Posts Tagged ‘Verdun’

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 the centenary

November 1, 2018

It’s coming up to a century since the Great War – ‘the war to end all wars’ – ended; I’ll be writing one or two specific posts about that closer to the time. But I’m very conscious of how my life has been shaped by war, and also that I spend rather more time than many people reading about war, thinking about it, and visiting places that have been at the heart of conflict. Some of you may have read some of my posts about visiting Verdun and the Somme battlefields.

Why do I think it’s so important to remember war, and its effects on us? I first visited the city of Gdansk – formerly Danzig, and where the Second World War began – in 1970 as a teenager. There were plenty of ruins left over from that war then; there are still some. I recall being intrigued by some graffiti painted somewhere on the waterfront, and asked my father to translate. “We have not forgotten. And we shall not forgive.’ I was shocked.

There is the truism that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; we forget at our peril the horrors of the twentieth century, and the further away we get from those times, as we lose those generations who were actually alive through those events, the greater the dangers become, it seems to me: there are figures in public life whose comments are far too glib and cavalier. My mother remembers the Second World War as a primary school child, hiding under the kitchen table during air raids and knitting scarves for convoy sailors at school, but she is now 88; my father was taken prisoner by the Soviets in the first weeks of that war, and without his and his comrades sufferings and adventures on their perilous journey to freedom and England, I would not exist… his home village was burnt to the ground and the rest of his family taken off to be forced labourers by the Nazis. So I suppose I personally have plenty of grounds for my preoccupation with that war. And I have since discovered how close to the Eastern Front his home was during the Great War.

But the issue is broader. I’m also interested in human progress; I’ve read many utopias and know that there are many people who dream of a better world, and the disappearance of war from it would be a start. Yet, we never seem to be that far from war. Although, mercifully, mainland Britain has been spared during my lifetime – apart from acts of terrorism connected with wars elsewhere — there is warfare all around the world, and aided and abetted by Britain which makes so much money selling weapons to anyone who has the money to buy them… I’m truly sickened both by those who wring their hands about the terrible plight of refugees while ignorant of how we contribute to turning people into refugees, and by those who would turn them away on the grounds they are nothing to do with us.

From both political and religious conviction, I firmly believe that wars solve nothing, but make existing situations even worse. They serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, who generally do not suffer, and indeed often make tidy profits. I know some would say that mine is a simplistic attitude, but when I look at the interconnectedness of everywhere and everyone, I am ever more convinced that wars and armaments are an inevitable part of the capitalist system. I also find it sickening that there are many people who earn their daily bread from the manufacture and sale of the machinery of death.

The centenary of the end of the Great War ought to be a time for serious reflection on how the coming century might be made more peaceful; there is no place for jingoistic pride or for appropriating the deaths of millions as some kind of patriotic sacrifice – it was all an unspeakable waste of life and potential, as well as a prelude to even worse things.

 

The balance-sheet of the Great War

February 20, 2018

IMG_0820

We are moving towards the centenary of the Armistice and the end of the Great War, and I have to say that, after my initial doubts about various suggested commemorations, we seem to have been sober, sensible and respectful in what we have remembered. Perhaps, actually, we have stayed away from it, still unable fully to comprehend the enormities of a century ago, against the background of a world that is still very troubled, and still affected by those events of the past.

I’m attempting to do something a bit different in a series of posts which will appear in the coming weeks. I hope that the images I will use are clear enough for readers to see, if you magnify them on your device.

I first saw this poster in the museum at Albert, on my first visit to the Somme. From the way it’s written, and the typefaces and design, it apparently dates from some point between the two world wars. On a visit to Verdun last year, I was pleased to see it had been reproduced for sale, at the modest price of 5 euros. It’s obviously focused particularly on the effects of the Great War on France, but there are important and useful messages for everyone. As my contribution to remembering the centenary of the end of the war in 2018, I’ve scanned each section separately and translated it for an English-speaking audience; over the coming days and weeks the sections will appear in my blog, and when completed, I will add it to my pages, so it’s easily accessible…

This synoptic table compiled from official statistics by Georges Pineau and illustrated by André Galland, was published by the Newspaper of the Combatants and War-Mutilated, Paris.

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.

Chemin des Dames

September 10, 2015

I like to have a good travel guide when I’m off exploring somewhere, whether new or familiar: there’s always something I want to find out more about, and though it’s possible to access information online instantly, a lot of it is very superficial; you can settle down with a good guidebook, flipping back and forwards through the pages, with a finger in at the page with the relevant map on… and so on. You can tell I don’t do it all through my phone.

So I was pleased, as I revisit some of the key sites of the Great War in Northern France, that Michelin have published a new series of guides to various battlefields. They were quick off the mark in the 1920s with a series in both French and English which has apparently been reprinted (by G H Smith of Easingwold if you are interested); the new series is obviously to link in to the centennial of the war, but seems only to be available in French, and is illustrated with pages from the volumes of a hundred years ago.

I found the volume on the Chemin des Dames very helpful, with lots of thorough background explanation and information; key places to visit and things to look out for were well-documented; the book is divided sensibly into a number of sections according to area, and there is a detailed map, in the usual Michelin style, of each area. This is the only weak aspect of the book, really: I think it could usefully have done with more maps, larger scale and more detailed, rather like the town and city plans they provide in their ordinary guidebooks, because many of the monuments, cemeteries and other landmarks one is looking out for are not easy to find, and often I found I’d driven past before I realised where I was…

Nevertheless, the book is good because detailed and carefully produced, which is the case I’ve always found with Michelin guidebooks: they are objective and informative without being patronising or trendy… and, looking forward (hopefully) to a visit to Verdun next year, I have also purchased that guide to prepare myself.

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