Theatres of Memory and 1914-2014 Part 2

Bill Schwarz’s foreword to the new edition of ‘Theatres of Memory’ epitomizes Raphael Samuel’s gloriously eclectic take on ‘History’ with this epigraph: ‘At Camden Lock … the past has almost caught up with the present’ – Samuel had that wonderful ability to segue from high intellectualism to street furniture sensibility in the blink of an eye. Schwarz further epitomizes the book thus: ‘The starting point of Theatres of Memory … is that history is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s “invention”.’

Schwarz goes on to say that ‘As readers of Theatres of Memory will know, or will discover if they come to it for the first time, Samuel is less preoccupied with the procedures of mainstream or professional history. Rather he is engaged by the ‘unofficial knowledges’ that give form to the popular articulations of the past and the present. And this is precisely where the ‘memory’ of the title operates most forcefully.’

You can see the relevance of this to the 2014 Centenary. Why not construct your own ‘unofficial knowledges’, narratives, explanations, presentations and performances? You don’t need a lottery grant; you don’t need to follow the ‘official’ heritage line and trope; indeed, there is an argument that questioning official heritage is part of our official heritage. Charles Parker and Ewan MacColl’s 1960s ‘Radio Ballads’ fused with oral history and ‘O What a Lovely War’ could be an interesting approach for some people.

An alternative reading of the Great War would question what might turn out to be, otherwise, an official grand over arching heritage narrative about that conflict. Samuel wrote about how ‘heritage’ can become ‘an expressive totality, a seamless web … systemic, projecting a unified set of meanings which are impervious to challenge – what Umberto Eco calls ‘hyper-reality … a ‘closed story’, i.e. a fixed narrative which allows for neither subtext nor counter-readings’. How right he might be unless we do a little DIY-ery.

In further support of such an approach, I conclude with Samuel’s characteristic critique of the bumptious orthodoxy of the professional historian. ‘We suppress the authorial ‘I’ so that the evidence appears to itself. We improve on the original, making connections to cover the gaps in the story, the silences in the evidence … History is an allegorical as well as – in intention at least – a mimetic art … Like allegorists, historians are adept at discovering a hidden or half-hidden order. We find occult meanings in apparently simple truths … the ‘historian’s ‘reading’ of the evidence could be seen as an essay in make believe … an exercise in the story-teller’s arts …’

Well, if the official WW1 Centenary heritage trope is based on any of that, then surely a DIY approach to it is just as good, if not even better? As the Paris Situationists used to cry: “Underneath the pavement, the beach!’ but our cry might be: ‘Underneath the blue pencil, the truth!’

Theatres of Memory: 1914 and 2014

Rereading Raphael Samuel’s ‘Theatres of Memory’ after a gap of some twenty years makes me regret, once more, the fact that I was never taught by him, nor collaborated on any projects with him. What an intellectual experience that would have been! But, all I can do is to embark on something true to his tutelary spirit and what better way for that can there be than to contribute critically to the 2014 World War One Centenary discussions?

The traditional and ‘heritage-official’ narratives need augmenting: German-British ‘Live and Let Live’ practices; the unofficial truces and the football matches; conscientious objectors; mutinies; the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign; the rent strikes; trade union strikes; the limited nature of democracy back then; Ireland; Empire; military executions; the need for state control; the presumed bellicosity of women – all these and more spring to mind as a way of extending discourse.

There is also the question of how future historians and sociologists might look at this Centenary and its representations: would not some be reflecting on how this past conflict might have been seen as a unifier, a sort of ‘Golden Age’, a message to a public fed up with contemporary involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? A nation united? There would be a whole mesh of conscious policy making by governments and unintended consequences at work here.

I am sure that Samuel would also have pointed out how the family history boom and the cultural remilitarization of our society in the new millennium have also led to a seeming equality of sacrifice: austerity might mean an Edwardian disparity in wealth, but that might be forgotten when both duke and dust-woman are shown by the TV cameras gazing at the uniform commonwealth gravestones.

Then again, there might be a future focus on how war might be presented as a modernizer, a clean force that swept away restrictive traditions. Oh well done trade unions for allowing dilution of labour and unskilled workers back then – what a lesson for today! Oh well done war for giving women the vote!  Oh well done women war workers for striking a blow for equality! So much more effective than the direct action of pre-war! (Carefully ignoring the fact that only women over 30 with property gained the vote; those canaries and phossy-jaws didn’t get the vote until 1928. Carefully forgetting that in that war fought for democracy, only 60% of men had the vote between 1914 and 1918 – but, then again, it was ‘For King and Country’ after all.)

