Sori, 9 November 2021

My wife and I have finally made it down to the sea. It took a while; we’ve been back in Italy for three weeks. We got here just in time to witness the – very low key – official celebrations on 4th November of the end of the First World War for Italy: the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed a week before the German Empire did.

Among other things, a fresh wreath has been fixed to the plaque posed on the wall of the house near the village church where Francesco Solimano was born back in 1918.

my photo

The plaque states:


Italy’s “Medaglia d’Oro” is the highest award an Italian soldier can get for bravery on the field of battle. I would say that it’s equivalent to the UK’s Victoria Cross or the US’s Medal of Honor. Readers can imagine, then, that Francesco is the pride of his native village. Along with the plaque on his house, he has received that great accolade of having a village street named after him – the same street, it so happens, which our apartment is located on. A couple of years ago, while we were in the municipal building trying to understand something related to one of the local taxes we were paying, we also stumbled across a photo of Francesco hanging in the corridor.

My photo

Readers will note his hat with the feather, the typical hat that all “Alpini” – soldiers in Italy’s Alpine regiments – wear at the various get-togethers which they regularly have. This, for instance, is a get-together in Genova for the Ligurian sections of the Alpini, which Francesco would surely have attended had he lived.


If his photo is anything to go by, Francesco seems to have been a sympathetic fellow. But it wasn’t a smile or a joke that got him his Gold Medal. The official website has his official citation for the medal.

“At the command of a 45-mm mortar squad, during the retreat from the Don he showed exceptional steadfastness by keeping his team steady and efficient, and at its head he participated with legendary valor in repeated hard fighting that took place during ten days of retreat. In the course of the violent offensives, he kept his team at full efficiency by recovering abandoned weapons and ammunition, and so was able to oppose the enemy with renewed ardour and tenacious resistance and react with daring counterattacks. Wounded during a cavalry charge that overwhelmed our lines, he refused aid from the survivors, urged them to fight to the bitter end, and rather than save himself preferred to share the fate of his wounded comrades left on the frozen steppes. An admirable example of absolute dedication to duty and stoic firmness. January 17-26, 1943”

This lyrical description of personal courage skates over the overarching military disaster that the “retreat from the Don” constituted for the Italians. Let me try and describe the titanic battle which took place in late December 1942-early January 1943 between the Soviets and the Axis powers, a battle in which Francesco Solimano and his squad were but a tiny cog.

Francesco Solimano’s squad was part of the 1st Alpine Regiment, which was one of three regiments making up the 4th, or Cuneense, Alpine Division, which, together with the 2nd, Tridentina, Alpine Division and the 3rd, Julia, Alpine Division, made up the Alpine Army Corps. This in turn was one of three Army Corps making up the 8th Italian Army. In early December 1942, the 8th Army was holding a 230-km front along the River Don, north of Stalingrad. Already, attacks by the Soviets in September 1942 had shown that the line was too extended given the Army’s strength and the rather poor weaponry at its disposal. It had consequently been reinforced with German units, but most of these had been shifted southwards as the battle of Stalingrad sucked in more and more German troops. On its left (north-western) flank was the 2nd Hungarian Army, on its right (south-eastern) flank was the 3rd Romanian Army, both even weaker than the 8th Italian Army. The Alpine Corps held the 8th Army’s northernmost sector, next to the Hungarians. Here we have Italian troops moving into new positions in the winter of 1942.


On 11th December, the Soviets attacked the 8th Army, with the strategic intention of annihilating it. Naturally, it chose to attack the Army’s weakest sector, which was on the right, southern flank. Despite being outnumbered 9 to 1 by the Soviets, and facing a huge disadvantage in weaponry, the Italians managed to hold out, though at huge cost. A week later, the Soviets attacked the Romanians, who, already weakened by the battle around Stalingrad, crumbled. The 8th Army was in danger of having its flank turned. Orders were given to retreat but the Soviets now attacked the divisions at the center of the Italian line. After eleven days of desperate fighting, what remained of these divisions was surrounded and surrendered.

It was now the turn of the Alpine Army Corps, which had been relatively unaffected by the fighting in December and were still in their positions on the Don River. By early January 1943, the position of the Alpini had become critical. The Italian Divisions to their right had collapsed, but so had the Hungarian Army to their left, which the Soviets had attacked shortly after starting their attacks on the Romanians. They were ripe for encirclement. The Soviets started the attack on 14th January. They very rapidly smashed through what was left of the Hungarians on the left and a Panzerkorps, which had been thrown in to fill a gap, on the right. The Alpini started a chaotic retreat. Only the Tridentina Division was still capable of conducting combat operations; the Julia and Cuneense Divisions had been decimated in the initial Soviet attack. The Tridentina Division led the retreat, with the remains of the other two Divisions, mixed in with survivors from the German and Hungarian units, following behind. The soldiers fought their way back towards the west, with the Russians continually trying to cut off their retreat. They managed to break though a first Soviet encirclement on 20th January, then a second on 22nd January, then a third on 25th January. Finally, what was left of the Tridentina Division managed a breakthrough on 26 January at a place called Nikolayevka, and after a few more days of retreating westward made it to the safety of the German lines. Those who didn’t make it in the final breakthrough were surrounded at Valujki, some 40 km to the south of Nikolayevka, and surrendered on 27 January.

And where does that tiny cog Francesco Solimano fit into all of this? From the dates given in his citation, it looks like he led his squad back in the retreat, managing to keep them together as a fighting force, fought through several of the Soviet attempted encirclements, and fell a day before what was left of his Division finally surrendered.

Maybe Francesco was right to exhort his comrades to fight to the bitter end. Imprisonment turned out to be a fate worse than death. Some 65,000 Italian soldiers were captured in the fighting, one-quarter of all the soldiers in the 8th Army. 10,000 died on the forced marches eastward to the internment camps.


Another 44,000 died in the camps, mostly during the winter of 1943, of starvation and disease. Only 11,000 made it back to Italy after the War.  As for the 150,000 who escaped encirclement, the aftermath was also pretty grim. 34,000 were wounded or frostbitten. They had lost all their weaponry. The Soviets had accomplished their objective: the 8th Army was no more. The Fascist government dissolved the Army and repatriated the survivors to Italy in March and April 1943. Appalled by their appearance and fearing a backlash from the population if the real news of what had transpired on the Russian steppes ever came out, they kept them hidden out of sight. The news filtered out anyway and helped topple the Fascist regime later that year.

Francesco and his comrades who died on those frozen steppes are not buried in nice, neat cemeteries. The Soviets probably just dug mass graves or burnt the bodies. Why should they have given an honourable burial to soldiers who had invaded their lands? And anyway, they had their own dead to bury. But the Italian government never put up a monument honouring its dead in Russia either; the whole saga quickly became enveloped in Italy’s post-War ideological conflicts between the (American-backed) Christian Democrats and the (Soviet-backed) Communists, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth. And anyway, there was the embarrassing fact that the Italians had fought for the “wrong” side in the War. It was left to the survivors themselves to honour their dead, and a few monuments were put up here and there to remember those who died in Russia. Perhaps the most arresting is a monument that was erected in the 1950s in Bologna.


Francesco and his comrades have another type of monument, in the written memories of a number of survivors. Mario Rigoni Stern wrote “The Sergeant in the Snow”. He was a sergeant-major in the Tridentina Alpine Division, and was one of the lucky ones who broke out alive of the Soviet encirclement. In the book he describes the disastrous retreat from the Don.


