Sunday, 23 June 2013

All Roads Lead to France

I'm visiting Arras and the Somme region again next month, to see some of the places where Siegfried Sassoon fought, loved, read books, wrote verse and enjoyed the fellowship of other British soldiers exiled from their homeland, each of them conscious that every day might be their last.  While looking at these places and imbibing their atmosphere, we will read and discuss poetry that was written during and about the First World War.  It should be another memorable trip for me and for those members of the SSF who will be with me.

"Battlefield pilgrims", however, is a term I don't particularly care for.  It seems to me inaccurate on both counts.   Technically, the groups of tourists that make these journeys do visit battlefields, but few limit themselves to that.  Even the most enthusiastic of military historians and archaeologists would find it a sterile experience if they spent all their time analysing the terrain and mentally re-fighting armed conflicts that took place almost a hundred years ago.   Although this particular tour is organised by the Western Front Association, it is one of a special series taking place in consecutive years, each concentrating on a particular area and on particular poets who fought and often died in that region.

Geography is the key to history.  That's not an original saying of mine; I got it from Michael Wood, but it struck me immediately as a truth we do not always recognise.  To read Sassoon is to be transported to many places in turn: to the Weald of his youth, to the Edinburgh where he met Wilfred Owen, and of course to the Somme battlefields.  To be, physically, in those places is something rather different.  To see the landscape, still much as he saw it, is to understand him better.  This is what we go to the battlefields for, I think: to see the ground that was fought over, certainly, but mainly to share an experience with those men - and the occasional woman - whom we admire so much.

I will never forget, last year, our guide pointing out the exact spot where Roland Leighton, the fiancĂ© of Vera Brittain, was killed in 1915.  That one event set off a chain reaction that had enormous consequences for English literature and for many of the feelings we have about the "Great" War today; Testament of Youth has probably done more than any other prose work in our language to influence the modern view of that war.  How thrilling - and chilling - it was to be so close to that tragic moment, even though separated from it by a century.  At the same time, it was in no way a celebration of "battlefields".

Much of our tour centred on graveyards.  To anyone who hasn't been, that must sound terribly depressing, if not mawkish.  I won't deny that seeing the graves of all those young men is not exactly a laugh a minute.  The British cemeteries of World War I are nevertheless peaceful places, places where the visitor can feel at one with the lost and fallen and can try, if not to make sense of it all, at least to recognise the impact their loss made on individuals, families and society in general.  Being there also enables us to appreciate the fantastic job done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - not just in France, but throughout the world.  If you are unfamiliar with it, please do have a look at their website:

In 2010 the SSF made a group visit to Ieper (Ypres), a city that was effectively razed to the ground during the First World War.  We stood on the spot where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge met his death, coincidentally only a hundred yards from the place where the best-known Welsh-language poet of the war, Hedd Wyn, is buried.  It was a memorable visit, but of equal interest were several museums and visitor centres where people like Piet Chielens (curator of the recently-refurbished "In Flanders Fields" museum) have used their expertise to bring the war closer to those of us who find it difficult to imagine what the average serviceman endured.  One such place particularly stands out in my memory: the museum at Hill 62 which was not on our official itinerary.  Piled high with "junk" picked up from the battlefield, it made an impression precisely because of the refusal to attempt to analyse the content.  You can get some idea of it from looking at this website, which includes some film of the interior:  "Make of it what you will," commented one of my fellow members, and, at this distance in time, it is difficult to do anything else.  Neither military nor social historians can make up their minds about the significance of that war.

That's the "battlefields" dealt with, but what about those "pilgrims"?   One definition of a pilgrim is "one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee".  It's true up to a point - we are devotees of the history and literature of the First World War, but I don't think we see the Western Front as a holy place.  A sacred place, perhaps, if that is different, a place that demands our respect and thoughtfulness; but, if we go there merely to say we have gone there, as pilgrims often do, we will be missing the point of the exercise.  Nor do we go for religious reasons, though many do go in order to pay their respects to a distant relative; nowadays it is no longer possible for us to seek the memorials of anyone we remember in person.  A moving experience it certainly can be; but I still don't think it is a pilgrimage.

Last year, just before we set out, a friend told me that her great-grandfather was killed on the first day of the Somme and that his name was on the Thiepval Memorial.  Fortunately he had a very unusual surname and I was able to located him fairly quickly and photograph the result of my search.  What I didn't know was that she had never been there herself and she was thrilled to see the photograph.  It is not her great-grandfather's grave, but it is the nearest it is possible to get to it; the names on the monument are those of the missing.  I also didn't learn, until later, the human story behind the inscription; this particular soldier  left behind four children, who were orphaned a few years later when their mother died of tuberculosis. 

It is hard for us to imagine that level of human suffering in a country like the UK and, although hardship still occurs, we have made a certain amount of progress in a hundred years.  What has not, unfortunately, changed is our willingness to involve ourselves in armed conflicts, whether the causes be "good" or "bad" ones.  Sassoon saw this in 1917 and tried to make a lone stand against it.  Today he is often cited as an inspiration by those who make a similar protest.  Go and see what remains of the Western Front, whether as a "pilgrim" or as an interested visitor trying to get in touch with history, and you will appreciate him more than ever.

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