Future historians might also take a cue from ‘Theatres of Memory’ and how the late 20thcentury saw an academic debate about the nature of ‘historical empathy’. These historians might well look at the debate that rages between the WW1 schools of historians: the patriots versus the war poets camp, as it were; they might look at the photographic and documentary sources and begin to think, ‘What do we really know about how the average Tommy felt during the conflict?’ They might well go down that old school route of ‘differentiated historical empathy’; there was not only a wide difference between soldiers but the feelings of the average soldier might well vary according to time and place on the front line.

Then again, looking at presentations of the Centenary, historians might focus upon the unintended deceit of calling it the Centenary of World War One. It should be, of course, strictly speaking, the Centenary of the Great War. And does that matter in any way apart from pedantry? Yes, I think it does: soldiers and munition workers thought they were fighting for a war to end all wars, not for a series of strategic mistakes that would lead to Fascism and the whole bloody thing all over again.

In conclusion, speaking as a 1951 war baby, whose father and grand-father both saw action of a combined nine years, what can I contribute personally to WW1 Theatres of Memory? Too much to write about, but how can I forget my gran poking at the sparks in the soot in the chimney, singing ‘Old soldiers never die, they only fade away’? How can I forget the music hall singsongs that we all had at Christmastide? And that is my final point: when recreating the WW1 past and its centenary, let’s not forget performance: ‘Oh! It’s a Lovely War!’ You don’t need an official formal occasion; get the songs (I shall be posting them up before long) and have a right old singsong – that will provide some good old ‘differentiated historical empathy’ and a right old barrowful of narratives.

Live and Let Live: the 1914 Truce in Context

The 1914 Truce in Context

It wasn’t, in fact, a bolt from the blue,
Instead the 1914 Truce was part of a pattern,
That both preceded that Christmas and continued beyond:
There were ‘cushy’ sectors, involving ‘laissez-faire’,
‘Rest and let rest’, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’,
‘Mutual obligation element’,
‘Tacit truces’, ‘mutual understanding’,
‘Compromise, and be mighty glad to be alive’,
Running along the British front line on the Western Front.

There were respected rituals during the day:
Breakfast bacon and ration party truces,
When as Ian Hay wrote in 1915:
‘It would be child’s play to shell …ration wagons
and water carts…but on the whole there is silence…
if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations…
he will prevent you from drawing yours.’

In addition, both sides faced General Winter:
A German officer commented in 1914:
‘Friend and foe alike go to fetch straw from the same rick
to protect them from the cold and rain and to have some sort of bedding
to lie on – and never a shot is fired.’

Sometimes, defused rifle grenades were tossed into trenches,
Containing messages, sometimes weather truces
Led to salutations, conversations and jokes,
(‘”Waiter!”… fifty Fritzes stuck their heads up…”Coming Sir.” ’);
Sometimes, a deliberate policy of positive inertia
Was recognized and reciprocated,
Sometimes night patrols would studiously avoid each other.

Weaponry, even when used, could also send messages:
Rifle and machine gun fire might be aimed too high,
Hand bombing led to a signaled, invitational
And deliberate misplacing of explosives:
‘their trenches…no more than ten or fifteen yards from ours…
was a good insurance against strafing on either side.
The mildest exchange of hand grenades or bombs…
Would have made life intolerable.’

Heavy artillery took a different line:
Here messages were sent by the fact that often,
The same spot would be shelled at exactly the same time each day:
‘Twelve little Willies at noon to the tick,
Got our heads down, and go them down quick,
Peaceful and calm was the rest of the day,
Nobody hurt and nothing to say.’

‘Nobody hurt and nothing to say’:
I have compiled this prose-poem from ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System’, by Tony Ashworth (Macmillan, 1980); his conclusion is that:
‘Altogether it does not seem unreasonable to assert that live and let live occurred in about one-third of all trench tours made by all divisions within the BEF. Such was the scale of this undertone of trench warfare.’
This ignored and forgotten history is something to talk about in centenary year.

Live and Let Live

When you’ve been out ‘ere as long as I ‘ave,
You get to know the ropes and have a laugh,
Keep’ yer ‘ead down aint enough for Fritz,
You’ve got to show you can live and let live.
When Fritz has his breakfast, let ‘im be,
Then he’ll let you ‘ave your bacon an’ yer tea,
But if you shells ‘im when ‘e’s having grub,
He’ll pay ya double back and there’s the rub,
An’ when yer out at night lookin’ for straw,
If you sees Fritz then give ‘im some, and more,
Then he’ll do the same and ease yer bed,
Instead of aimin’ for yer ‘ead.
An’ when it rains and raids is off,
Send Fritz a joke and make ‘im laugh,
And when he fires and aims too high,
You shoot ‘im back but in the sky.
Live and let live, that’s our way,
That way we live another day.
“Eh? What’s that? My best memory?
Of this whole long ruddy war?
It aint the medals. It aint the glory.
It was No Man’s Land. That first Christmas.
In the snow. Playing Fritz at football.”

