Nicholas Bird explains why, a century on, books, films and genealogy draw new generations to the cemeteries of the Western Front
The poetry of the Great War is the greatest flowering of verse since Elizabethan times, and it continues to move, provoke and inspire new generations to visit the Western Front. Its power reflects the shock and anger felt by citizen soldiers, mostly young officers, suddenly immersed in industrial war. Though it does not necessarily reflect the reality of generals and staff officers struggling with a new sort of warfare, or the sullen determination to see the thing through of most rankers – evident from their letters home – the poetry is the valid voice of a generation appalled at the carnage.
The anguish of the war poets may be untypical of Other Ranks, whose reaction to mud and bangs was mostly stoical grumbling, but the traumas so eloquently expressed by Owen and Sassoon resonate today. Many see the poor soldiers in the trenches, on both sides of no man’s land, as ‘victims’. The European Union promotes First World War battlefields as evidence of the evils of nationalism.
For every Owen traumatized by his ordeal, there is a Captain Greenwell, of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, who wrote home during the First Battle of the Somme: ‘It is an extraordinary sort of battle and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I think we shall soon enter upon another violent phase. I hope so...’ Bomb school he found ‘ripping’ fun, and in the depths of the wretched winter of 1915, Greenwell confided: ‘My mind is deeply engaged with a grand dinner party I am giving...’
The funeral of Field Marshal Earl Haig in 1928 marked a turning point. Respected, revered even, more people turned out to watch his cortège pass than did for Princess Diana’s funeral. Haig’s young son once spoke of the sudden change in the country’s mood; letters arrived that were no longer reverential. His father became a symbol of the supposed callousness of the ‘chateau general’. To go from hero to butcher almost overnight was traumatic for Haig’s widow and son.
What had happened was partly due to a coincidence of publishing. A spate of books appeared that shared a sense of disillusionment, which a decade’s reflection had spawned. The waste of the war years seemed palpable, particularly after the ‘land fit for heroes’ failed to materialize. Memoirs by subalterns such as Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928) and Graves’s Good-Bye to All That (1929), R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End (1928) – about the corruption and futility of the war – and Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) all appeared within a couple of years.
There are many reasons why people visit the Somme. Some are inspired by the literature of the Great War. Some go to see the cemeteries, laid out by Lutyens, Baker or Blomfield, outposts of England, and to be moved by Kipling’s inscriptions: Their Name Liveth Forever More on Lutyens’ Stone of Remembrance. At Ypres they go to see Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, itself a battlefield, where the slope down to the spires of Ypres from the Passchendaele ridge is clear. For many it is part of a school trip. Twenty years ago I did not see school parties. These days three-quarters of those who attend the Menin Gate ceremony and hear the Last Post are school parties, overwhelmingly British. For some it is a local pilgrimage – people from Sheffield come to see where the Sheffield Pals were wiped out.
Others come to the Poelkapelle cemetery where the famous Irish boy soldier John Condon supposedly lies, a victim of the first gas attack in 1915. His headstone records his age as 14, but he was actually 18, as census returns confirm. And recent research proves the body to be that of Rifleman Patrick Fitzsimmons, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, killed in 1915, aged 35. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission accept that the age on the headstone was a typesetting error, and that the body isn’t Condon’s, but their website persists with the falsehood. The Ministry of Defence, responsible for any amendments to First World War casualties, refuses to change the wording on the headstone, bowing perhaps to vested interests. So we battlefield guides are asked to take groups of schoolchildren to see the ‘boy’s’ grave. It seems cruel to disabuse them. I offer them the grave of Rifleman Joe Strudwick, of The Rifle Brigade, who is buried at Essex Farm where McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields. He was 15. But they have been told about Condon and it is Condon they believe in.
The fascination with the Great War, and Great War battlefields, has much to do with trench warfare, something uniquely grim. If battles are ‘the punctuation marks of history’, as Churchill said, then the first day of the Somme is a full stop. It was the death of the Kitchener army and the Pals battalions, Lord Derby’s tragically flawed recruiting scheme whereby chums from the same school, office, football club or street would enlist together. They died together too, thus devastating whole communities.
On July 1, 1916, on the British 15-mile front, 13 divisions rose from the trenches. Nearly 20,000 were killed. In a peculiarly British way, this disaster is the focus of nearly all visitors to the Somme. You do not get Americans visiting scenes of American defeat. But British visitors are right to come here; it is a day etched on the consciousness of the nation, on a thousand war memorials. Officers dying with their pet dogs, and men kicking footballs into opposing trenches, add a whiff of insouciant poignancy.
You can walk a Somme battlefield as you cannot, say, the Bulge or Alamein. The constraints of trench warfare make them compact. Trench lines are visible from the air but often also from the ground – if you know where to look. In the Bois Français above Fricourt is a hidden German trench zig-zagging through the undergrowth. This is Kiel Trench. It was after a failed night attack on Kiel Trench by Sassoon’s company that he won an MC rescuing his beloved Corporal O’Brien lying wounded in a shell hole in no man’s land (O’Brien died later and is buried nearby in Citadel Cemetery).
