Posts Tagged ‘Menin Gate’

Siegfried Sassoon: Reconciliation

August 2, 2022

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

I only came across this poem recently: what a powerful one it is, in the light of some of his others, and its theme. After the war, there is peace, and a coming to terms with what happened before, however difficult that may be.

Sassoon creates a situation that would have been familiar to his readers; British relatives would have to travel to France or Belgium to visit either the grave of a loved one, if a grave existed, or to see the dead soldier commemorated somewhere like the Menin Gate in Ypres, or the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. People are still making such visits today, seeking the last resting-place of an ancestor.

Is your hero in that first line innocent, or ironic, or both? (link to poem) What, exactly, is a homeless village? Do we imagine ruins, one of the lost villages of the Somme which were wiped from the face of the earth and never rebuilt? Sassoon allows the visitor, and the reader, a sense of pride in the sacrifice of a life, though he never alludes to the purpose of that sacrifice, or the meaning of that death.

The challenge is in the fourth line: think of the other side, the former enemy, too. And this is hard. I recall that in my innocent childhood days, our local parish priest had fought in the Great War and lost a leg; it was replaced by a tin prosthesis, and occasionally, if someone looked sceptical – though he walked with a limp – they would be invited to tap the leg, which sounded hollow and metallic. But what impressed me most profoundly about him was that on Remembrance Sunday he always solemnly reminded the congregation to pray for the dead Germans too. Those men also did their duty, were brave or cowardly, and died for their country as well.

The fifth line sums up the savagery of that war in a single line: humans behaving inhumanly, doing things that they no longer wish to remember. Listen to the leaden-sounding monosyllables of that line, interrupted only by the emphasis in the three-syllable hideous.

And then the judgement in the next line, directly addressed again – you – the juxtaposition of nourished and hatred, the alliteration of hatred/harsh, the lapidary blind at the end of the line: no escaping here. Yet the judgement is only implied; there is a hint that the poet understands such feelings. But we have also to remember: he was there, he saw.

The final two lines must be wrestled with. The Golgotha reference – ‘place of the skull’ in Hebrew, I think, from the gospel account of the crucifixion of Christ. Perhaps you’ll find – and perhaps only now do we reflect on the gender of the visitor Sassoon is addressing: is she female? A mother, a sister, a wife, a lover? What are those (German) mothers doing? (see Sassoon’s poem Glory of Women) Are they on the same errand? And if all are in the same situation, then the overarching humanity is surely emphasised, and we are brought back to the title of the poem.

Sassoon’s experiences in the trenches, his anger at what he saw, and the apparent indifference or lack of understanding on the part of those back home, gave him the right to challenge, to question, to confront. But what words would you use to describe the tone of this poem? For it surely is not an angry poem. Solemn? Reflective?

Think about the metre and the rhythm of the verse. Iambic pentameters, solemn; rhyming ABBA ABBA which slows down the pace of the poem as you must wait longer for the final rhyme. Only two stanzas; nothing too complex is being presented or explored here: it’s a very simple poem in a lot of ways, but the feelings and the emotions are rather harder to deal with. For me, it’s another example of Sassoon at his best.

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.

My travels: Y is for Ypres

April 28, 2018

I’ve travelled around quite a few of the Somme battlefields over the past few years, familiarising myself with the places and landscapes I’ve read so much about, and which has formed the background to a lot of the novels, poetry and drama I taught over the years. The other major sector of the western front in the Great War, Flanders, I don’t know very much about at all, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days there on my return journey from walking in the Ardennes.

I’d read about Talbot House a number of times, and finally went there. There’s plenty of information about it online, but basically it was a large, upper middle-class Belgian house behind the lines in the small town of Poperinghe, that was taken over by a couple of Anglican chaplains and turned into a place of rest for troops who were enjoying a few days away from the front. There was entertainment, an endless supply of cups of tea, ways of contacting other comrades, a chapel, spiritual help and comfort, a garden… a small oasis of sanity a few miles outside hell.

I found the place strangely moving, especially the simple chapel right under the eaves of the house, and the large and beautiful garden, too; it gave me a different perspective on the war, made me reflect on things I hadn’t considered. And it offers B&B too, ideally situated for exploring the Flanders sector of the western front, which I haven’t done yet…

I also took myself into Ypres, to look around the splendid In Flanders Fields Museum, in the old (and completely rebuilt) Cloth Hall. I didn’t really learn anything new about the Great War, but the events seen from the Flanders perspective were most illuminating. I learnt a lot about German atrocities at the start of the war, and also how much use was made of flooding low-lying ground as a way of halting German progress. There was also an interesting walk around the old ramparts of the town, which led inevitably to the famous Menin Gate, on which the names of over 50,000 British troops whose bodies were never recovered, are engraved. It’s enormous, perhaps not as impressive as the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in terms of its setting, but sobering, nevertheless. And I found myself thinking yes, and if you wanted to commemorate the names of all the British men who were killed in that utterly pointless war, you’d need twenty of those gates…

As on the Somme, there are war cemeteries dotted all over the landscape. I decided that I would be returning for a few days to visit some of the smaller sites and museums that I’ve come across mention of in various memoirs I’ve read over the years.

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