Christmas 1914

Christmas
1914

There was, of course, more than one football match
In the long line of unofficial truces
That stretched all along the front in Flanders;
Indeed, the matches themselves were a sort of climax,
Punctuating the peace that started before Christmas
With shared burying of the dead in No Man’s Land,
And that lasted in some areas until the early spring.

But on Christmas Eve, Christmas trees appeared,
Glowing in the gathering Tannenbaum twilight:
‘Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches’;
Miracle of miracles, the rain stopped,
A full moon stepped across the cloudless sky,
A hoar frost shimmered in the starlight,
Boots crunched on mud now stiff as duckboards.

Soldiers moved as if in a trance or dream,
Climbing out of their trenches, milling around,
Swopping bodies, kodaks, insignia, Schnapps, beer,
Tobacco, jam, stew and addresses;
Saxons laughed at Scots, blue beneath their kilts,
Over at frozen, peaceful, Ploegsteert Wood,
Then caps were dropped on the ground for goalposts.

Kurt Zehmisch, 134th Saxons, wrote in his diary:
‘Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love managed to bring mortal enemies together for a time… I told them we didn’t want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas either. They agreed.’
So there they were, dodging shell holes, fox holes,
Barbed wire, ditches, turnips and cabbages,
Some roasting a pig together, chasing hares,
Feasting further on plum pudding and wurst,
In what Sergeant-Major Frank Nadin called
‘A rare old jollification, which included football.’

His comrade in the Cheshires, Ernie Williams said:
‘The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where, but it came from their side… They made up some goals and one fellow went in goal and then it was just a general kickabout. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part…Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was no sort of ill-will between us…There was no referee, and no score, no tally at all.’
So fraternization continued, with singing and smoking,
Tea and cocoa, until darkness descended,
When as Private Mullard of the Rifle Brigade said:
‘Just after midnight you could hear, away on the right, the plonk-plonk of the bullets as they hit the ground, and we knew the game had started again.’

And so the dream ended, the nightmare restarted,
No more ‘Wotcha cock, ow’s London?’
Nor, ‘Are you the Warwickshires?
Any Brummagem lads there?
I have a wife and 5 children there.’
No more: ‘ we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’.’
No more ‘Dearest Dorothy, Just a line from the trenches on Xmas Eve – a topping night with not much firing going on & both sides singng.’
No more ‘Friede auf der Erde’, ‘Peace on Earth’,
No more headlines like ‘TOMMY’S TRUCE BETWEEN THE TRENCHES’.

Instead, a boast of sharing cigars
‘with the best shot in the German army…but I know where his loophole is now and mean to down him tomorrow.’
Instead, the German Londoner who shouted:
‘Today we have peace. Tomorrow you fight for your country;
I fight for mine. Good Luck.’

Instead, ‘ I do not wish to hurt you
But [Bang!] I feel I must.
It is a Christian virtue
To lay you in the dust.
Zip, that bullet got you
You’re really better dead.
I’m sorry that I shot you-
Pray, let me hold your head.’

WHATEVER NEXT?

WHATEVER NEXT?

Men who a few short months before the slaughter
Had voted Socialist and internationalist,
And who had struck for higher wages
Against their respective employers,
Be they German or British Capital or sometimes both,
Were now once more united in common purpose,
And on a sort of shared common land,
For Fritz and Tommy met in No Man’s Land,
And briefly shared a deepened understanding
Of how nationhood had hoodwinked them,
And destroyed lives and mutual empathy;
Not for them the esoteric knowledge
Of British shell manufacturers paying
Royalties on enemy patents,
As Capital respected Capital;
Instead, Christmas trees and fags and beer,
Frost-breath football, schnapps and cigars
Silhouetted against a setting blood-red sun.
And who cares about the one remembered score line?
Who cares if Germany won the Flanders friendly?
For there is a deeper question to ask:
“What if they had played again the next day?”
And then the day after that as well,
And what if they had played mixed sides,
Just like their respective aristocracies and Capital,
Dispensing with birthplace
 as the sole criterion for selection.
Whatever next?

What if the playing of the People’s Game
Had continued beyond that Christmas time?
What on earth would have ensued?
Well, I suggest to you that none of the following
Would have occurred in fact and in name:
The Battle of the Somme; Verdun; Passchendaele;
The Bolshevik Revolution; The Russian Civil War;
The Wall Street Crash; the Great Depression;
Stalin; Hitler; Fascism; World War Two;
Nuclear weapons; the Cold War;
Remembrance Day and the British Legion.
There might just have been a series of socialist revolutions,
A peaceful redrawing of the map and classes of Europe,
With an early end to European Empires and racial theories,
But with a new respect for the wonders of our planet.

Think about it.
And remember the People’s Game.

