal of corpses and obvious unexploded munitions; there are Michelin Guides from the early 1920s (some of which have been reprinted by Smiths of Easingwold, if you are interested).

The poet focuses on a real spot – I took the photo on a visit a few years ago, and the site is privately owned and not accessible to visitors – and a real battle, the Battle of the Somme. He mimics perfectly the patter of a bored tourist guide who has done this dozens of times before: the ‘Observe’, and ‘here is wire’ suggest a lecture, and there is the slight frisson implied by the reference to ‘This mound on which you stand being…’ Equally there is the concern for keeping the exhibits in good condition – ‘kindly not to touch’ / ‘the path, sir, please’ – and the references to ‘the Company’s property’. The idea of guaranteed souvenirs is macabre, perhaps, as is the suggestion that the remains of an actual corpse is on display. The ground was secured ‘at great expense’: to what expense and whose exactly is our guide referring here? And then the alliteration of the refreshments at a reasonable rate’ rounds it all off…

Except that this has not been my experience of British visitors to the war sites. I have seen coachloads of teenage schoolchildren stunned into silence at the Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres and been moved by floral tributes left at many war cemeteries by school parties, including flowers and cards placed on German war graves. I have seen people hunting down the names of relatives on the Thiepval Memorial, seen a wreath from my former grammar school at the Menin Gate, and talked with many people involved in projects where their village had decided to hunt down and photograph the last resting-places of those war dead listed on the war memorials in the village. I noticed that it was no longer just the British who were coming to find the graves of their forebears, Germans were beginning to do the same. The only time I have ever been surprised by what I felt was inappropriate behaviour was by French visitors at their national ossuary at Douaumont near Verdun: some were noisy, loud and disrespectful.

So, although I can understand the poet’s cynicism, the idea that all the horrors would soon be forgotten, I am heartened that he has been proven wrong in his imaginings, and that ordinary people’s responses are largely silent and reverent. When I have stood in any of these places, I have been lost for words, unable to believe what I know to be the truth about what happened, faced with the reality and the enormity.

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