Posts Tagged ‘Battle of the Somme’

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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On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

Europe, war and the imagination

June 29, 2016

It’s a century since the start of the Battle of the Somme this coming Friday, July 1. Before I start this post, honour to the memory of those who died!

I’ve been reflecting on human imagination, and more specifically mine, in the context of the Great War. Obviously many writers, from those who lived through the events and times and wrote in prose and verse – and who didn’t need to use their imaginations because they were there – to those who have written much more recently, and mainly novels, have been able to put words onto the page, which have shown readers over the years the nature and effect of the war, and the havoc it wreaked.

I have been so fascinated by what they wrote, that I taught First World War literature at school for a good number of years, and always with a focus on messages for us as readers today: what might we learn? how might we behave differently? And this fascination has led me, in recent years, to make a number of visits to various battlefields: relatively brief excursions in Flanders, but two lengthier explorations of the Somme, and visits to the Chemin des Dames and the Verdun battlefield, by way of seeing the war from a French perspective.

So I have walked some of the ground. I have seen some of the places where the carnage took place. I have mementos – some fragments of barbed wire from Mametz Wood and a machine-gun cartridge case from the outskirts of Peronne. I’ve walked French and German and British war cemeteries, seen the French memorial at Douaumont and the British one at Thiepval.

2016-04-19 10.41.03 verdun

And I’m still stunned. My imagination is defeated totally by the scale of it all. I’ve stood at the Lochnagar Crater and thought, God, you could get half my street in that! but can’t begin to conceive what it could have been like for a German in the front line when that mine went off. I’ve stood at Thiepval and oriented myself, and thought, how could anyone possibly survive walking that distance gradually uphill towards machine-gun fire? The scale of it all is just too much. And, although one can read about the number of deaths and casualties, it just isn’t possible fully to conceive or make sense of the enormity of it all.

One thing was brought home to me very clearly, with out the need for my imagination. This photo, from a display in one of the museums at Verdun, shows graphically what an exploding shell does; I am no longer surprised by accounts of men being torn to pieces and bodies being unrecognisable…

I think it’s really important for people to visit these places and to remember the past; I’ve noticed that Germans are now also coming to find the graves of their ancestors, and I’ve been very moved by the tributes GCSE History students on school trips have left in a number of war cemeteries, on the graves of combatants from both sides. It’s really important for people to keep on reading the literature from and about those times. This war – and another, perhaps even more horrific in other ways – happened in our, civilised Europe, and until very recently, in living memory, and deliberate efforts to ensure that such things never happen again germinated the European project that Britain managed to reject a few days ago. We have had more than seventy years of peace in Europe, and that’s far longer than any period of time peace before then. Imagination may defeat us, but memory should sustain us.

Pause for thought Friday 1 July 2016, 7.30am.

Lyn Macdonald: Somme

August 25, 2013

418Zbt2RpsL._AA160_Grim reading, but necessary preparation for an upcoming trip to see the battlefields. I taught the literature of the First World War for many years, and have visited the Belgian battlefields but never those on the Somme.

This book was written thirty years ago, so Macdonald had access to the personal testimonies and recollections of many veterans, none of whom are now alive, almost a century after the start of the war. It’s their accounts of their experiences that are most moving, in many ways: horrors retold in a matter-of-fact way, perhaps the only way of telling them… and the realisation of the insane things they were expected to do by their commanders. This perhaps not from any innate wickedness of the high command, but from lack of information about real conditions on the ground, and lack of imagination. The over-riding impression that comes across of the entire battle, which lasted several months in its various stages, even though it’s the slaughter of the first day that’s usually most remarked upon, is of chaos – nobody knowing what was really going on, or what it was best to do in the circumstances.

Macdonald’s book is very helpfully illustrated with clear maps and annotated photographs, but I still find it all hard to imagine, and perhaps seeing the actual places will be illuminating.

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