When War broke out, the British public cried
“We’ll be in Berlin by Christmas.” But
By Christmas hundreds of thousands had died,
As Mons, The Marne, Ypres and Messines cut
Down the youth of Europe, while Flanders’ flood
Drowned dying, dead and alive. Summer’s dream

Was swamped by winter’s mud, rats, death and blood
In No Man’s Land; a hell hole night mare scene
Of barbed wire, flares, shells, screams and shrapnel
(A choreographed commonality
That saw each side’s men attack, flail and fall
In ceaseless dance of death’s banality)
,
Until, at Christmas, nineteen fourteen, when
Hamburg, Berlin, London and Manchester
Said “No!” to the killing fields’ mad mayhem
Ordered by Kaiser, Flag, Map and Officer,
And met instead in friendship, walking tall
And slow, comrades in war’s adversities,
They embraced in No Man’s Land and Football
Harmonised nations’ animosities;
And what if the playing of the Peoples’ Game
Had continued beyond that Christmas time?
What on earth would have happened next?
Well, I suggest to you that none of the following
Would have occurred –
The Battle of the Somme; Verdun;
The Bolshevik Revolution; The Russian Civil War; Stalin; Hitler; Fascism; World War Two; nuclear weapons; the Cold War; Remembrance Day;
Think about it.
And play the Peoples’ Game this Christmas.

The Christmas Truce

 

 When war broke out, the British public cried,
‘We’ll be in Berlin by Christmas’,
But by Christmas thousands had died,
As Mons, the Marne, Ypres and Messines cut
Down the youth of Europe, while Flanders floods
Drowned dying, dead and alive.
Summer’s dream was swamped by winter’s mud,
Rats, lice, death and blood
In No Man’s Land; a hell hole nightmare scene
Of jagged wire, flares, shells, screams and shrapnel,
(A choreographed commonality,
That saw each side’s men attack, flail and fall
In ceaseless dance of Death’s banality),
Until Christmas Eve 1914,
When Hamburg, Berlin, London, Manchester
Said ‘No!’ to the killing fields’ mad mayhem,
Ordered by King, Flag, Map and Kaiser,
And met instead in friendship. Walking tall
And slow, comrades in war’s adversities,
They embraced in No Man’s Land and football
Harmonised nations’ animosities:
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht.

Regiments from which Battalions Truced and Fraternised Christmas 1914

Devonshire, Surrey, Manchester, Cheshire, Norfolk, Seaforth Highlanders,
Royal Warwickshire, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Hampshire,
Rifle Brigade, Somerset Light Infantry, London Rifle Brigade, East Lancashire,
Lancashire Fusiliers, Field Ambulance, Royal Field Artillery, Monmouthshire,
Essex, Royal Garrison Artillery, Royal Welch Fusiliers, Leicestershire,
Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), Leinster,
London (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), Royal Fusiliers, Staffordshire,
The Buffs (East Kent), Queen’s (Royal West Surrey), Royal Scots, Wiltshire,
Bedfordshire, Yorkshire, Border, Gordon Highlanders, Northumberland Hussars,
Royal Engineers, Royal Horse Artillery, London (Kensington), Northamptonshire,
Irish Rifles, Garhwal Rifles.
17th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, Saxon Corps: 134th Infantry Regiment,
133rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Regiment, 104th Infantry Regiment,
139th Infantry Regiment, 107th Infantry Regiment, 179th Infantry Regiment;
Westphalian Corps: 55th Infantry Regiment, 15th Infantry Regiment,158th Infantry Regiment,
11th Infantry Regiment, 16th Infantry Regiment