Giulio Bedeschi wrote “A Thousand Mess Tins of Ice” and “Nikolayevka: I Was There Too”, both about that terrible retreat from the Don. He was in the “Julia” Division, one of the very few from that Division to break out alive of the Soviet encirclement.


Nuto Revelli wrote “The Road of Davai” about the Italian POWs (“Davai” was what the Soviet guards shouted all the time at the prisoners on their forced marches into internment; it is Russian for “Keep moving”). Revelli was a Lieutenant in the Tridentina Division and managed to get out alive from the retreat from the Don.


All these books, and others, are perhaps the best monument to Francesco and the thousands of other Italians who suffered and died for really no good reason out there on those frozen Russian steppes. They pull back the curtain of forgetfulness and force us to remember what happened to all those young men, badly equipped, badly dressed, badly fed, sent to their fate by a bunch of sinister jokers sitting in Rome, spouting ideological nonsense and strutting on the political stage.

Let us not forget.


Vienna, 5 November 2020

It’s been many years since my wife and I have been in Vienna in November – 12,  to be exact; I have to go back to the year before we left for China. Like many things which have been done differently this year, the cause lies in Covid. Had it not been for that damned virus, we would have flown to Japan in early October for my teaching course, and we would have flown back to Milan in late October. As it is, constrained by the “new normal”, I am giving my course online, from my living room.

I see, though, that one advantage of being here in Vienna during the month of November is that I can continue my annual habit of memorializing the end of the First World War. But this time, rather than writing about the Western Front with which I am more familiar, I can write about the fronts in which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved, principally the Eastern Front.

Not that I know terribly much about the war on the Eastern Front, which was for the most part a war between the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, on one side, and the Russians, on the other. I have bought books on the subject over the years, but by a twist of Fate those books are down in Milan: all the books which we put into storage when we left for China went to Milan and all the books which we bought in China have ended up here in Vienna, and of course I bought books on the Eastern Front when we lived in Vienna before going to China.

So little do I know about the war in this part of the world that I got the date of the ceasefire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies wrong. I thought it was on 7 November and was planning to post on that day, but actually it was on 3 November, so this post is actually two days late.

I’ve read that the Eastern Front was so long – it stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, so some 1,600 km – that trench warfare never really developed there. The density of soldiers along the Front was much lower than it was along the Western Front, so it was easier to break through the enemy’s lines, and then once a breakthrough was made it was difficult to stop it because the very sparse lines of communication made it difficult to rush the necessary reinforcements to plug the hole in the line. The result was a much more fluid Front.

That’s as may be, but a few years ago I took pity on a very faded aquarelle by the Austrian painter Rudolf Weber, an official War artist for Austro-Hungary, which was on sale at the Dorotheum Auction House. Its subject was a scene from 1916 on the Eastern Front, in Galicia to be precise. I felt that I owed it to the men who died there to give the aquarelle a decent home. It now hangs on the wall, in the shadows to protect it from the light. Although the colours are bleached, you can see a trench snaking across what appears to be a high plateau.

my photo

Weber must have been capturing a moment just after a local skirmish. In the lower left-hand corner one can make out dead soldiers lying on the edge of the trench as well as in it.

my photo

So there must have been some trench warfare on the Eastern Front.

What happened to those dead soldiers, I wonder? I suppose most of them must have been buried close to the front, just as they were on the Western Front. But are there military cemeteries like those lovely, well tended cemeteries that we see on the Western Front?


I fear not. The Eastern Front runs through the modern-day countries of Latvia, Poland, Bielorussia, Ukraine, and Romania. A number of these countries suffered through the Russian Revolution and its many years of chaotic aftermath. Then this whole region was embroiled in the incredibly bitter fighting of the Second World War. I suspect that whatever military cemeteries were created along the Eastern Front vanished in the decades that followed.

Even if they had existed, they would have been too far away from Austria for most parents to visit and mourn over the graves of their dead sons. The Eastern Front was some 600 km away from Vienna at its nearest point, and as we’ve seen the means of communication we’re not good in that region.

Where did parents mourn their dead sons, then? I suppose they had to make do with the war memorials that dot every Austrian town and village (memorials that a mere 25 years later were lengthened, sometimes by a good deal, through the addition of the names of those who died in the Second World War).


And what of the grand public memorials, by which the warring States memorialized the citizens which they sent to the slaughter? Austria has two. It has a War Memorial, erected in 1925 in the Central Cemetery, which is not central at all, being located on the edges of the city.


And it has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been placed within the building of the old city gates that give access to the old Imperial Palace, the Hofburg.


Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help but wonder if the locations of these two monuments reflect the differing political contexts of the years in which they were built. Of course, there is a logic in having a memorial to the war dead in a cemetery, but in 1925 the elites were struggling to make a go of the new democratic Republic of Austria. Perhaps these politicians didn’t want any reminder too near the centres of power of the war which destroyed the Empire, leaving them with a small runt of a country to run: better to tuck it away in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. By 1934, however, Austria was effectively a Fascist dictatorship, and no doubt the elites of this dictatorship wanted a monument glorifying the valiant “warriors” who fought and died for the fatherland in that war. Thus are monuments used to project political ideas.

The First World War spawned a slew of war poetry and war art in the UK and, to a lesser degree, in France, which wrestled with the moral outrage of this war. Did the same thing happen in Austria? I cannot judge if Austrians created any war poetry (I know the Germans did; I have translations of some of it). As for war art, few if any of the well-known Austrian artists who lived through the war seem to have produced anything war-related. Egon Schiele painted a few portraits of the Russian POWs that he was in contact with (because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, Schiele was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp).


Gustav Klimt doesn’t seem to have created any war paintings – but then he was not personally involved in the war effort. Oskar Kokoschka, who actually fought on the Eastern Front, seems to have created only one painting, Knight Errant, with the war as its theme, but I find it too heavy on the symbolism for my taste.


The same with Alfred Kubin, who seems to have only created this illustration, End of the War from 1918 – but, like Klimt, he was too old and had no direct experience of the fighting.


Only Albin Egger-Lienz seems to have created some great war paintings. Here is his painting The Nameless.


Every time I see it, I am reminded of a commentary I read on the American Civil War, about an attack by Unionist troops on a Confederate-held fort. As they ran towards the fort, the soldiers leaned forward as if running against a strong hailstorm – which in a way they were, although it was a hail of lead rather than of ice.

Here we have The Dead Soldier.


This is Finale from 1918 (compare to Kubin’s lame attempt on the same theme).


Egger-Lienz was also sensitive to the havoc the war wrought on home life. Here is his painting War Women, the women left behind when the men left for the war.


And here is his painting The Blind, his commentary on the mutilations meted out by the war.


Otherwise, we have to go down a level, to artists who are not all that well known outside Austria. A number of these were official war artists like Rudolf Weber, others fought in the war. Here, in no particular order, are some of the better paintings (and drawings) which I found on the net.

Rudolf Höger’s Fight at Doberdo


Höger was an official war artist and no doubt was trying to show the soldiers in a good light, as brave “warriors”. But all I see is the sheer brutish thugishness of it all.

Alfred Basel’s Fighting in the Carpathians


Basel was also an official war artist. In a way, his subject is no different from Höger’s, yet it seems more of a ballet in his hands.

This other work by Basel, After the Breakthrough at Tagliamento, reminds me of the work of another war artist, C.R.W. Nevinson, about whom I’ve written an earlier post.


A painting by Wilhelm Dachauer


Dachauer was assigned to a medical team as an orderly. No doubt this subject was drawn from his experience.

