Tommy, p.4Richard Holmes
The poplar-lined pavés straight-stretching across the continuous plains of the North were a thing of the past; the road on which we were wound up and down following the valley on our left, on the other side of which the country rose in delightful hills; in the bottom of the valley flowed the Somme; the land we were traversing recalled the downs of Hampshire, its chalky slopes undulating and covered with coarse grass, and here and there dotted with dark copses and small woods. It was a sumptuous new world in the morning mist, seeming almost as it were home to which we had come from the flat mud of Flanders.9
Charles Carrington of the Royal Warwickshires thought that ‘it might be Kent if it wasn’t Picardy’. And Captain Rowland Feilding, fresh to the Somme from Flanders, told his wife how
The ground is becoming strewn with a great variety of wild flowers. Few and far between are the wild lilies of the valley in bloom, which are much sought after by officers and men, and are therefore very difficult to find.
Another common flower is a white one to which I cannot give a name. It grows from a bulb and has leaves like a daffodil, but much narrower and with a white stripe. If only you were in the country I would send you some bulbs.10
This charming landscape was destined to be destroyed as comprehensively as the Ypres salient had been. Second Lieutenant Bernard Martin, of the North Staffordshires, wrote of his own fifteen months on the front that:
The most dreadful picture in my Somme gallery is a landscape – a wide upland slope, uniformly drab, dirty white, chalk mixed with decaying vegetation, nor a tree stump or bush left, just desolation, with a track named Crucifix Alley for men to walk round or through shell holes to the larger desolation of Delville Wood. The whole blasted slope clotted to the very edges with dead bodies, too many to bury, and too costly, the area being under constant fire from artillery. This awful display of dead men looked like a set piece, as though some celestial undertaker had spaced the corpses evenly for interment and then been interrupted. Several times I picked my way through this cemetery of the unburied. A landscape picture my memory turns up in horror.11
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, infantry officer and cartoonist, noted the lethal connection between surviving landmarks and enemy fire. ‘A farm was a place where you expected a shell to come through the wall at any minute’, he warned; ‘a tree was the sort of thing gunners took range on; a sunset indicated a quality of light in which it was unsafe to walk round’.12
The front line crossed the meandering Somme, still running more or less due south, before swinging eastwards to follow the high ground above the River Aisne. From there it followed the Chemin des Dames, the Ladies’ Way, once a carriage road built so that the daughters of Louis XV could drive from Compiègne to the Château de la Bove, seat of the Duchesse de Nemours. Although the British passed this way in 1914 and again in 1918, from the Chemin des Dames eastwards the front was French-held. Yet the process of converting landscape to desolation was just the same, and was all the more resented because the men who fought on this blighted landscape had often lived there too. Almost three-quarters of French soldiers were peasants, and the ravaging of their land and the destruction of little villages that had stood on it for a thousand years went to their hearts. In March 1917 a French trench newspaper told how:
The ruins of the village, entirely smashed up by bombardments, scarcely made up, here and there, a few sections of wall with a sinister whiteness, from which emerged, like a sad wreck, the skeleton of a church, horribly bony, torn, murdered, mangled; a fountain and a cross remained intact, side by side, in the middle of the dead hamlet. All around, desperately white stones strewed the ground, smashed up higgledy-piggledy, piled up in heaps, amongst shell holes, plaster, burnt woodwork, with only a few briar hedges to throw their black shadows onto this livid landscape. Anyone who has not seen this little place with the straight road passing its collapsed homes, cannot understand what intense emotion, what dark and chilling sadness, what unspeakable agony is revealed by this vision of desolation.13
Next, the front ran across the dry, chalky plateau of Champagne – like Artois but on an even greater scale – to disappear into the mighty forest of the Argonne. It emerged on the Meuse at the little fortress town of Verdun, its bare uplands ravaged in the fighting of 1916 and, even to my English mind, still quite the most evocative spot in the whole of this belt of murdered nature. The line then followed the right bank of the Meuse past St-Mihiel, and then climbed up into the Vosges, to end, on the hills of the Swiss frontier, in geography almost as unlike that of the Flanders coast as it is possible to imagine.