Remembrance Day Walks

Now let’s have a look at some other Remembrance walks and pilgrimages that we could make. I think an amble to a local church is a good idea – apart from a war memorial, one often discovers Commonwealth War Graves and also Great War family graves and tombstones. These family memorials, in some ways, are even more melancholic and mournful than the official Commonwealth War Graves. They seem to catch the mossy, dripping, atmosphere of Remembrance-Tide and the shared despair of the final line of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth – “And each slow dusk the drawing down of blinds.”
I visit Rodborough Church Yard: there are a number of Commonwealth War Graves scattered about but the family tombstones and memorials are in the higher part of the churchyard. It was a dismal, dank, October day when I visited and I had trouble deciphering the words on the Apperly memorial. I’ll do that next time I visit. When you wander through the churchyard, you will see family memorials and tombstones with commemorations for : William Henry Stephen Winn, Killed in Action, 1917, aged 24; Lance Corporal F. Critchley Cordwell, killed Ypres, 1917, interred at Dickebusch Military Cemetery – “Into the field of battle He bravely took his place And fought and died for England And the honour of his race.”; Samuel Huntley Powell, killed in action, France, aged 25, March 25th 1918, Pro Patria Mori; Alfred H. (Eddie) Spencer, killed in France, December 1917, aged 20; Private William R. Carter, August 22nd 1917, aged 33; the broken cross for  the Bennett  family commemorates Captain Theodore John Bennett, Indian Army, “who fell in Palestine”, September 7th 1918 (the base of the cross has the famous Rupert Brooke lines: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England”) and Harold Stanley Bennett 2nd Lieutenant RCA “called to rest” April 25th 1915.
The war graves themselves, of course, do not express family heart-felt loss, but they still a tale that stirs the reader’s heart.  You will find the following names and implicit stories: Private RMLI HC Nicholls, Royal Naval Division, 15th October 1918; Private L Phipps, Gloucestershire Regiment, 26th January 1916; Private WL Allen, Gloucestershire Regiment, 23rd December 1917, aged 21; Private W Stevens, Gloucestershire Regimen, 26th December 1918, age 23; Private R Bick, Gloucestershire Regiment, 7th April 1915; FA Bartlett, Chief Petty Officer, RN, HMS “Vernon”, 28th August, aged 49. After making a few notes, I entered the Church and bought a jar of marmalade for Church funds; I then studied the memorial tablets for WW1 and WW2, placed on opposite walls. Rodborough  Church and Churchyard is well worth a visit.
If you want to make a pilgrimage, rather than take a walk, however, then let’s go to Framilode and also to Brimscombe, in the footsteps of Ivor Gurney. The more obviously atmospheric trip is down by the river, but the trip to Brimscombe might be a more demanding one for any empathetic reconstruction, and therefore equally enriching. We’ll start with the river, however: the Severn Way is an obvious pilgrimage-route; you can park by St. Peter’s Church, Upper Framilode, but before heading downstream, walk back to find the lock-keeper’s cottage ( Lock House, near where the Stroudwater Canal and the River Severn clasped hands). This is where Gurney kept his boat and where he and Will Harvey enjoyed so many happy hours. Now walk until you find a good vantage point for gazing downstream, so as to lose your mind, as it were, in the view and river-scape. (“When I saw Framilode first she was a blowy Severn tidy place under azure sky…Adventure stirring the blood like thunder, With the never forgotten soft beauty of the Frome, One evening when elver-lights made the river like a stall-road to see”.) Will went missing on a reconnaissance mission in no man’s land in 1916, and a distraught Gurney, thinking his boyhood friend dead (he was, in fact, captured), wrote “To His Love” ( Harvey had become engaged to a nurse, Sarah Ann Kane). It might be right to declaim this whilst staring downstream.
“He’s gone, and all our plans Are useless indeed, We’ll walk no more on Cotswold Where the sheep feed Quietly and take no heed.     His body that was so quick Is not as you Knew it, on Severn river  Under the blue  Driving our small boat through.    You would not know him now…  But still he died  Nobly, so cover him  With violets of pride  Purple from Severn side.  Cover him, cover him soon!  And with thick-set Masses of memoried flowers – Hide that red wet Thing I must somehow forget.”
If you buy or borrow a copy of Eleanor M. Rawling’s book “Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Exploring Poetry and Place”, then you can follow this walk in much more detail. She comments: “Walking the Severn Way, at the present time, along this very stretch of river, it is possible to experience the sights and sounds of the river very much as it was in the early twentieth century, and to imagine the white sail of the little boat and the glorious feeling of freedom this must have given Gurney.” Standing at The Pridings, you could recite a few lines from “Near Midsummer”:
“Severn’s most fair today! See what a tide of blue She pours, and flecked away With gold, and what a crew Of seagulls snowy white Float around her to delight Villagers, travellers, A brown thick flood is hers In winter…Low meadows flooding deep With torrents from the steep…Blue June has altered all – The river makes its fall With murmurous still sound, Past Priding’s faery ground, And steep-down Newham cliff…”
Then when you return, perhaps the following might be appropriate, from “On Somme”, linking as it does, the Severn with the Somme:
“Suddenly into the still air burst thudding
And thudding and cold fear possessed me all,
On the grey slopes there, where Winter in sullen brooding
Hung between height and depth of the ugly fall
Of Heaven to earth; and the thudding was illness own.
But still a hope I kept that were we there going over
I, in the line, I should not fail, but take recover
From others courage, and not as coward be known.
No flame we saw, the noise and the dread alone
Was battle to us; men were enduring there such
And such things, in wire tangled, to shatters blown.
Courage kept, but ready to vanish at first touch.
Fear, but just held. Poets were luckier once
In the hot fray swallowed and some magnificence.”
A hard act to follow, but we will, with a nocturnal stroll on the spring line above Brimscombe. Choose a clear, starry night and feel the presence of Ivor Gurney , for he made a similar night-walk , pausing to take in Brimscombe.
“One lucky hour in middle of my tiredness
I came under the pines of the sheer steep
And saw the stars like steady candles gleam
Above and through; Brimscombe wrapped (past life) in sleep!
Such body weariness and ugliness
Had gone before, such tiredness to come on me —
This perfect moment had such pure clemency
That it my memory has all coloured since,
Forgetting the blackness and pain so driven hence.
And the naked uplands even from bramble free.
That ringed-in hour of pines, stars, and dark eminence.
(The thing we looked for in our fear of France).”
Another pilgrimage one might make to link the Great War and Gloucestershire lies beyond the Five Valleys but is do-able by public transport. I used the train to Gloucester and the bus to and back from Dymock for some Edward Thomas reverie. I went in late October and the water table was quite high in the red clay fields near the River Leadon; the Poets’ Path I took – number 2 of 2 Poets’ Paths; there is also a Daffodil Way walk too – was well marked but ran into impenetrable stinging nettles when skirting a field of sweet corn. I know that Rodborough Tabernacle members used to bike out to Dymock for the daffodils at Easter donkey’s years ago, and I think that Easter might be the best time to visit Dymock – especially as Edward Thomas was killed at Arras on Easter Monday 1917. By the way, there is a little bit of old England in St. Mary’s Church, right by the ‘bus stop and the Beauchamp Arms, with a beautiful display about the Georgian Poets; don’t miss that.
I trudged through the quagmire for an hour or two (the Paths are 10 miles and 8 miles long), but the weather was unprepossessing and so I returned to the church when confronted by the nettles. Mist shrouded the Malverns and May Hill: the sun-dial at the church denoted no time, the aspens were still and the smithy long silent. Even so, it was impossible to be unreflective and uninspired. It was here, after all, that Thomas moved from prose to poetry and where Robert Frost’s company led Thomas to enlist. He joined up on the day that my mother was born and for that reason I have always felt a bond with him. My mother was named Nancy Mary Lorraine “In honour of our gallant French allies”; she was born on July 14th 1915, Bastille Day.
Edward Thomas’ poem, “For These”, explains his reasons for enlisting:
An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:
A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:
A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook’s bend, or at least a pond:
For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of Fate.