Stephanie Hollenstein’s Dying Soldier


Pretending to be a man, Hollenstein joined a rifle brigade in 1915. After a few months, her officers discovered the deception and threw her out. But she returned to the Front, this time as an official war artist. No doubt she drew this on one of her visits to the Front.

Robert Angerhofer’s Dead Soldier in Barbed Wire


As these paintings show, soldiers suffered and died in the same way on the Eastern Front as they did on the Western Front. But if there is one thing that has always struck me living here is how little the Austrians commemorate their war dead compared to the UK. Are the Austrians trying to forget their past? Or is it simply that they have decided that they cannot forever lament the dead? I sometimes think the British commemorate their war dead too much, in the process glorifying war. That is not good. But I don’t think we can just blank out the death and suffering of millions. We owe it to them not to forget.  So I’m glad that, once again – although a little late in this case – I have spent some time this year remembering the millions who died or were maimed, physically and mentally, in the war that was meant to end all wars.


Sori, 3 June 2019

My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.


As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?


In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.


No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.

A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.


Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.


While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.


Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.

It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.

This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:

We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown. 


And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.

1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.

3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.

4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.

10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.

11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.


Pretty incendiary stuff …

Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.


From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.


(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)


From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists


It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.


Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.

Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)


while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …

This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.


In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.

As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.


The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.

Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.


In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.


And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.



Milan, 11 November 2018

Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.

On previous anniversaries, I have written about the soldiers who fought and died in this war. Today, though, it seems more appropriate to commemorate those for whom the pain did not end on that 11th day of November in 1918, for whom the pain never ended.

23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.

For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,

Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.

But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.

But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.

Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)

In the street
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Heavy lorries
Houses trembling.
Tram lines under trolley wheels
Screeching …
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris

A car raced along
A barrow
Pulled by a pack animal
A man
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
You deserve to be run over …”

I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Was sweating
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
Frightened, resigned
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
– there

Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.

Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.

Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.

Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.

Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.

Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.

This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.

Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”

The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.

It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,

The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.

Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.

Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.

But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”

I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.

I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.

This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.

This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.

There is so much pain.


Walking wounded: http://elsovh.hu/english/page/20/
Otto Dix, Two Soldiers: https://hanslodge.com/file/two-soldiers-by-Otto-Dix.htm
Otto Dix, Prostitute and disabled war veteran: http://www.trebuchet-magazine.com/aftermath-art-in-troubled-times/
Otto Dix, The Match Seller: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/otto-dix/match-seller/
Shell shock victim: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/body-and-mind/shell-shock-on-film/
Käthe Kollwitz Pietà, Berlin: http://blogueresdesantmarti.net/index.php/etiqueta/dones-escultores/
Neue Wache: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545991154801328984/
Monument to Jean Dauly: http://www.mairie-chateau-thierry.net/1418/labase/dosmonumEpineChevregnymai17.pdf
Monument to George Cecil: http://www.webmatters.net/cwgc/guards_villerscotterets.htm


Luxor, 11 November 2017

This painting, “A Dawn” by C.R.W. Nevinson, which is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s, was making a splash in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago. It shows tired French troops marching silently to the front on a dawn morning in 1914, those cataclysmic first months of the War when France suffered staggering losses. Nevinson, who was in France as a volunteer ambulance driver within weeks of war breaking out, must have seen these men marching by.

When I saw the painting, it made me think of my French cousin Jean – well, not my cousin, strictly speaking; my French grandmother’s cousin. When I was young, there was this faded oval photo hanging in my grandmother’s living room, of a bearded young man in uniform, solemnly looking out at the viewer. The photo was bordered in bleached purple velvet. One day, when I was nine or ten, I asked my grandmother who this young man was. She became very solemn and intoned, “It is le cousin Jean. He died in the First World War. He died very bravely.” Suitably impressed, I kept silent for a moment before carrying on with my life.

But that photo of le cousin Jean has always stayed with me. It has something to do with his quiet composure in the photo; there was none of that swagger you often see in studio photos of World War I soldiers, with the sitter showing off his uniform and trying to project a military bearing. Jean just gazed steadily out at the viewer. So on this day, the 99th anniversary of the end of the First World War on the Western Front, my memory jogged by Nevinson’s painting, I’ve decided to memorialize his story in that war, illustrating it with other paintings by Nevinson. I should warn readers that his is not a particularly dramatic story. He just did what he had to do.

Jean was 23 when war was declared in 1914, and he was called up almost immediately. He joined his local regiment, the 95th Infantry Regiment, as a sub-lieutenant. The 95th took part in the initial French attempts to retake Alsace and Lorraine. But when the Germans attacked Verdun, leaving the beleaguered city and its string of forts in a deep salient, Jean’s regiment was pulled back and thrown into the furious attacks and counterattacks that took place as the Germans tried to completely surround Verdun and the French tried to stop them. The armies on both sides fought to the point of complete exhaustion.

It was during this period that Jean was wounded in Bois d’Ailly, just south of Verdun, some time in late September-October 1914. He was wounded badly enough to be invalided out. He was probably subjected to the rough and ready medical aid that was available, especially at the beginning of the war.

At some point, Jean had recovered enough to be brought back into active service. He joined a regiment newly-formed in April 1915, the 408th Infantry Regiment. It was created with “elements from the depots”, presumably wounded soldiers like Jean as well as others passed over in the first round of call-ups. He joined one of the regiment’s machine gun sections.

The regiment spent 1915 and the first months of 1916 in a quiet sector of the front. Then in early March, as the situation rapidly deteriorated for the French in the Verdun sector after the Germans renewed their attacks in February, the regiment was shipped in urgently to fight around the Fort de Vaux, in lunar landscapes like this.

The regiment suffered heavy losses, but Jean survived. They were eventually pulled out for rest and refitting. By late September/early October 1916, they were in good enough shape to take part in some small battles at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme. They spent the time thereafter in reserve positions, filling in gaps here and there. They probably did a lot of marching back and forth, from one position to the next.

The regiment’s second tour in the dreaded mincing machine of Verdun came in October 1917, although by then the worst of the fighting was over. By now, Jean had risen to be a Captain, no doubt because everyone else above him was either dead or was filling holes in the ranks even further up the chain of command.

The regiment was out of Verdun by January 1918, moving to a quieter sector. Then, at the end of May, the regiment was sent to the sector just south of Rheims. This was part of the Allies’ increasingly desperate attempts to stop what turned out to be the Germans’ last roll of the dice. In March they had punched a hole through the British lines. In June they punched another through the French lines just west of Reims and had managed to move 14 km south, but now they were caught in a salient, from which they were trying hard to break out. At midnight on July 14th, they abruptly started a bombardment of the eastern wall of the salient, just south of Reims. Their goal was to break through to the town of Épernay and so cut Reims off from Paris. On the morning of July 15th, they began hammering their way through the narrow valley of the River Ardre and the two woods on either side, the Bois de Vrigny to the south and the Bois de Courton to the north. Jean’s machine gun section lay nestled in the Bois de Courton. At some point, Jean went over to his commanding officer to report. While there, he was badly wounded by a shell burst. The family history says that his last words to his commanding officer were, “I’m sorry, Sir, to be leaving you at such a moment” before climbing into an ambulance. Did he really say that? I suppose he could have, but the family can only have known of this from a letter which they received from the commanding officer. Quite often the writers of these letters of condolences tried to make the man’s death more noble than it had been, in an attempt to soften the blow. My guess is that he just crumpled to the ground unconscious, bleeding profusely, and they bundled him into an ambulance.