John Masefield thought that the front could best be understood as a river flowing across the landscape, straight here, meandering there, sometimes wide and sometime more narrow. In some areas normality came very close to its bank. Private Robert Case of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry told his parents in July 1915 that: ‘Back behind the lines there are, except for quantities of khaki, no indications of the biggest strafe the world has known. The land is tilled up to say 1½ miles of the firing line, and in many cases within 1,000 yards.’14 In others, like the Somme sector in 1916–18, repeated attack and counterattack widened the front to what was, literally and metaphorically, a broad marsh. ‘I cannot give you any conception of what the battlefield is like now,’ wrote Masefield to his wife in October 1916,
but if you will imagine any 13 miles x 9 miles known to you, say from Goring to Abingdon, raking in Dorchester, Wallingford, Nettlebed and the Chilterns above Goring, you will get a hint of its extent. Then imagine in all that expanse no single tree left, but either dismembered or cut off short, & burnt quite black. Then imagine that in all that expanse no single house is left, nor any large part of a house, except one iron gate & half a little red chapel, & that all the other building is literally blasted into little bits, so that no man can tell where the villages were, nor how they ran, nor what they were like.15
The Western Front was speckled with architecture which reflected its past. The great squares of Béthune and Arras, with their arcaded walks and florid house fronts – redbrick for Flanders, relieved by honey-coloured stone for Artois and Picardy – were reminiscent of the plaças in Spanish cities, for this was once the Spanish Netherlands. Officers and men with a literary or historical bent, and there were many, mused on architectural detail. As 4/Coldstream Guards slogged across Artois in late 1915 an officer observed ‘a comic incident’:
Sergeant Melton was marching next to me. Behind us were two educated men, Sergeant Oliver and Corporal Newton – who started a discussion about the relative merits of Hazlitt and Goldsmith. To this exchange, which we could not help overhearing, Melton reacted with ill-concealed disgust. When we passed a partly-restored church Oliver and Newton discussed its date. One of them suggested it might be six hundred years old. Melton, who had good eyesight, noticed that the restored front door had a date on it. He half turned round, and, with a rictus of sarcasm, addressed Sergeant Oliver as follows: ‘You great booby, how can it be that old when it has 1857 over the door?’16
Churches often had harsh and unpromising exteriors but were prettier inside. Captain James Dunn thought that Doullens church, though ‘nondescript and unattractive without, has fine early twelfth-century detail within’, as well as ‘finely-preserved mid-Gothic arching’.17 Private Frank Richards, of the same battalion, saw things with a slightly different eye. ‘Stevens and I visited the cathedral,’ he wrote of Rouen, ‘and we were very much taken with the beautiful oil paintings and other objects of art inside. One old soldier who paid it a visit said it would be a fine place to loot.’18 However, some private soldiers were more appreciative. Stapleton Tench Eachus, a Royal Engineers signaller, explained why he had mixed views about the church of St-Gilles at Epagnette in mid-1916.
The church is an old one and not by any means remarkable for its structural architecture, at least that was my impression. It had however been elaborately decorated and the walls and pillars painted in divers hues. The paintings, which were hung abo
Men were often struck by the way that the names of bars, hotels and restaurants reflected the area’s turbulent past. A tavern on the Brussels road outside Mons, at the scene of the first clash between British and German cavalry on 22 August 1914, was named La Reine d’Hongroie, after the Queen of Hungary: Maria Theresa, when Mons was in the Austrian Netherlands. Aux Armes de France with its Valois blue with golden lilies and L’Ecu de France with its crown had both survived three republics, and Le Bivouac de L’Fmpereur bore the distinctive silhouette of the little corporal. The peasantry slaked their thirst in a score of establishments named Les Cultivateurs, and there were horses, prancing or ploughing, black and white. There was the double-headed eagle for the Hapsburg Empire and his crowned cousin for the French, and even, as a sharp-eyed army doctor recorded, Au Grand Marlbrouck named after the first Duke of Marlborough and La Reine d’Angleterre after his queen.20
This was a land already marked by war. Many were struck by the bizarre connection of ancient and modern. When Charles Carrington returned to the battlefields in 1923 he found:
a trench still full of the flotsam and jetsam of war. I dug an old gun out of the mud and found to my surprise that it was not a modern rifle but a Brown Bess musket, dropped there by some British soldier during Wellington’s last action against a French rearguard in 1815.21
There was fighting there long before Wellington. In the sixteenth century the northern border of France followed the line of the Somme, as the fortifications at Montreuil, Doullens and Péronne, so familiar to British soldiers of the war, still demonstrate. Philip II of Spain built the great monastery-palace of El Escorial, just north of Madrid, to celebrate victory over the French at St-Quentin in 1557.