I sat down on the bench in front of the church, remembered giving mum a framed
copy of the poem for her birthday one year, ate my cheese and chutney sandwich,
then penned a few lines on the back of my walking guide. The excellent Friends
of the Dymock Poets’ website has these walking guides for free.

Dymock, October 24th, 2012
I drew up there in Dymock,
Unwontedly,
(On the 132 bus to Ledbury)
The ‘bus stopped,
I coughed and got off,
No-one else did.
I came for EdwardThomas,
And also Robert Frost,
But there are two Poets’ Paths in Dymock,
Diverging in a yellow, autumn wood.
I take the one more travelled,
The one that leads to France,
The one that leads straight
To the last lines of a war diary,
“Where any turn may lead to Heaven
Or any corner may hide Hell
Roads shining like river up hill after rain.”

W.H. Davies, later to live at Nailsworth, and earlier befriended by Thomas, wrote an elegy for him. Here is the last stanza:

“But thou, my friend, art lying dead,
War: with its hell-born childishness
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well
And never left it once before.”
The last walk I made during Remembrance-Tide was along Tinkley Lane, from Forest Green to Nympsfield. The road can be busy at times; it is also muddy, puddle-pockmarked and narrow. The views are wonderful, however. At times, it feels as though one is in the Yorkshire Wolds: high up in big sky country, but with the Severn to the west, and the Downs above Swindon, on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border, to the east. Forest Green were at home on the day I chose; it was quite busy when I returned from Nympsfield. Green Union Jacks, a band playing, a football ground along a street named “Another Way” – I’ll have to go sometime. The ‘bus to Stroud (46/93) runs every thirty minutes, but, to be honest, it’s not really a walk I would recommend. Whereas “Another Way” might be an example of nominative determinism, Tinkley Lane is lane in name only. Busy Thoroughfare might be a better description. Why not get the number 35 that runs Monday to Friday and goes to Nympsfield?
The war memorial has a plaque with an inscription that reveals why it is worth visiting: see below. After making my notes, I had lemonade in the Rose and Crown, a walk around the Roman Catholic Church, and then wandered over to the village football pitch for a think. Whilst pondering, the local team arrived to change and run out for a kick-about before the start of the match. This coincidence of time and space serendipitously and subsequently determined my writing.
The war memorial stands at the cross-roads, right by the road-side, and is attached to the old chapel house. The plaque stands below Christ on a crucifix, with an octagonal base and the names of the fallen. It states:
“THIS CRUCIFIX SHOT AND BROKEN WAS FOUND ON THE BATTLEFIELD OF BEUGNY ON THE SOMME 1917.THE MEN AND WOMEN OF NYMPHSFIELD HAVE SET IT UP IN THEIR MIDST TO REMIND THEM OF GOD’S MERCIES DURING THE GREAT WAR & TO BEG HIS BLESSING ON THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. HE WAS WOUNDED FOR OUR TRANSGRESSIONS HE WAS BRUISED FOR OUR INIQUITIES.”