In any event, according to the French Ministry of Defence’s bureaucratic fiche which logged his death, he died the same day in an Italian dressing station in a small place called Cartière, near Hautvillers, which lies some 10 km from the Bois de Courton. Jean was 27 when he died.

The reference to Italy confused me until I read that the 76th Infantry Regiment of the Italian II Corps had been posted just south of the Bois de Courton on the road to Épernay. The Allied High Command had given the II Corps the task of holding the road, which they managed – just – to do. I suppose the Italian dressing station was the closest to that particular sector of the front.

Jean’s body was brought back home by his family after the war for burial in the family plot; they were lucky, his body could be identified. So now he lies, together with his parents and maternal grandparents, in a graveyard which is a mere 5 km as the crow flies from where the ten year old me stared at that faded photo and asked my grandmother who the young man was with the steady gaze.

CRW Nevinson, “A Dawn”: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/30/first-world-war-painting-expected-to-reach-up-to-1m-at-sothebys
CRW Nevinson, “Troops Resting”: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/modern-post-war-british-art-l16141/lot.3.html
CRW Nevinson, “The Doctor”: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/362469469989052114/
CRW Nevinson, “La Patrie”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b6rnx/p01b6qvn
CRW Nevinson, “La Mitrailleuse”: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nevinson-la-mitrailleuse-n03177
CRW Nevinson, “In the Trenches”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/393431717421822995/
CRW Nevinson, “After A Push”: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20212
CRW Nevinson, “Column on the March”: https://kweiseye.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/christopher-r-w-nevinson-1889-1946/amp/


Milan, 20 May 2017

Last week my wife and I visited, together with a French cousin of mine and his wife, the First World War battlefields of Verdun and Chemin des Dames. For me, it was a follow-on to a trip we made a few years ago to the battlefields around Ypres in the British sector. For my cousin, it was a chance to visit Verdun, a battlefield still deeply etched in the French psyche.

As during my previous visit to Ypres, I was struck by how peaceful the countryside now looks. Traveling along the Chemin des Dames, but also on the west side of the River Meuse at Verdun, with their rich rolling farmland on every side, it was difficult to imagine the large-scale death and destruction visited upon these lands a mere hundred years ago. The farmer’s plough has smoothed away the millions of shell holes that pockmarked the earth, wheat and rapeseed cover the land with carpets of green and yellow.

Yet that farmer’s plough still brings to light every year unexploded ordnance and other detritus of war, and by some estimates will continue to do so for seven hundred years.

And it still brings to light remains of men who died in these now peaceful fields.

At Verdun, these will be added to the Ossuary of Douaumont, where the visitor can gaze upon mountains of human bones, German and French alike.

In certain places, especially on the East bank of the River Meuse but also at Mort-Homme and Cote 304 on the West Bank, and at the Plateau de Californie on the Chemin des Dames, the land was too smashed, and too dangerous, to give back to agriculture. There, trees cover the land with their green foliage and birdsong fills the air. But if you peer beneath the tangle of branches, you can see the cratered, pot-holed landscape the trees hide from our view.

You can begin to imagine what it must have been like for those poor soldiers who cowered there, and fought like savages when they met each other, and died horrible deaths, and whose bodies were ripped into ever smaller shreds by incoming shells.

The official memorials which the French put up in the immediate aftermath of the war ring false to my modern ear: “Glorious Sacrifice!”, “Victory!” Where was the glory in the stinking mud and blizzard of shrapnel? What victory was this which brought us another World War thirty years later? Even that oft repeated phrase “Eternal Remembrance” rings hollow – who remembers any more the individual young men who died here? Their parents are long gone and the last of the soldiers who fought here passed away ten years ago. I find the small, private memorials put up by families whose sons disappeared without trace into the mire of the battlefield much more touching: “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment, killed 6th May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Mourned by his mother, all his family, and his friends. Pray for him”, “Marcel Duquenoy, from Calais, aged 20, of the 350th infantry regiment. In memory of our son, who disappeared 6th May 1917, in the wood across the way”. As a parent, I can empathize with the agonies of a mother who had lost her son and didn’t have a body to decently bury and a tombstone to grieve over.

The modern iconography is much more sensitive to the sheer, wanton waste of life of this war. There is a superb museum-memorial near Douaumont, which gives a balanced French and German account of the battle of Verdun and shows in great detail the life of ordinary soldiers on both sides. There is a modern sculpture, the Constellation of Suffering, at the museum of the Cave des Dragons on the Chemin des Dames.

It commemorates the 16,000 African soldiers, mostly from the ex-French colonies in West Africa, who were totally decimated in this battle: the ultimate act of colonialism, using colonial troops to fight your wars. And there is of course that iconic picture of Franco-German reconciliation: President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands at the annual anniversary of the battle of Verdun in 1984.

You cannot visit World War I battlefields without coming across the military cemeteries both big and small which dot the countryside. I like these cemeteries. They are oases of peace and beauty, but they are also the one place where I can connect, if only for a moment, with the individual men – boys, often – who died in this carnage. I go down rows reading the names. I feel I owe this to them, so that they can exist again for a brief instant before returning to the cold earth. I’m always sorry that I can’t read all the names, there are simply too many and time too short. We visited many French cemeteries, of course

but also the very big American cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, product of the Americans’ Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918 (with so many who died just a few days before the war’s end)

a few small, modest German cemeteries – the penalty of the vanquished leaving their dead in the victor’s country

and a small British cemetery, the result of the frantic rearguard fighting in the first month of the war.

But the cemeteries I most liked were across the road from the memorial chapel on the Chemin des Dames. All the military cemeteries I have ever visited stand in isolation, each country mourning its dead separately. But here, a German cemetery touched upon a French cemetery. They were not side by side – that would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago, perhaps even today – but they touched in one corner, so that you could walk from one to the other.

It makes me think of a poem by the French poet René Arcos, “Les Morts…”, “The Dead…”

Le vent fait flotter
Du même côté
Les voiles des veuves

Et les pleurs mêlés
Des mille douleurs
Vont au même fleuve.
Serrés les uns contre les autres
Les morts sans haine et sans drapeau,
Cheveux plaqués de sang caillé,
Les morts sont tous d’un seul côté.

Dans l’argile unique où s’allie sans fin
Au monde qui meurt celui qui commence
Les morts fraternels tempe contre tempe
Expient aujourd’hui la même défaite.

Heurtez-vous, ô fils divisés!
Et déchirez l’Humanité
En vains lambeaux de territoires,
Les morts sont tous d’un seul côté.

Car sous terre il n’y a plus
Qu’une patrie et qu’un espoir
Comme il n’y a pour l’Univers
Qu’un combat et qu’une victoire.

Here are my very modest efforts at translation:

In the same direction
Does the wind make
The widows’ veils float.

And the mixed tears
Of a thousand pains
Flow into the same stream.
Wedged one against the other
The dead without hate and without flag,
Hair smeared with clotted blood,
The dead, they are all on one side.

In the same clay where come together without end
The world that dies and that which begins
The fraternal dead temple to temple
Expiate today the same defeat.

Clash, divided sons!
And tear Humanity
Into vain rags of territory,
The dead, they are all on one side.

For underground there is
But one fatherland and one hope
As there is for the Universe
But one battle and one victory.