But the rising power of France was not to be denied, and the border moved inexorably northwards. Cyrano de Bergerac fought the Spaniards at Arras in fiction, and the future James II of England fought them in fact when Duke of York, and a lieutenant general in French service. ‘I joyn’d the Army by Peronne …’, he wrote.
About the 16th [July 1654] … wee began our march towards Arras, and camp’d at a village called Sains, near Sauchy-Cauchy which lys between Cambray and Arras … The next day we continued our march towards Mouchy-le-Preux … Monsieur de Turenne’s own quarter was at this place of Mouchy … Monsr. de la Ferté had his quarter at the right hand of our Line down by the side of the River Scarpe, at a Village called Peule.
Give or take the vagaries of spelling, James’s countrymen would have recognised Cambrai and Monchy, Arras and the Scarpe, though they might have reflected grimly that a battle then cost both sides ‘not … above four hundred … I remember but one Collonell, M. de Puymarais, Coll of horse, a brave young gentleman …’.22 There were to be rather more brave young gentlemen stretched out on the slopes between Monchy and Arras when the British 3rd Army assaulted the place in April 1917.
The French fortified the captured ground. Vauban’s pré carré was a double line of geometrical artillery fortresses, one running from Gravelines to Arras and on to Avesnes, the other from Dunkirk to Ypres, Menin and Valenciennes to Maubeuge. The bastions and ravelins of this fortification, built to resist the close-range pounding of heavy guns, proved surprisingly resistant to more modern artillery, and thousands of British soldiers were to retain grateful memories of casemates beneath the ramparts at Ypres, which accorded a measure of protection hard to find elsewhere in or around that blighted town. They also housed the ‘offices’ of one of the best-known trench newspapers, The Wipers Times, whose first edition had its own view on architecture:
FOR SALE, cheap, Desirable Residence. Climate Warm: fine view. Splendid links close by, good shooting. Terms moderate. Owner going abroad. Apply Feddup, Gordon Farm, nr Wipers.23
There were older defences too. Coucy le Château, the finest medieval castle in France, lay on the British line of retreat in 1914. One of its lords had married Isabella, daughter of Edward II of England, and was created Earl of Bedford. His house already had the proud boast:
Roi ne suis, ne Prince, ne Duc, ne Comte aussi, Je suis le Sire de Coucy.24
The castle’s methodical destruction when the Germans withdrew from the area in 1917 offended the capable and soldierly Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the local army group commander, who protested to his own high command that it had no military value. Henry V’s men knew the castle at Peronne, and when 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers moved down south in mid 1916, they
saw Corbie across the Somme. It cold-shouldered Henry V when he marched along its ridge, to turn at Agincourt on the host that beset him. But from what unknown church near-by did Bardolph take the golden pyx?25
Captain Reginald Tompson, a railway staff officer in 1914, was delighted to find himself in the village of Le Bourget, just outside Paris, the scene of a battle in the Franco-Prussian War. ‘This is the very place immortalised by de Neuville in his picture Le Bourget’, he exulted in his diary. ‘I must go and see the church. They tell me the scene is exactly as in ’70.’26
Landscape stirred more than history. Once, when 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers were on the march:
There were few men within range of seeing who did not look wistfully at a wayside house of red brick and tiles, built to an English design, and set in an English garden …27
