the dearest and the best

Under Vermeer skies to Ypres.  I was expecting a bleak town, like those you find in the devastated mining areas of north eastern France, but here we are definitely in Flanders.  I have never quite been able to pinpoint what it is about the Flemish character which leads it to create such bourgeois harmony.  The centre of Amsterdam or The Hague has none of the pomp and show of Paris, London or Rome, but a calm order of that wonderful domestic architecture they do so well.  Solid reasonable people cycling about their ordered lives.  Thus it is in Ypres.

But, of course, this town will for some while yet be linked with the slaughter of the First  World War – a hybrid carnage, managing to combine the huge number of infantry of nineteenth century battles with twentieth century technology, poison gas, aircraft bombing, shells, thus insuring a loss of soldiers’ lives never seen before or since.   Village crosses all over Britain and France, listing tens and sometimes hundreds of young men lost in one single community are so much part of our landscape, here is the source.   The idea of despatching your sons to almost certain death is an anathema to modern sensibilities.  Were people so very different then?  Most of us are left only with the official version.  It has that tantalising mystery of recent history, you are deluded into thinking you can understand because it wasn’t that long ago.

Familiarity with the images does not lessen their power.  The trenches of Sanctuary Wood have been cleaned up, the trees are growing and the birds are singing.  It’s hard to imagine how it was.  More affecting to me were countless fields of plain white stones, often dedicated to unknown men, but most of them bearing the legend “buried elsewhere in this cemetery” because, of course, most of the graveyards were charnel pits of bodies for which there was no means of disposal in the inferno of the War.

The Menin Gate stands at a crossroads in Ypres.  It commemorates over 54,000 of the dead of Empire.  There are names from all the pink bits of the world.  How must it have been to leave a village in India or Fiji, travel for weeks by ship, to die in freezing mud, alone and incomprehending.  Every evening the Last Post is played.  Tonight a band of school students who look as though they have walked out of Hans Christian Anderson play an off-key disco version of I Vow to Thee my Country, a song which is a bit of a challenge nowadays anyway.  Possibly the musical director thought that a throbbing bass might make it more palatable to modern sensibilities.  Oh dear.  They march off, nervous, horribly out of step and still out of tune.  Much like the thousands of young men who are commemorated all around us.

Through a friend I find I have three dead relatives, including a great great uncle, son of Ambrose and Phoebe, who died on 5 August 1915, age 15.

I have just finished Now All Roads Lead to France, about the poet Edward Thomas, who for a long time was known only for Adelstrop.  He is now beginning to achieve the recognition he deserves.  He died in Arrras on Easter Monday 1917.

LIGHTS OUT

I have come to the borders of sleep,

The unfathomable deep

Forest where all must lose

Their way, however straight,

Or winding, soon or late;

They cannot choose.

Many a road and track

That, since the dawn’s first crack,

Up top the forest brink,

Deceived the travellers

Suddenly now blurs,

And in they sink.

Here love ends,

Despair, ambition ends,

All pleasure and all trouble,

Although most sweet or bitter,

Here ends in sleep that is sweeter

Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book

Or face of dearest look

That I would not turn from now

To go into the unknown I must enter and leave alone

I know not how.

The tall forest towers;

Its cloudy foliage lowers

Ahead, shelf above shelf;

Its silence I hear and obey

That I may lose my way

And myself.

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5 Responses to the dearest and the best

  1. Jane says:

    Never seen such a clear picture of the trenches. Very real, and suddenly they make a bit more sense, spatially if not in any other way. Amazing to find relatives. Would we have handed out the white feathers? Surely only out of rage. Losing a child must make your own life pointless and I really do not know how people go on. Nice post.

  2. lmc26470l says:

    yes, I think what is also interesting, which is never talked about, is how a nation dealt with such all-pervading grief. When almost everyone must have lost a relative or close friend, either in the mud, or in the influenza of 1919, it is hard to imagine how, collectively, Britain “got over it” and carried on.

  3. Hilary says:

    Penny

    This is indeed a wonderful post. I love all your posts and keep feeling that they MUST make a book, some day although of course then the blog would lose its immediacy which is so important too. But I particularly liked this one and the combinaiton of text, photos and poetry. The memories and imagined experiences of that first huge 20th century conflict dont fade. My grandfather and his two brothers all went off at the ages of 17, 18 and 19 from a small and sunny Canadian town to these trenches. Luckily all survived physically but one never really recovered mentally. What a cost to all! I hope Stephen PInker is right and that man is becoming less violent overall…couldnt happen soon enough

  4. lmc26470 says:

    thank you Hilary. What are the odds of three young men from the same family surviving? But, as you say, with huge emotional cost.

  5. Pingback: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori | pinkhousefoods

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