What more fitting monument could there be than these twinned cemeteries for today’s Europe, which sees us inching cautiously closer together, with the goal of making this war (and its successor, the ’39-’45 war) la Der des Ders, as the French called it, la Dernière des Dernières, the absolutely last war.


Photos: ours or our cousins’, except:

Landscape Chemin des Dames: http://1418.aisne.com/discovery-routes/ASCPIC002FS000JG/detail/laffaux/le-front-du-chemin-des-dames
Unexploded shells: http://www.europe1.fr/faits-divers/pas-de-calais-plusieurs-obus-explosent-naturellement-dans-un-champ-2638741
Soldiers’ remains: http://www.bfmtv.com/societe/une-vingtaine-corps-poilus-retrouves-meuse-527266.html
Kohl and Mitterrand hold hands: http://www.cvce.eu/en/obj/francois_mitterrand_and_helmut_kohl_verdun_22_september_1984-en-2f9050c7-d5cb-4899-9bb2-e1e05bb9cb26.html
British cemetery Vendresse-Beaulne: http://www.ww2cemeteries.co.uk/ww1frenchextension/vendressebrit.htm



Sori, 25 February 2016

We’re in Italy at the moment, spending a week here to get things in order for my impending retirement. We decided to make a quick visit to our apartment on the sea, by Genova, to check if all was well but also to see the mimosa in flower. The flowering of mimosa on the Ligurian coast is a wondrous sight to behold
especially when you’re toiling up a hill like these hikers are and find yourself in front of a flash of canary yellow, a harbinger of the Spring to come.
All was well with the apartment but alas! we were too late for the mimosa. It had reached its peak some two weeks before and the flowers were already very much past their best.


Disconsolate, I decided to do the next best thing, a little internet surfing to learn more about mimosa.

I had half expected to discover that mimosa originally came from China. After all, that had already been my experience with several plants, from wisteria to the willow. But no! I was delighted to learn that mimosa comes from south-eastern Australia. Here is a photo of it in the State of Victoria, in what is probably its natural state, cohabiting in this case with mountain gums.


Mimosa is actually a bit of a misnomer, for which it seems we have to thank Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the modern system for giving scientific names to living things.
What I call mimosa is actually an acacia (or perhaps was an acacia; more on that in a moment). For some reason, Linnaeus decided to also give the genus acacia the name mimosa. The confusion was cleared up later, but not before this particular type of acacia got stuck with the name mimosa. Confusion on nomenclature doesn’t stop there, for it seems that acacia is also a misnomer in this case. I don’t follow taxonomic decisions with bated breath, but Australian acacias should apparently now be called racosperma. The august scientific body which makes these kinds of decisions decided so back in the late 1990s or thereabouts, but the Australian botanists, indignant at the thought of having to change the name of their cherished acacias, managed to get the vote reversed in 2005. However, I now understand that the vote was re-reversed. In all of this confusion, I think we should just go with the common name, the wattle. Since there are nearly 1,000 species of wattle in Australia, I have to be a little more specific and say that the “mimosa” planted here in Liguria is the silver wattle.

How mimosa got to this part of the world is not that clear – at least, I didn’t find any clear description of that journey. Another distinguished botanist, Joseph Banks
who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific and whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post on kangaroos, brought the wattles to the attention of the Western world. But who actually brought the living plant back, or its seeds, and propagated it I don’t know. Whoever it was, the peoples from Portugal to the west all around the rim of the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean Sea and on into the Black Sea to the east have a huge debt to him (or, who knows? her). Every spring, they can enjoy magnificent bursts of yellow, like this one in Odessa in the Ukraine.


Actually, given that the golden wattle, another member of the large wattle tribe, is now the floral emblem of Australia, I was expecting to find a photo on the net of a mimosa in flower in the ANZAC cemeteries of Gallipoli. But no. Photos there are of the cemeteries
but none with a flowering mimosa. Perhaps no-one visits the cemeteries in the early Spring. But if instead it’s because mimosas are not planted in Gallipoli, I think a move in this direction is in order. Should not an earlier immigrant to Europe from Australia welcome the Spring every year in that corner of the Mediterranean where Australians lie in their eternal sleep?


Mimosa in Liguria: http://helpilivewithmyitalianmotherinlaw.com/2013/03/07/the-magic-of-liguria/
Mimosa on the hills: http://lemiegite.escursioniliguria.it/gita_per_gita/gita_per_gita_2014_2016/2015-02-01_sori_cordona_nervi.html
Mimosa in Australia: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/foto/mountain-gums-and-silver-wattle-victoria-australia-fotografie-stock/128394637
Linnaeus: http://linnaeus.sourceforge.net
Joseph Banks: http://lggardendesign.com/it/linvasione-della-rosa-banksiae/
Mimosa in Odessa: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/365143482264046608/
ANZAC cemetery, Gallipoli: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/621860/FIGGIS,%20SAMUEL%20DOUGLAS%20JOHNSTONE


Vanuatu, 11 November 2015

At this time when we are commemorating the end of the First World War (“the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”), I thought I could do my modest part to remember those who fell in that War, by recounting my English grandfather’s role in the conflict. It was not, I hasten to add, a heroic role. In fact, when all is said and done, it was very much less than stellar. But he tried to do his part to the best of his abilities and he regretted for the rest of his life that he was not able to have done more.

Until recently, I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s war record. My grandmother had a standard story which she trotted out to all her grandchildren, to the effect that he was a Captain in the Army, that he had gone to France in 1916 a few months after marrying her, that he had gotten food poisoning almost immediately, that he had been shipped home, and that a few months later he was invalided out of the Army. My father never talked about his father’s war record. The only thing I ever remember him saying was that my grandfather always got depressed at after-dinner sit-arounds in the living room when his peers began to tell stories of their days in the trenches, because he had not been there. That was the sum total of what I knew.

All of that changed a few months ago when, cruising the Internet, I stumbled across a cite to my grandfather’s War Office file, now in the UK’s National Archives. Much intrigued, I asked for, and received, a copy. The story it told, through the dry, matter-of-fact medical board reports, letters, and other bits and pieces which it contained, confirmed my grandmother’s tale. My grandfather went before three medical boards between July and November 1916, he couldn’t shake off the symptoms of whatever nasty bug it was that he had caught in France, and the Army eventually decided to let him go. But the papers in the file also told me some other things. They told me what battalion and regiment he had belonged to: the 11th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, the St. Helens Battalion, so called because it had been raised in the autumn of 1914 in St. Helens, Lancashire, a gritty coal and heavy industry town not too far from Liverpool. They also told me when he had joined up. One of the pieces of paper in the file was his sign-up sheet, which showed that he had joined up in late October 1914, I suppose as part of that mad rush of volunteers which the first months of the War witnessed. Why he joined up in St. Helens is a bit of a mystery to me. He wasn’t from that part of England, and he was working in Wolverhampton, in the Midlands, when the War broke out. Perhaps it was easier to join up in St Helens than elsewhere; there are tales of huge queues at sign-up stations as literally millions of men tried to all join up at the same time.

In any event, by early October 1914, he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion, part of Kitchener’s New Army. Of course, the Battalion wasn’t sent immediately to the Front. Since the UK didn’t have military service, unlike just about every other country in the War, very few men had any military training. So the new recruits of the 11th Battalion were subjected to a year of training, after which, in November 1915, they shipped out to the Western Front.

