Following Sassoon in France

Last week’s trip to France with Battle Honours Tours exceeded my expectations.
The tour’s title was Sassoon on the Western Front, and our itinerary followed his military progress, around the places in France where he served and fought. We had two guides. Rory Stephens took us through the military background with commendably revisionist enthusiasm and panache, and Viv Whelpton dealt admirably with Sassoon and the literary side. She gave us each a thick booklet of well-chosen readings (extracts from poems, diaries and novels) and at appropriate places we’d take turns to read Sassoon’s accounts of what he was doing and thinking at various junctures. Many of the members of the tour had their own expertise and contributed knowledge and insights.
The Somme today is beautiful rolling agricultural land. It takes a feat of the imagination to picture it ravaged, stinking and deadly. Mametz Wood looks just the kind of place where I’d like to take my dog for a pleasant run and sniff around; but when we went inside it, and looked into its depths with the eyes of a soldier, and realised how ugly a job it would be to fight in such thick woodland – well, we understood it differently.
As for Sassoon, I still can’t say that I actually understand him. He was a man of contradictions, complications, and sometimes obscure impulses. Perhaps he struggled to understand himself. Take his rampage down Wood Trench. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer he rationalises this as a reaction to the death of ‘Kendle’. But his diaries and the military record do not support this. ‘Kendle’ died elsewhere, and later. What can’t be denied, though, is his extraordinary courage, both in fighting and in making his 1917 protest. And also the excellence of his writing, especially in the diaries.

We visited cemeteries, of course, and at Fricourt placed a wreath (on behalf of the Siegfried Sassoon fellowship on the grave of David Thomas (‘Dick Tiltwood’in Memoirs of an Infantry Oficer).

thomas wreath

There are so many cemeteries, huge and small. The hugest, of course, is Thiepval, but we saw its arch only in the distance only in the distance, because our focus was on Sassoon. As on my visits to the Salient years ago, I felt an ambivalence about the cemeteries, so neat, beautiful, and uniform, and so immaculately tended by the CWGC. They are masterpieces of design by Lutyens and others, combining a Roman dignity with the sense of an English garden. They are a deeply considered and properly respectful tribute to the men who died. Yet I cannot help having some sympathy with Sassoon’s poem on the New Menin Gate, which he felt tidied up the ugliness of war:

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, –
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for evermore’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

Does the dignity of the memorials help us to gloss over the indignities of the war? Maybe. Still – much better British pride, care and neatness than the disarray into which the Portuguese cemeteries in Belgium have apparently sunk. The Portuguese record in the war was not impressive, and it is not a part of their national story to which they return eagerly. Their cemeteries are neglected and overgrown.
Seeing the lie of the land does help us understand a little better why and how things happened in a certain way. It’s good to be with someone like Rory who can read a battlefield, and explain it to those of us less acquainted with the military signifiers of landscape. The rich fields of corn, barley and other crops all speak of peace and agricultural prosperity, and the physical reminders of war are now happily few. But a highlight of the trip came when Rory told us we were near the remains of one of the machine-gun posts with which the Germans defended the Hindenberg Line. We looked around, until given a hint that it was now in the middle of a maize field. A tree poking its top over the maize gave a clue to the actual location, so we carefully made our way through the tall maize, and we found it: a very sturdy concrete foundation, incorporating a dugout where a handful of men could have lived for some time, and a flat top from which a gun could be positioned to fire in any likely direction. This gave an idea of the formidable defences that the British were up against at Arras.

machine gun post

Rory Stephens, enthusiastically explaining a machine-gun post on the Hindenberg Line.

So it was very enjoyable indeed – and yet battlefield tourism is maybe an odd thing to be doing. From time to time during our four days, I thought of Philip Johnstone’s 1918 poem, High Wood, in which he imagines a group such as ours coming to take a look at what all the fuss was about. The guide addresses them:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changes hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being …
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotten off.
Please follow me – this way …
The path, sir, please,
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.

wreath

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5 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    George, this is fascinating, as it always is.

    Do you know – I’m sure you do – the poem written by a very young Robert Graves after David Thomas’s death?

    Once an earlier David took
    Smooth pebbles from the brook:
    Out between the lines he went
    To that one-sided tournament,
    A shepherd boy who stood out fine
    And young to fight a Philistine
    Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
    That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
    And those that scorn the God of Zion
    Shall perish so like bear or lion.
    But … the historian of that fight
    Had not the heart to tell it right.

    Striding within javelin range,
    Goliath marvels at this strange
    Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
    David’s clear eye measures the length;
    With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
    Poises a moment thoughtfully,
    And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
    The pebble, humming from the sling
    Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
    For the forehead of the Philistine;
    Then … but there comes a brazen clink,
    And quicker than a man can think
    Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
    Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
    Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
    Towering unhurt six cubits high.
    Says foolish David, “Damn your shield!
    And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.”
    He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
    A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
    The skull of many a wolf and fox
    Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
    Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
    Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
    To rout; but David, calm and brave,
    Holds his ground, for God will save.
    Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
    Shame for beauty’s overthrow!
    (God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
    One cruel backhand sabre-cut—
    “I’m hit! I’m killed!” young David cries,
    Throws blindly forward, chokes … and dies.

    And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
    Goliath straddles over him.

    That moved me when I first read it in James Reeves’s Penguin collection of Georgian Poetry in 1962, and still does, although Graves thought less of it when he was older.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for reminding me of this, Tom. It’s a fine poem. Of course, Graves was negative about all his war poetry later, and cut most of them out of the various editions of his Collected Poems.
      In France, one of the poems allotted to me to read was Graves’s ‘Escape’, his fantasy about the time he was declared dead. It was a joy to read aloud.

      • Tom Deveson
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        ‘…And sleep lurks in the luscious plum and apple.
        He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple
        With the all-powerful poppy … then a snore,
        A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor
        With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun—
        Too late! for I’ve sped through.
        O Life! O Sun!’

        http://www.bartleby.com/120/36.html

        All of Graves’s Fairies and Fusiliers [1918] is available on various websites.

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Karl Kraus wrote an extraordinarily savage attack on battlefield tourism, back in 1921:

    http://hink66.de/klassiker/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Reklamefahrten_zur_Hoelle_v2.pdf

    You can hear him read it here:

    There’s an English version of it here:

    https://infinitelyfullofhope.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/promotional-trips-to-hell.pdf

  3. Tom Deveson
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my wife’s grandfather’s memorial stone at Ypres. He was killed when my late father-in-law was a baby aged one:

    https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=122770160


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