 

Haiku for Nympsfield War Memorial
As I write these lines,
The young men of the village
Arrive for the match.

Nympsfield village,
Catholic sanctuary,
High-up on the wolds.

And at the cross-roads,
A sentinel-crucifix
Honouring the dead.

This cross, once shattered,
Lying in some forlorn hope,
Out in No Man’s Land.

Brought here from the Somme,
Repaired and resurrected,
Life and Death conjoined.

Last gasp on a fag,
Then it’s out over the top,
Ref blows the whistle.

The laughter of youth,
Innocent carefree minutes –
Who would think of war?

Just as once before,
Those memorialised names
Played, too, in the sun.

Radical Remembrance Walks

 

The Guardian used the phrase “cultural tyranny” recently to describe the atmosphere surrounding media expectations about the wearing of poppies. The editorial wondered if a poppy week might be a way of concentrating minds and hearts. We all recognise that attitudes vary towards the poppy in the buttonhole: I wear one to remember my dad and grand-dad; some wear them in recognition of current conflicts; some do not wish to wear one and some wear a white poppy. It is easy to forget that the renewed intensity surrounding Remembrance is of recent provenance.
Whatever our motivations, I am sure we are all united in our despair at the carnage of WW1. How can we forget Harry Patch describing war as “legalised murder”? So in that spirit, I include the final line of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, “And each slow dusk the drawing down of blinds”, for our own mobilisation and entrance to the front line. This image seems to capture the heart break of war; the atmosphere of a dismal November afternoon; the empty evenings and empty spaces; even the foreshadowing of the arrival of  the telegram announcing the news of Owen’s own death, on Armistice Day.
So with thanks to Chas Townley for his book “Lest Ye Forget” and with thanks to Eleanor M. Rawling for her “Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Exploring Poetry and Place”, both of which I heartily recommend, I will try to suggest some walks and/or pilgrimages to suit all tastes this and every Remembrance-tide. The first thing to say that there are a lot of moving war memorials in the area – no wonder; for here are the numbers of dead listed in Chas’ book, taken from the pages of “The Stroud District and its part in The Great War, 1914-1919”, published by The Stroud News, in the aftermath of the ending of that conflict. (This is from a quick count – I may have made inadvertent mistakes.)
AVENING: 35 BISLEY-with-LYPIATT, EASTCOMBE and OAKRIDGE: 52 BRIMSCOMBE: 34
CAINSCROSS: 52  CHALFORD, FRANCE LYNCH, BUSSAGE and BROWNSHILL: 65
EASTINGTON: 21  EDGE: 6 FROCESTER: 5  HORSLEY: 39  KING STANLEY: 24
LEONARD STANLEY: 15  MINCHINHAMPTON: 45  MISERDEN: 14 NAILSWORTH: 43
PAINSWICK: 43  PITCHCOMBE: 12  RANDWICK: 13 RODBOROUGH: 45
SELSLEY: 14 STONEHOUSE: 52  STROUD: 249  SLAD: 16
THRUPP: 31  UPLANDS: 25 WHITESHILL: 36  WOODCHESTER: 25.
So, it would be easy to arrange walks, bike rides and pilgrimages to these memorials: a moving and memorable thing to do.
There are other places to visit too – Chas writes, in his introduction, that “More or less every Gloucestershire village  and town is marked by war memorials listing the fallen and it is easy to forget the many more practical projects undertaken to remember their sacrifice.” Here are these “practical projects” that one could visit:  the 1919 extension to Stroud Hospital, the “Peace Memorial Wing”; “Victory Park” at Cainscross;  “for the wealthy a public park, as at Park Gardens in Stroud”, says Chas and “ For the less well off, perhaps a bench or donation”.
Betty Merrett wrote of the “Parks and Gardens of Stroud” in the Stroud Local History Society’s Millennium Booklet: “Park Gardens was another gift to the town. Sidney Park was a local businessman and councillor. Parks Drapery prominently occupied the corner of King Street and George Street where the HSBC bank now stands. The family lived in a flat over the shop. Their only son, Herbert, was killed in France in 1917 in WW1 aged 23, and in 1920 Councillor Park gave a tract of land off Slad Road as a garden memorial to his son and all who fell during the 1914-18 war. The town’s cenotaph stands in the garden.” Now I return to Chas and his section on Oakridge: “Oakridge’s war memorial was a water supply and drinking fountain – a reminder that in the villages we did not have mains water for many years to come.” He also mentions the font at Minchinhampton church; the Eagle Lectern at Leonard Stanley church; the Wayside Cross at Woodchester Priory and, tells us a great deal more about the Oakridge War Memorial. This is worth knowing. It could mean a pilgrimage.
The Oakridge site commemorates the only woman to be named on a memorial in the area: Mabel Dearmer. She went to serve in Serbia as a hospital orderly; she died within three months from enteric fever, but left these comment for posterity:  “This war will not bring peace – no war will bring peace – only love and mercy and terrific virtues such as loving one’s enemy can bring a terrific thing like peace.” Her editor reflected on the tragedy of her end in a similar vein: “It is easy to go into danger when convinced that your country’s cause is righteous; she thought that for all countries war was unrighteous, yet she went.” Her husband served as a chaplain with the Red Cross; one son died at Gallipoli; one son survived the war. The Oakridge Memorial – a practical commemoration – brought the village a water supply from a nearby spring. These are the words on the Dearmer Inscription plate at Oakridge:
“In memory of MABEL DEARMER
who went from Oakridge the place she loved best
to give help in Serbia where she died of fever
at Kragujevatz on July 11th aged 43, and of
CHRISTOPHER DEARMER
Who died of wounds at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli
On October 6th 1915 aged 21
Proud of the war all glorious went the son.
Loathing the war all mournful went the mother.
Each had the same wage when the day was done.
Tell me was either braver than the other.