They went without my grandfather. At some point in the intervening year, he had become a Captain, and at the end of September 1915 he was made Commanding Officer of a new Battalion that was created, the 13th (Reserve) Battalion (I discovered this because of a little research done for me by the Lancashire Regiment Museum). Like all Reserve Battalions, it remained based in the UK and had the thankless but very important task of training up new volunteers (or conscripts by the middle of 1916) and of retraining men, who because of wounds or disease, had been taken out of the line for recuperation. My grandfather wasn’t in the new position for very long. By November, the Army had dragged some retired senior offices out of their retirement and they began running the 13th Battalion.

I lose track of my grandfather’s movements at this point. My guess is that he made his way back into the ranks of the 11th Battalion and was on his way to joining them when he fell sick in Rouen, before getting anywhere near the trenches, in the middle of July 1916. And that was the end of his military career. He might have regretted this twist of fate all his life, but I have to say it was lucky for me and my siblings, as well as for my numerous cousins. If my grandfather had made it to the Front, I don’t suppose he would have sired the children he eventually did sire – assuming he would have survived the holocaust of the Western Front in the first place.

If my grandfather had made it to the 11th Battalion in that July of 1916, he would have found himself caught up in the Battle of the Somme, which had already started on 1 July and finally petered out in November. As usual, the casualties were enormous (on the first day of the battle alone the British Army suffered its worst-ever casualties in one day of fighting: 570,000), although after intensive involvement in the first few days of July the Battalion played quite a modest role in the whole wretched affair. I should explain that it was not an infantry Battalion but a pioneer Battalion, which means that it spent most of its time on the Western Front digging trenches, maintaining roads, putting up Nissen huts, that sort of thing. Not a very glamorous job, but a necessary one. Thinking about it, it can’t have been coincidence that a Battalion raised in St. Helens was a pioneer Battalion. Most of the rank-and-file must have been miners since they made up the bulk of the local population, and who better than miners to dig trenches and fill shell craters in roads?

I found out what the Battalion did exactly when I came across the Battalion’s War Diary on the Internet. It gives you a fascinating picture of its day-to-day life at the Front, Company A off to dig this communications trench, Company B to fix that forward road, Company C to help the Royal Engineers do something else. All very humdrum, yet all the while a steady bleeding off of its troops was occurring, one man here, another there, a third the next day, no doubt as individual soldiers got hit by bullets, shrapnel, or other pieces of metal flying around the battlefield. From time to time, the numbers of men “killed in action” or “died of wounds” would spike, as it did in the first few days of the Battle of the Somme, as it did again in the third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and as it did for a final time during the last German offensive in the Spring of 1918, when the Battalion just happened to find itself in the way of the German attempt to punch a hole in the Allied line (it was during these desperate days of trying to hold the line that the Battalion earned its one and only Victoria Cross).

Armies, at least in those days, were made up of lots of rank-and-file commanded by a handful of Officers. So the great majority of the Battalion’s dead were “Other Ranks”, mostly privates, a sprinkling of corporals and lance-corporals, some sergeants, all poor lads who were doing their best under very difficult circumstances and who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t them who had precipitated this stupid, pointless War, but it was them who bore the brunt of the suffering. So it is them that I remember most particularly today, and not so much the Officer class to which my grandfather belonged.


Beijing, 19 January 2014

There is a phenomenon which my wife and I both agree is on the upswing in China, which is the taking of selfies.  We are proud to know this word, by the way, which is so new that it hasn’t made it yet into the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary – although the Urban dictionary, which is obviously hipper, does contain a definition: “pictures taken of oneself while holding the camera at arm’s length”.   We might know what the word means, but it doesn’t mean that we approve. We actually find it sad to see young women (it seems to be preponderantly young women) taking photos of themselves. It is so narcissistic, we cry!

chinese selfies

But actually the phenomenon is not new, its amplitude is. New technology – the mobile phone with built-in camera – and its fantastic, phenomenal, global dissemination have allowed this. But the picture-makers of old – artists – have been making selfies for centuries now, since at least the Renaissance (in Europe anyway). They made selfies – self-portraits – to advertise their skills, or to allow them to exercise themselves without having to pay a model, or to comment on their or other people’s private lives, or in a more serious vein to explore their inner emotions. Anyone interested in the topic can go to the Wikipedia article on it.  At the beginning, they seemed to be a bit shy (or maybe just cautious; prisons were nasty then), and rather than executing free-standing portraits of themselves they preferred to include themselves (and their friends, and even sometimes their enemies) in the role of modest bystanders in their paintings. Here, for instance, is a painting by Botticelli, an Adoration of the Magi, where the person on the extreme right in the yellow cloak and looking out towards the viewer is said to be the painter himself.

Botticelli-adoration of the magi

And here is a fresco, by Filippino Lippi, The Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter, where Lippi is the person on the extreme right of the fresco looking out towards the viewer from behind the pillar.

Filippino Lippi-simon magus

But after a while some artists were having none of this modesty. For instance, Velázquez put himself very obviously in what is probably his most famous painting, Las Meninas, which hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Velázquez-Las Meninas

On the face of it, the painting is of the young Infanta Margaret Theresa, surrounded by her entourage of maids of honour, her chaperone, bodyguard, two dwarves and a dog. But actually, Velázquez is quite obtrusively in the painting too! You can’t fail to miss him standing behind the Infanta and working on a large canvas, looking out towards the viewer. Behind him, on the wall, is a mirror, which if you look carefully can be see to be reflecting a couple. These are the king, Philip IV, and his queen, Mariana of Austria. Aha! It is them that Velásquez’s is painting, while standing in a painting which he painted … All very clever – and quite cheeky on the part of Velázquez to put himself so central when there were all these kings, queens, and princesses around!

But in my opinion not as cheeky as Dürer, who in a self-portrait of 1500 portrayed himself as a wonderfully powerful Christ-like figure.

Duerer-self portrait

He was following a well-known type of painting, such as this one by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.

Christ by Jan van Eyck

I’m always surprised by the sheer effrontery of Dürer comparing himself so obviously to Christ. And not to some meek and mild Christ either.  The painting’s Latin inscription translates as “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, portrayed myself in everlasting colours aged twenty-eight years”.  Wow! Talk about someone being sure of his fame in posterity. I’m amazed that he didn’t get hauled in front of some ecclesiastical court for committing the sin of overweening pride with this painting, but apparently he didn’t.

And then there are those artists who used selfies to do a bit of character assassination. Take Cristofano Allori, an Italian painter I’d never heard of until my wife and I came across a painting of his a few years ago in the Queen’s Gallery in London. Well worth the visit, by the way; it houses part of the extensive royal art collection. The painting in question was Judith with the head of Holofernes

allori-judith with head of holofernes

It’s a story from the Bible: Holofernes was a general sent by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, to wreak vengeance on various nations along the Mediterranean sea board  for not having supported him.  This included Israel.  Holofernes is besieging a Jewish city, which is about to surrender. But it is saved when Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, visits Holfernes in his tent, seduces him, gets him drunk and then while he’s sleeping cuts off his head. Many painters liked this subject, no doubt because of all the blood and gore; they generally painted Judith in the act of cutting off Holofernes’s head. But Allori’s take is different. There’s no violence here. The head is already off and the blood has stopped running. Judith is holding it as she would a trophy, staring all the while at the viewer with a complacently triumphant look on her face. Anyone who saw the painting at the time and knew Allori must have tittered. Because Allori painted himself as poor Holofernes while his model for Judith was his ex-mistress Maria Mazzafirri and the servant in the background helping Judith was Maria’s mother. Poor Cristofano, they must have said, that harlot Mazzafirri and that hag of a mother of hers really screwed him over, got their claws into his loot (look at that beautiful dress she’s wearing!) and then dumped him. Or maybe they thought, what the hell did the beautiful Mazzafirri see in that dolt Allori? Good for her, good riddance to bad rubbish.

