THE WESTERN FRONT

Beijing, 3 August 2012

These last few evenings I’ve been sorting through the photographs we took during our summer vacation. Much of our time was taken up with doing necessary things – checking repairs to our apartment, visiting relatives, that sort of thing – but we managed to squeeze in a three-day visit to the battlefields of the Western Front. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for at least forty years, since I first started reading the English poetry and prose of the War.

Because my knowledge of the War is primarily British, our visit ran along the line of the British sector, from the Ypres Salient – the battles of Passchendaele, Ypres, Messines Ridge – to the battlefields of Neuve-Chapelle, Loos, Vimy Ridge, and finally to the battlefields of the Somme.

I’m not a military historian; I’m not interested in the lay of the land, nor do I want to know which regiment swept over this hill to take that objective, or what weapons they used to do it. In any event, as you gaze across today’s peaceful countryside it’s hard to imagine the scenes of a hundred years ago. Even at Vimy Ridge, or Delville Wood, or the Newfoundland Memorial, where the land has been left as it was at the end of hostilities, the ground does not speak to you.

No, what really drew me to this strip of land is the iconography of death. How did the belligerents deal with the enormity of their military dead after the guns fell silent? 2 million dead in Germany, 1.4 million in France, 1.1 million in the British Empire.

Wilfred Owen wrote:

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.

But each country made sure that there would be memorials for their dead. Indeed, the length of the Western Front is thickly dotted with memorials and cemeteries. We visited only a handful of the bigger ones, mostly British Empire but also a few French and German. As we drove, signs to many, many others beckoned: Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, Post Office Rifles Cemetery, Crump Trench British Cemetery, L’Homme Mort British Cemetery, Dud Corner Cemetery, Happy Valley British Cemetery … “so many, I had not thought death had undone so many”.

How did Governments choose to present these dead millions to their citizens? As I flip through my photos, in the British Empire cemeteries I see a predominance of white and green: white stone and green grass, leavened by splashes of colour from the roses and other flowers planted at the base of each gravestone. I see few trees.

07 Tyne Cot memorial-cropped

The buildings echo those of that other, Roman, Empire that the British so aspired to emulate: columns, rounded arches, cupolas, brick mixed with stone.

Thiepval_Memorial-3

And I see grand phrases written on the walls, commemorating victory, heroic sacrifice, eternal remembrance, and the gratitude of a nation. But I also see scrolling on and on, from one wall to another, the names of the missing, those with no known grave, whose macerated flesh disappeared into the mud of the Western Front. And I see the ages of those who died – so young most of them, my children’s age.

Menin_Gate_names

The colours white and green are echoed in the French memorials. But here the Christian motifs are stronger: white crosses for the buried (or white gravestones for the non-Christians) and churches or church-like structures for the memorials. Here too grass dominates the green – trees are rare. And here too the grass’s green is splashed with colour from flowers at the base of the crosses. And here too grand rhetoric is carved into the walls.

notre_dame_de_lorette

German cemeteries differ radically. Everything about them is much more sombre. Black, not white, is the dominant colour of crosses, gravestones and buildings. Although as elsewhere green is ever present, it is a darker green, for trees grow throughout the cemeteries. Their leaves, their bark, their shadows darken hues throughout the enclosures. And there are no flowers to brighten the scene, no triumphant language on the walls.

Langemark_German_cemetery

I suppose the sombre tone of the German cemeteries reflects their defeat. The British and the French could at least claim that their dead were justified by their victory. But the Germans had nothing to show for their dead. Yet to me, the Germans show the better sensibility. For are the deaths of so many young people ever justifiable? They represent a terrible loss for us all, echoing down through the decades. And despite all the protestations to the contrary, they will be forgotten. Already now, how many of the soldiers lying in the soil of northern France and Belgium are remembered by family members or friends? They are just becoming names on a wall or gravestone, and even those names will one day erode away.  The poet Carl Sandburg caught the idea well in his poem “Grass”:

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.

77 Neuville St Vaast cemetery

__________________
Pictures:
Tyne cot memorial: mine
Thiepval memorial: http://www.euro-t-guide.com/See_Photo/France/NW_Amiens/Thiepval_Memorial_2011_16.jpg
Menin Gate names: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/ee/Menin_Gate_names.jpeg
Notre dame de Lorette: http://arras-france.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/notre_dame_de_lorette.JPG
Langemark:  http://www.euro-t-guide.com/See_Photo/Belgium/NW_Ypres/Langemark_German_War_Graves_2011_08.jpg
Neuville St. Vaast: mine

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Abellio

I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. http://ipaintingsforsale.com/UploadPic/Gustav Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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