Thursday, 16 July 2015

Tours, Tanks and Trotter

Another Western Front Association War Poets Tour has come and gone, leaving one small band of enthusiasts suffering serious withdrawal symptoms.  It is, however, very satisfying to note that Siegfried Sassoon is the only poet who has been prominently featured on each of the first four tours, largely as a result of the variety of his military experience and the extent of his geographical travels – but also, I think, because of the quality of his work and his versatility as a poet and prose writer.  So perhaps no coincidence that, for the first time, the majority of passengers on the tour were members of the SSF.

Siegfried, despite his looks, talent and achievements (and most of the female contingent agreed he was the best-looking of the six poets on the cover of this year’s accompanying booklet, with Richard Aldington coming in second), was always vulnerable to self-doubt; he paints a picture of himself as a soldier which is appealing in its modesty.  This is just one of the many secrets of his success.  But of course, it wasn’t all about Siegfried.  Graves, Aldington and Gurney all had a major role this year, and we also focused our attention on some lesser-known poets, such as 26-year-old Bernard Freeman Trotter, a graduate of Canada’s McMaster University and author of the touching “Ici Repose”. 

The tour was more sparsely attended than usual, which was a shame but possibly due to the fact that it covered some of the lesser-known actions of the war, including Loos and Cambrai - the latter, of course, known mainly as the battle where the British forces made their first effective use of tanks.  Anyone who did not book just because they hadn't heard of these actions would have to be uninterested in the literature of the war, as the visits to some of the more obscure battlefields and cemeteries not only protected us from the annoyance often caused by other large groups of tourists but also exposed us to some truly inspiring poetry – and prose - from a large range of writers.  They also missed a two-night stay at one of the best hotels on the Western Front, the Hotel BĂ©atus at Cambrai, with its wonderful gardens, comfortable rooms, friendly staff and excellent restaurant.  And as you can see from the photo, the weather was lovely.

On the third night, unfortunately, we had to move to Lensotel, but were pleasantly surprised that such a large hotel in such an uninspiring location could provide such good service.  For those who do not know the area, Lens is situated in the midst of the coal-mining region of northern France, a district now suffering as much from post-industrial deprivation as most of the traditional coal-mining areas of the UK (though they have been given a branch of the Louvre to try and make up for it).  Imagine fighting in such a landscape, using industrial landmarks such as the (now departed) Cuinchy brickstacks as an impromptu trench system.

Yet the best thing about the tours is not the selection of visits, or the high standard of guiding, or even the poetry.  It’s the chance to get together with people who are interested in the same things and whom we’ve come to regard, over the years, as friends.  In this year’s group, there were only three passengers who hadn’t been with us in previous years and I think they would agree that they had no difficulty fitting into the established core of enthusiasts.  This may be partly because we are a cross-section of Western Front Association members and SSF members, so everyone has an existing connection.  No longer do the military-minded group and the literary-minded group eye one another in a guarded fashion across the restaurant tables; those who were not truly interested in war poetry have long since fallen by the wayside.  

Now we are as one, and for this we can thank Vivien Whelpton and Clive Harris and the symbiotic relationship they have developed.  With encouragement from Viv, we do not hesitate to argue the case for our favourite poets.  So what if we disagree on the merits of E A Mackintosh's "verse", or whether Sassoon is better-looking than Aldington?  Healthy debate helps us learn from one another.  Even the redoubtable John Richardson was keen to admit that he has come round to admiring Jean Moorcroft Wilson as a biographer - and as usual, John's war poetry quiz was much anticipated and hotly contested.

Originally there was to be a series of only five War Poets tours, but Battle Honours has agreed to run at least two more – one specifically on Sassoon in 2017 and another on Owen in 2018.  Book yourself on one and don’t miss out on a treat that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

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