Michelangelo also included himself in a very personal way in a number of his works, the most famous of which must be in the fresco of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

michelangelo-Last judgement

In that huge drama, he painted his face on the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (I have written about the flaying of this saint in an earlier post).

michelangelo-Last judgement-detail

Scholars have debated the meaning of this since it was noticed in 1925. One scholar has suggested that Michelangelo was commenting on his extremely shabby and painful treatment (from his point of view) by the Pope and his minions during the painting of the Last Judgement. Amusing, along the lines of Allori’s painting, but I think other scholars are more correct when they see this as an excrutiatingly personal comment by Michelangelo on the precarious balance of his soul between salvation and damnation: it seems that the flayed skin is at an exact midpoint between the salvation of the Triumphant Christ and the horrified man who is about to be pulled into Hell. The poetry Michelangelo wrote at this time –  he was also a good poet – speaks a lot about his fear for the salvation of his soul.

And suddenly the selfie is an ussie. The artist is speaking for us all.

Personally, I like more the selfie in Michelangelo’s sculpture The Deposition from the Cross, which is in Florence.


I saw the sculpture during my first trip to Italy when I was a University student (I have also mentioned this trip in an earlier post). The old man, presumably Joseph of Arimathea, is said to be a self-portrait.


A look of such sadness, such desolation he is giving the dead Christ! I was so struck by it that I remained transfixed in front of the statue. I stood there so long that someone in a group of tourists flowing by muttered to her neighbour “What’s he looking at?”

That look of intense sadness brings me to Caravaggio, who must be my most favourite painter. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I brought few books to Beijing, but one of these was the massive Caravaggio: The Complete Works by Sebastian Schütze, which I later complemented by Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, the almost detective story of his life by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Caravaggio included himself in a number of his paintings. Take his Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, one of a cycle of three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew

The subject of the painting is the killing of Matthew, the author of one of the four Gospels. According to tradition, the saint was killed while celebrating Mass at the altar. And so we have the saint knocked to the ground, the assassin readying to deliver the fatal blow, an angel thoughtfully passing on to the saint the palm of martyrdom, and the crowd screaming and shouting and running about, the whole bathed in that chiaroscuro, that light and dark, for which Caravaggio is so famous.  A great painting, although in my opinion not as good as the other two in the chapel. In any case, what interests us right now is the figure at the back, picked out by the light, seemingly making an escape but looking back at the scene. It is Caravaggio.

Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew-detail

Why did he include himself like this? And why that look of intense sadness? Graham-Dixon suggests that Caravaggio is saying, “I am no different from these people, who stand there instead of helping Matthew,  or even run away. I would have had no more courage than they.  I, too, would have run away”.

So different, this look, from the expression we see on his face in an earlier painting, the Taking of Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane, which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ

Caravaggio has painted the moment when Judas completes his betrayal of Jesus by kissing him in the Garden of Gesthemane, to indicate to the soldiers around him whom they should arrest. Caravaggio is the person holding the lamp at the back.

Caravaggio-Taking of Christ-self portrait

He is there to shed light on the scene, but he is also looking eagerly over the shoulders of the soldiers to get a better view.  Such a wonderful metaphor for every painter, of all ages, trying hard to visualize the scene which they are planning to paint, and which they can see only darkly.

And so we get to the last of Caravaggio’s portrayals, painted late in his career. The subject is another decapitation which was very popular with painters, David’s killing of Goliath. Caravaggio himself did at least three versions of this story, more or less all of the same moment, when David grasps the head of Goliath.  This last one, housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, is the darkest, the most tragic.

caravaggio-david with goliath

It is Caravaggio’s face we see in Goliath, as he was in the last years of his life, on the run from the law in at least two jurisdictions but also from enemies who had personal vendettas with him and were trying to kill him, desperately trying to have himself pardoned by the Pope so that he could return to Rome. It is said that Caravaggio intended the painting to be a gift to Cardinal Borghese who had the power to have him pardoned, a sort of “here is my head on a platter, please be merciful and forgive me”. And who modelled David, a David who strangely enough is not looking triumphantly at Goliath whom he has just overcome in battle, whose gaze rather is a mixture of sadness and compassion for his supposed enemy? One interpretation, which I like immensely, is that this is also Caravaggio, painted as he looked when he was a young boy! And so we have a scene where the young Caravaggio is looking on sadly at the old Caravaggio which he will become. Alas, this interpretation does not seem correct. More probably, the model is Caravaggio’s studio assistant, Cecco, looking on sadly as his master slowly falls to pieces before his eyes. And indeed Caravaggio died shortly thereafter.

Another artist whose powerful self-portraits have always fascinated me is the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. I must say, she was almost obsessed with herself, self-portraits making up a very large proportion of her oeuvre. Here is one of them

Frida Kahlo-self portrait

but there is one self-portrait of hers which stands out above all the rest and which I find truly gut-wrenching, Henry Ford Hospital.

Frida Kahlo-Henry Ford Hospital

She painted it shortly after her second miscarriage, when she realized she would never be able to have the children she so desperately wanted. You see her lying in the blood of her miscarriage on her bed in the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit (the city in the background; her husband, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, had been given a commission there by Edsel Ford). Above her floats the baby she has just lost, a baby boy. Also floating around her are a female torso, showing the anatomical parts linked to having children, her fractured pelvis, fruit of an accident she suffered when young and which made it impossible for her to have children, medical-looking equipment used during the miscarriage, an orchid which Rivera had given her, and a snail, depicting the slow pace of her miscarriage. All are linked to her by umbilical-like bloodlines.

I finish with a self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz, a German artist who was active before and after the First World War. It, too, is about the loss of a child, but this time of a child born.  Her younger son Peter was badly wounded in the first days of the war and died in her arms a few months later. She created this woodcut just after his death. It is of her and her husband, distraught at their boy’s death

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-woodcut

After the war, she distilled this image into a pair of statues, Grieving Parents, which stand in the German War cemetery at Vladslo in Belgium (I have written an earlier post about these cemeteries).

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-1

The two figures are based on Käthe and her husband Karl

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-2

They represent all the parents of the young men buried in the cemetery

Kathe Kollwitz-grieving-parents-statues-3

although it is said that Karl is gazing directly at the tomb of his son Peter.

To parents like us with children still of age to be called up, incredibly moving.


