Sometimes when another writer dangles an opportunity in front of your nose you have to say yes even if it doesn’t necessarily square with your other plans nor with the time you have available. So on the first Friday of October, thanks to Vanessa Gebbie, I found myself on Eurostar early in the morning heading for Lille and the battlefields of the Somme and Arras. (October being the month I’d promised my publisher the completed manuscript of my second world war poems). In my rucksack I carried Lyn MacDonald’s Somme, the Penguin anthology of first world war poems and Denis Winter’s death’s men. I had not had time to do much more than skim the first chapter of Somme but this was enough to make me realise how little I had prepared for this trip.
Our guide was the military historian Jeremy Banning and shortly before leaving I’d watching the programme, Who do you think you are, which he did with Hugh Dennis . I was quietly impressed by the programme. I’d never watched the series before, mistakenly believing it to be yet another version of the celebrity/reality TV shows which seem to fill the airwaves. This programme about Hugh’s grandfathers who fought in the Great War had serious historical research behind it.
We dropped off our bags at Chavasse farm where we were staying and headed off into the battlefields. At this point I was still expecting the usual sort of writers’ retreat that I’ve done before; lots and lots of time to write, good company, lovely food, the chance to get to know some of my fellow writers a little better but with the benefit of some Somme mud thrown in. I thought I knew about the first world war. I did Wilfred Owen’s poetry at school and then went on to study history at university so I knew about the horrific casualty figures, 60,000 on the first day of the battle of the Somme. I didn’t think that I was going to learn anything new but all this was about to change.
The first place that we stopped at was an out of the way cemetery surrounded by trees and there they all were – row after row of headstones. Normally graveyards can be pleasant places to visit, peaceful with flowers on many of the graves. So why did this one feel completely different? It was because each headstone represented a young man and there were close on a thousand of them. I walked between the rows reading their names and regiments – some headstones were almost touching where they’d all been killed on the same day and buried next to each other. Name after name and I could see them lying in piles waiting to be buried. You don’t normally think of what lies beneath the turf but in this place it was inescapable.
Then I got to the headstones without names – an unknown solder – known only to God. I found myself seized by the strangest of impulses of wanting to hug these gravestones, to reach out to these unknowns – each one somebody’s son. I thought of their mothers at home receiving that telegram but never having a grave for which they could chose an inscription and I was overwhelmed.
And for an more eloquent comment on why it is important to visit the cemeteries as well as the battlefield sites you should read Vanessa