LYING TOGETHER, FOREVER

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

 

THE WESTERN FRONT

Beijing, 3 August 2012

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

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

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

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

Wilfred Owen wrote:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

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

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

07 Tyne Cot memorial-cropped

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

Thiepval_Memorial-3

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

Menin_Gate_names

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

notre_dame_de_lorette

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

Langemark_German_cemetery

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

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

77 Neuville St Vaast cemetery

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