Men easily found familiar comparisons. The old hospital in Corbie was ‘something on the lines of St Cross in Winchester’, the stream running through Lumbres would make ‘an ideal trout stream, if only it was properly cared for’. Scottish infantry sitting about their billets in St-Omer made it seem like a Lanarkshire town, and Aubers Ridge looked just like the Hog’s Back between Guildford and Farnham.28 The villages on the Somme were ‘each … as big as Cholsey, reckoning from the church to half way to the asylum’. Second Lieutenant H. M. Stanford, Royal Field Artillery, told his parents that the Flanders countryside ‘is very flat and full of dykes and canals but one can see fairly high hills out to the E. and N.E., otherwise it might be part of the marshes at home for the most part’. In the trenches, however, ‘the mud becomes worse than the Aldeburgh River, and that’s saying a great deal’.29 John Masefield, on the Somme as a correspondent in 1916, described the Ancre running down the western edge of the battlefield, ‘beneath great spurs of chalk, as the Thames runs at Goring and Pangbourne’.30
Most combatants wondered if the blighted landscape could ever be restored. ‘We used to say that it would never be reclaimed,’ wrote Henry Williamson,
that in fifty years it would still be the same dreadful morass … It was said that this land … would not be cleared up for 100 years. But after the armistice Russian labourers came over in thousands, also Italians. I saw them digging with long-handled shovels, first collecting great dumps of wire and yellow unexploded shells. Rifles stood on thinning bayonets in places all over the battlefield in 1924, marking where wounded men had fallen. Dugouts were beginning to cave in.31
In some places, like the zones rouges at Verdun, the land was simply cloaked in pine trees after the war and left to the patient hand of nature. Some villages were so comprehensively destroyed that they were no longer worth rebuilding in a post-war France whose manpower losses had reduced pressure on the land.
When President Poincaré gave Verdun its Cross of the Légion d’Honneur he prophesied that ‘this ravaged countryside will recover the laughing face that it wore in happy times’, but the years have proved him wrong.32 The villages of Douaumont, Fleury, Vaux, Bezonvaux, Louvemont, Ornes, Haumont, Beaumont and Cumèries were never rebuilt. Small wonder that the female figure in Rodin’s bronze La Défense, sited symbolically outside Verdun’s Porte St-Paul, is
When the trenches are filled in, and the plough has gone over them, the ground will not long keep the look of war. One summer with its flowers will cover most of the ruin that man can make, and then these places … will be hard indeed to trace, even with maps … In a few years time, when this war is a romance in memory, the soldier looking for his battlefield will find his marks gone. Centre Way, Peel Trench, Munster Alley and these other paths to glory will be deep under the corn, and gleaners will sing at Dead Mule Corner.34
Major General Sir Ernest Swinton thought that Masefield was right. In Twenty Years After he wrote that:
Time has worked its changes. The battle-fields today are green and gold again. Young trees are everywhere and the desolate waste of shell-hole and mud has given way to pasture-land and waving corn. Proudly on the heights stand the memorials to the fallen, and in the valleys and on hillside peacefully lie the silent cities where they rest.35
THE EBB AND FLOW OF BATTLE
The Western Front was created by the war’s opening campaign. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 had been a humiliating defeat for the French, and at its end France’s two easternmost provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, were ceded to Germany. The burst of French patriotic revival which followed the defeat died away in the 1890s, its demise marked by the Dreyfus affair and the increasing use of troops against striking workers. But the French army had been modernised, with the 75-mm quick-firing field gun, the justly celebrated soixante-quinze, as its most visible symbol. Serious-minded officers studied march-tables at the new staff college, railway engineers threw a network of track across the countryside to make mobilisation and concentration easier, and military engineers scrawled their own geometry on the bare slopes of western Lorraine, glaring out to the new border.
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