Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The killing fields

After lunch we unloaded the bikes from the rack and planned a trip along the 'velo route of remembrance' marked on the leaflet from the tourist office. The route wended its way through a park and some fishing ponds, along minor roads through the villages of Aveluy and Authuille, then climbed out of the valley of the l'Ancre to the low ridge of Thiepval where Lutyen's memorial to the missing stands overlooking the Somme battlefields.

The road to Thiepval ridge - in the battle of the Somme every metre of ground gained cost 1000 casualties.
It was a ride of about 12 kilometres, a gentle pedal taking less than 20 minutes. It took 141 days for the French and British troops to move their front line 12 kilometres forward across this same terrain. In the process 1.2 million men were killed or wounded, including 72,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never found. These are the missing who are commemorated at Thiepval. It is impossible not to be profoundly affected by the catastrophic loss of life. However, it is also a deeply infuriating place.

Luyten's Memorial for the missing dominates the ridge

The carnage visited upon the youth of Europe resulted from the blind nationalism and imperialist ambition of the continent's predominantly aristocrat ruling elites. It was not a war with winners and losers, everyone lost, even the instigators. The 'Great Powers'' world of empire and privilege went into inexorable decline afterwards. Yet only a year elapsed between the cessation of hostilities on the 11th November 1918 and the inauguration of the first 'Armistice Day' act of remembrance with its scripted assertion of valiant sacrifice linked to national pride. When we saw Lutyen's vast triumphalist edifice rising above the killing fields I think it was the chilling dissonance between rhetoric and reality which provoked Gill's claustrophobic sense of sadness and my quiet fury

The symbolism of the Triumphal Arch seems a strange choice of style given the monument's purpose.

The names of the 72,000 British soldiers whose remains were never identified are recorded on the monument.

I was struck by the contrast of  photographs of the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration
with grrim pictures of the aftermath of the battle.
"I think we should go" Gill said. I nodded, took a few photographs, shared them on Facebook accompanied by a short angry sentence or two; then we rode back down the hill through the fields of pale yellow stubble and patches of trees that hinted at autumn. Hardly a soul was about, the villages quiet, no traffic, a peaceful day, cloudless and warm, but the utter silence recalled the thundering guns and every white chalk stone strewn along the verge of the un-hedged fields became a fragment of bone.

I wonder now, a few hours later, if my visceral response had been ill-judged, whether the mythologising of the war found in the rituals and iconography of rememberance was in fact the only possible human response to the enormity of a catastrophe that claimed over 30 million lives. It started with a diplomatic miscalculation abetted by the Kaiser's decision to take his usual Baltic cruise, and the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey, who went fly-fishing on the Test just as the armies on continental Europe began to mobilise. Politicians across the continent predicted the war would be over in a matter of weeks. The armistice four years later was followed by a treaty whose terms mixed score-settling territorial gain with a desire to shift the blame for the debacle entirely onto Germany, a ploy which more or less made a re-run of hostilities twenty years later inevitable. Given these circumstances, is it any wonder that the thought that the losses were needless and the war a terrible mistake proved utterly unpalatable, so myths of noble sacrifice and patriotic bravery were readily embraced by the Generals, political leaders, veterans and the bereaved?

Even today the catastrophe is masked behind a euphemism - 'sacrifice'.
What is incomprehensible and infuriating is that today's centenary events make insufficient attempt to challenge the prevailing mythologies of remembrance and seem a missed opportunity to reposition WW1 within European history to give greater credence to the facts. Some attempts have been made: the major museum at Peronne interprets events giving equal weight to all combatants and provides commentary in English, French and German; last year the centenary of the Battle of Verdun was marked by a ceremony led jointly by President Allende and Chancellor Merkel asserting how the event was a catastrophe for both nations and warning of the dangers of resurgent nationalism. 

Yet all the commemorative material about the Battle of the Somme that we were given by the campsite reception and Albert's Office de Tourisme seemed far from balanced and impartial. Many of the brochures were produced with the support of an EU Regional Development Fund project involving local councils from Southeast England, Picardy and Holland. There was no German involvement whatsoever, and though maps showed British and French military cemeteries, the large German cemetery at Fricourt was omitted.

I found the omission of any German involvement strange given the EU support.
Maybe all of this is an over-reaction, but I don't think so. The visitor centre at Thiepval provides little cardboard poppies so that visitors can leave a short message. Almost all reiterated conventional eulogies of commemoration, about sacrifice and bravery. The soldiers of the Somme did not sacrifice themselves, they were sacrificed - lambs to the slaughter. Nor, I suspect, were they especially brave, a few maybe, but most were simply ordinary young men trapped in terrible circumstances who simply hoped they might survive.

The visitor centre encourages people to record their thoughts on small poppies places at the entrance.

most expressed condolence in conventional terms

This message seemed nearer to the truth.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the centenary brochures were small ads taken out by individuals and organisations who had seized on the anniversary as a business opportunity. Horse and carriage rides around the battlefields were on  offer. Some chambre d'hote owners advertised that they could provide tours with expert guides, but the copy about 'remembering the young men who had given their lives for our freedom' did not give me confidence in these guides' expertise. No way was WW1 a struggle for freedom. At the time the countries involved were either autocracies or fledgling democracies that had not quite got around to enfranchising one half of their populations. Less sentimental cant and more respect for historical accuracy would have made the morbid sales pitches a tad more acceptable.

It seems to me the only respectful act of commemoration to the millions slaughtered is to commit ourselves to ensuring that Europe never tears itself apart in such a way again. Nationalism is on the march, but if the peoples of the continent are unhappy with the current attempt at a European Union, then we need to reform and renew the project. If we all demand 'our country back' them at some point this process will go awry, and our offspring again perish in a renewed European conflict like their forebears at the Somme. The sentimentality and undiguised nationalism surrounding the acts of commemoration and the tone much of the supplementary material does not bode well. I don't think we have learned from the terrible carnage of two world wars. It's depressing.

At the foot of the Thiepval rise is a remote British cemetery called 'Blighty Valley'. It's a few hundred metres from the road down a grassy track. A little more than a thousand victims are interred here, more than half unidentified. It seems infrequently visited yet still the place is impeccably tended. On this beautiful late summer's afternoon the oak leaves had just begun to fall, dropping silently, yet inexorably among rows of identical white marble headstones. A quiet golden light flooded the landscape. The place invites contemplation. What can you say to the fallen? Rest in peace and we promise to do our utmost to never let it happen again, not through rituals of remembrance, but by understanding how the catastrophe occurred in the first place. To misquote Jefferson, peace as well freedom requires eternal vigilance.


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