 

They slept in mire who went so comely ever
Then when you wash let the thought of them abide.
They knew the parching thirst of wounds and fever.
Here when you drink remember them who died.
Chas writes: “In a town that is divided
by values and visions of war and peace;
where the wearing of a poppy (for
some red for some white) is seen by some
not as an act of  Charity and Love
but as acts of personal controversy,
 something needs to be done to build
bridges…Couldn’t we all at least unite at
 Percy Dearmer’s  Water Fountain to
remember those  who laid down
 their lives  in our service?”
THESE OAKRIDGE MEN
ALSO GAVE THEIR LIVES
E. Blackwell  M. Blackwell  A. Curtis W.M. Curtis  A. Fern  W. Fern P. Gardiner  S. Gardiner
P. Hill W. Hunt  W.G. Hunt R.T. Gardiner  A. Robbins A. Rowles  A. Smith  T. White H. White A. Young E. Young  F. Young E. Weare
In GRATEFUL MEMORY OF
George Edward Ivor Fry PTE. RAMC
James Frederick Fry SGT. NAV. RAF
Albert Hunt PTE. RAOC
Stanley Henry Morgan GNR. R.A.
R.C.Baker Stallard-Penoyre LT. R.N. (A)
Arthur Phipps GNR. R.A.
James Edward Young PTE. R. NORF. REG.
WHO FELL IN THE WAR OF 1939-45
INTO THY HAND O LORD

 

 A Remembrance Walk to Oakridge and back to Stroud October 17th 2012

 

I caught the number 54 Cotswold Green bus,
On a russet-warm, apple-autumn day,
To Frampton Mansell Church,
In the 1920s footsteps of my dad,
Who lived here in a Great War Nissan hut;
His de-mob dad, seeking work,
 My dad, playing conkers on his way toschool,
Or watching the trains on the viaduct,
 Justas I do today in his memory.

 

Iwalked on down past the giant retaining wall,
 Underthe railway and across the canal,
 To climb the hill past streams, brooks, rills and springs,
To reach Oakridge Lynch War Memorial:
Thereare so many corners of foreign fields,
 That are for ever England,
In word, dust, deed, blood, ash and bone,
But here, on Oakridge village green,
Is a cruciform water- trough,
Fed by a spring that is for ever England,
That roams through wild flowers,
Breathing English air,
Bless’d by the sun on its way to the Severn,
A heart of peace, under an English heaven,
Giving back thoughts of England given.

 

I read the inscriptions and then sat back on the green,
Chatting to a woman gathering flowers,
Who told me that during the Tewkesbury floods,
When piped water became polluted,
Oakridge village used the springs once more;
Another woman told me of the war graves in the churchyard,
Recently and lovingly cleaned and pristine-restored;
She pointed out my footpath to Eastcombe:
“Go past the old toll house.”

 

I walked past more springs,
Then the site of a Roman villa,
Thenmore springs and some tumuli,
 Beforerain made me dispense with map and specs,
 Tofollow my nose and ask for directions instead:
 “Aimfor the waterfall”,
 “Contour Mackhouse woods and aim south for Stroud”.

 

I walked past black-spot sycamore leaves,
Blood-red rowan and spiked-steel hawthorn,
Thunder crackling above like guns across the Channel,
Hailstones ricocheting like shrapnel;
My path was blocked by fallen trees,
Prickled barbed wire stars of holly,
Puddles like forlorn foxholes,
And a succession of map-marked Spouts,
Until I left No-Man’s Land.

 

I ambled along spring-line Thrupp Lane,
Then down the canal to the Lock-Keeper’s,
Where on an opposite wall,
A new piece of graffiti has appeared,
A Banksy-like badger’s face,
 With a bullet in its blood-red eye.
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”