A few weeks ago (June 2014), I saw with great pleasure that my favouritest of favourite cartoonists in The New Yorker magazine, Roz Chast, had made the same connection as I had between the modern selfie movement and artists’ self-portraits

roz chaz selfie 001


Chinese selfies: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/slides/images/attachement/jpg/site1/20131213/b8ac6f27ada21414a28412.jpg [in http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/slides/2013-12/13/content_17172459_6.htm%5D
Botticelli – Adoration of the Magi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/34/Botticelli_085A.jpg/942px-Botticelli_085A.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Magi_of_1475_(Botticelli)%5D
Filippino Lippi-The Disputation with Simon Magus and the Crucifixion of Peter: http://www.wga.hu/art/l/lippi/flippino/brancacc/crucdisp.jpg [in http://www.wga.hu/tours/brancacc/crucif_d.html%5D
Velázquez-Las Meninas: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/31/Las_Meninas%2C_by_Diego_Velázquez_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg/890px-Las_Meninas%2C_by_Diego_Velá1zquez%2C_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas%5D
Dürer-self portrait: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fc/Duerer01.jpg/740px-Duerer01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-Portrait_%28D%C3%BCrer%29%5D
Christ by Jan van Eyck: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-HSgyBuOLqog/T36J0B01fsI/AAAAAAAA8Ko/yhh8A_Rq5GQ/s1600/Jan%2Bvan%2BEyck%2B%2528Flemish%2Bpainter%252C%2B1385-1441%2529%2BChrist%2B1440.jpg [in http://bjws.blogspot.com/2013/03/early-portraits-of-jesus.html%5D
Allori-Judith with the head of Holofernes: http://cdn.royalcollection.org.uk/cdn/farfuture/JPL2-m0ogCUIVnYQgnX1GLNkeFf11XoRWGNrkNMHuQk/mtime:1373966874/sites/royalcollection.org.uk/files/col/404989_255798_ORI_0_0.jpg [in http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace%5D
Michelangelo-last judgement: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Michelangelo,_Giudizio_Universale_02.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_(Michelangelo)%5D
Michelangelo-last judgement-detail: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cf/Last_judgement.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-portrait%5D
Michelangelo-Deposition: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c6/Pieta_Bandini_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n01.jpg/680px-Pieta_Bandini_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deposition_(Michelangelo)%5D The sculpture is housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.
Michelangelo-Deposition-detail: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/art/ren_italy/sculpture/10_97_5_30.jpg [in http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/art/ren_italy/ren_sculpture01.html%5D
Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/57/The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggio_(c._1599-1600).jpg/874px-The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggio_(c._1599-1600).jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew_(Caravaggio)%5D
Caravaggio-Martyrdom of St Matthew-detail: http://caravaggista.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/matthew-sp.jpg [in http://caravaggista.com/2013/09/happy-birthday-caravaggio-2013/%5D
Caravaggio-Taking of Christ: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e6/Caravaggio_-_Taking_of_Christ_-_Dublin.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Taking_of_Christ_(Caravaggio)%5D
Caravaggio-Taking of Christ-detail: http://caravaggista.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Screen-shot-2012-05-25-at-12.49.30-PM.png [in http://caravaggista.com/2012/05/caravaggio-the-leader/%5D
Caravaggio-David with Goliath: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Caravaggio_-_David_con_la_testa_di_Golia.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_with_the_Head_of_Goliath%5D
Frida Kahlo-self portrait: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1e/Frida_Kahlo_%28self_portrait%29.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo%5D
Frida Kahlo-Henry Ford Hospital: http://0.tqn.com/d/arthistory/1/7/Q/1/1/Frida-Kahlo-Henry-Ford-Hospital-1932.jpg [in http://arthistory.about.com/od/from_exhibitions/ig/frida_kahlo/fk200708_03.htm%5D
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-woodcut: http://scattergoodmoore.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/grieving-parents.jpg [in http://scattergoodmoore.wordpress.com/category/kollwitz/%5D
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-1: http://www.judithdupre.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Mourning-Parents-kollwitz2-e1278340988804.jpg [in http://www.judithdupre.com/books/full-of-grace/full-of-grace-gallery/%5D
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-2: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/1536597.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/1536597%5D
Käthe Kollwitz-grieving parents-statues-3: http://www.eyes-and-ears.co.uk/squaredog/images/kollwitz_rear.jpg [in http://www.eyes-and-ears.co.uk/squaredog/details.asp?Title=The%20Art%20of%20Remembrance%5D


Beijing, 10 November 2013

I don’t think I’ll be able to wear my poppy this year.


Every year I pick it out of the corner of the drawer where I keep it, from under the paper clips and rubber bands. After four years in China, the paper petals are now sadly scuffed and creased, but I still like to give it pride of place in the lapel of my jacket. I am somewhat diffident to wear it here, because everyone stares at it wondering what it is. Several of my Chinese staff have asked me politely what it means. After I’ve gone through the explanation, they thank me nicely but I rather think they put my behaviour down to a form of British eccentricity.

It was the same in Vienna. You would have thought that Europeans would be more familiar with the British paper poppy and its symbolism but it seems not. Every year, I would be asked by two or three people what it was all about, and every time I would go through the explanation.

In Vienna, the enquirers would often start by commenting that they had seen the same poppy being worn by British politicians

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (

and indeed it is the sight of these politicians on my TV screen looking pious behind their poppies that reminds me that it is once again that time of the year … the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was on 11 November 1918 that the Armistice between Germany and the Allied Forces was signed. The guns finally fell silent on the Western Front and the First World War came to an end.

The habit in the Commonwealth countries of wearing a poppy to remember the end of that war, and to raise funds for the wounded who came home and the widows and orphans of those who did not, grew out of a popular war poem written by a Canadian officer, John McCrae, who fought on the Western Front. I cite its first two verses here.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Anyone who has ever seen a field sprinkled with poppies will immediately understand their strong symbolic resonance. They look like so much blood sprayed across the land.

poppies in field-3

Earlier pious-looking politicians proclaimed that the First World War was the war to end all wars. Well, as we are all too aware, it wasn’t. As wars have continued to be fought, the poppy has become the way for the British and ex-British colonies of remembering their war dead. But I wear my poppy to remember all those who have died – civilians as well as soldiers – and continue to die in wars and other conflicts big and small the world over. Just this year we have the human tragedy of Syria, which is spilling over into Lebanon, there is the continuing conflict in Afghanistan which is spilling over into Pakistan, the continuing violence in Iraq and Libya, the growing violence in Egypt, the fighting in South Sudan, in Somalia, in the Congo, in Mali, in Myanmar, and on and on and on …


When you see the sheer scale of the human misery which all this fighting engenders you understand why I did not cite the last verse of John McCrae’s poem.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I hate this glorifying of war, this coating in a veneer of sacred language what is simply a nasty, brutish fight. I prefer the following poem from that same war

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori..
[It is sweet and right to die for your country, a line from the Latin poet Horace]

dead soldiers

blinded soldiers


The poem was written by Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the Armistice was signed. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration …

I must find a few minutes tomorrow to wear my poppy. I must make my annual statement against war, even if I am the only one to understand what I’m saying.


poppy in jacket: http://wpmedia.o.canada.com/2013/10/remembrance_frustrated_vets_20121108_24958803.jpg?w=660&h=330&crop=1 [in http://o.canada.com/technology/internet/legion-asks-redditors-to-remove-poppy-symbol-citing-trademark-protection/%5D
Politicians with poppies: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-9GUo5YLH4iQ/Tr_Fb1rb4AI/AAAAAAAAInQ/qOXaLXKgfjg/s1600/a-9.jpg [in http://nobelprofile.blogspot.com/2011_10_16_archive.html%5D
Poppies in field: http://gallery.photo.net/photo/7644092-md.jpg [http://photo.net/blog/tag?tag=nature]
Wounded person: http://www.lapatilla.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/000_Nic6168584.jpg [http://www.lapatilla.com/site/2012/12/28/las-mejores-fotos-de-la-semana-5/]
Dead soldiers: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Q_004256GermanDeadGuillemont.jpg [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties]
Blinded soldiers: http://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/first-world-war/v-p-hist-03088-25.jpg [in http://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/first-world-war/overview-first-world-war.htm%5D
Crippled soldiers: http://www.ralphmag.org/CG/war-cripples640x432.gif [in http://www.ralphmag.org/CG/world-war-one2.html%5D