Along the road is Devonshire Cemetery, in Mansell Copse, which was the jumpingoff point for the 9th Devons in their attack on Mametz on July 1, 1916. A company commander, Captain Duncan Martin, feared that a German machinegun in Mametz Cemetery would take the Devons in flank as they emerged from the copse. He made a plasticine model of the battlefield to prove it. He was right. It killed him and 159 other Devons. They were buried by the padre in their trench. A wooden cross was erected and inscribed: ‘The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still’. You can stand where the machinegun fired. You can see how Martin’s fate was inevitable if the gun wasn’t knocked out.
Some things are only apparent by seeing the battlefield; there is no substitute. I have been to the Sunken Lane in no man’s land on July 1 at 07.30 to see what it would have been like to be one the Lancashire Fusiliers as they prepared to attack. The low sun is right in your face, which must have blinded them as they came through the hedge to attack. They were enfiladed from machineguns in front and from the crater on the ridge, and none would have gone more than 20 yards.
On the Somme you can often follow the battle by looking at the cemeteries. This, and in other ways, First World War battlefields are unique. And there are toys to help you – hundreds of British trench maps can be accessed on an interactive hand-held machine called a LinesMan, which tells you where a trench was, where it ran, and where you are in relation to it.
But why is the 1914-18 War, and remembrance, fashionable? There are several reasons: the internet, TV, war poets, the awful poignancy of Pals battalions enlisting together and dying together… and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. His Great War novel (1993) about tunnelling and love, is cited by many women as the reason they come on our battlefield tours.
In 2006, 306 servicemen shot at dawn in the First World War for ‘cowardice or desertion’ were pardoned, ‘victims of the First World War’ as the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, put it, bowing to the temper of the times. That mood also prompted the fuss about Walter Tull, a black professional footballer raised in an orphanage, who was such a gallant and competent soldier that he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, despite blacks being excluded from exercising command by military law. He was killed in the Spring Offensive of 1918, and denied a posthumous MC.
The internet means you don’t have to traipse down to the local library: historical references, war poetry, maps, facts, details of your great grandfather’s war record or grave are all available at the click of a mouse. Before I went to the Somme for the first time in the 1960s, I saw Rose Coombs at the Imperial War Museum, who had trudged the Western Front battlefields, and was working on her now standard reference, Before Endeavours Fade (1977). I had no guidebook, only her advice.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site tells you exactly where your ancestor is buried, a process that took weeks of letters to and from Maidenhead a few years ago. The young – and the not so young – can see graphic images of trenches and read diaries online that give a vivid picture of life in the Great War. When I was a young swot, I roamed specialist bookshops for out-of-print copies of General Jacks’ Diary, Blunden’s Undertones of War or Rogerson’s Twelve Days on the Somme, books that gave a feel of life amid the rats, lice and mud of the trenches. Publishers were wary of reprinting depressing tales of a static war, with no paratroopers, no blitzkrieg, and when the fastest tank plodded along at 8.3mph (the British Whippet). The Second World War was sexy but the Great War wasn’t. The Second World War had good guys and bad guys, a Manichean simplicity. And the result was neat – Unconditional Surrender. The Great War was a greyer area,
Now the books I scoured dusty shelves for are available from Amazon. With ease of information comes awareness of the reality of war, particularly of attritional war on the Western Front.
The 60s saw a revival of interest in the Great War. In 1961 Alan Clark, the Conservative politician and diarist, published The Donkeys, which portrayed the British generals as boobies, and in turn spawned Oh What a Lovely War! – Joan Littlewood’s 1963 musical that did the same. Eminent military historians disagreed with this simplistic view. Sir Michael Howard called it ‘worthless’ and Richard Holmes said it was ‘pure deception’. But it stuck.
The 26-episode BBC Great War series (1964), produced for the 50th anniversary, and written by such distinguished historians as Corelli Barnett, Alistair Horne and John Terraine, could not escape the mood of cynicism and the collapse of deference (despite Terraine being pro-Haig).
Although the series was balanced textually, the interviews, selection of images and diary quotes emphasised suffering. The title sequence was effective but a distortion. A glum looking soldier sits amid corpses in a shattered trench. This was a composite of two photos: one, taken on July 1, 1916, of a working party of Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench, in which the grim-faced man sits among smiling comrades; and another of rotting and shattered corpses. The resulting image created the mood the producers wanted.
Later, new orthodoxies prevailed, with documentaries over-emphasising the role of black troops, poets and women, as inThe Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (1996). They both reflected and created a misconception. For example, the war was not an unreservedly good thing for British women, although some found temporary emancipation in work; separation and bereavement are not boons. TV prefers something simple – that the war liberated women. For most it did not; after the war things were much the same.
Battlefield touring is not new. In 1928 the British Legion and the British Empire Service League organized a pilgrimage to Flanders and the Somme, led by the Prince of Wales and Lady Haig. At Beaucourt Station 10,000 mourners arrived in trainloads of 500 every 15 minutes.
Remembrance may be an act of homage, but some see ‘lest we forget’ as a warning, too. Sassoon recognized the amnesia that brings war around: ‘Remembering, we forget/Much that was monstrous… We forget our fear…’. His exhortation: ‘Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget’ strikes a chord today. But you should not be weighed down by guilt or portents when you visit and revisit the battlefields of the Great War. As Pat Barker put it in Another World (1998): ‘…You should go to the past, looking not for messages or warnings, but simply to be humbled by the weight of human experience that has preceded the brief flicker of your own few days…’
Nicholas Bird runs Bird Battlefield Tours