Books Missing of the Somme

 

Geoff Dyer’s 1994 The Missing of the Somme, published in the United States in 2011, takes us on a wide-ranging and sometimes high cerebral look at the artifacts of WW I, or The Great War as it is often called.  Twenty years before this, the centenary year of the war’s beginning, Dyer uses several road trips through the enormous battle-field graveyards of north-eastern France as the backbone of his own mental tour of ” the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation’.

An interesting and thought provoking tour it is, though not in the way a casual reader might have expected.  It’s a tour but not a Cook’s Tour of monuments and accounts of the battles they represent, nothing so pedestrian as that.   Ranging over poems, novels, language,  photographs, memorials, cemeteries, statues, he looks at how these expressions of the memory of war become memory again, memories of memories as it were. Along with that he gives us history and critique of sculpting; of the fault line between the image of individual heroics in previous wars and that of  massed men in industrialized war in this; of compassion shown in battle and the blood thirstiness of bowler and bonnet wearing citizens; he has descriptions of the utter silence, London-wide,  on Armistice Day in the first years after the war — “a silence which was almost pain” — contrasted to the aweless remarks recently written in visitor books at the great cemeteries.   He is curious about much and often piques ours.  He is not solemn. The war, for all he looks at it reflected in memory, is a long way away.

Sometimes from the balloon of his observations we see strange creatures drifting by:

Even while it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered’;

or

‘the war seems, to us, to have been fought less over territory than the way it would be remembered.”

Sometimes, when reporting his travels to the great battlefield cemeteries with friends, he comes close to flippancy, indulging in what we might call “over sharing” of personal details of no importance and distracting from the subject matter at hand.

Not perhaps why we came to the book in the first place, though intriguing and worth puzzling through.

Iconic photo by Ernest Brooks: On 22 August 1917 at Pilkem Ridge near Ypres

Iconic photo by Ernest Brooks: On 22 August 1917 at Pilkem Ridge near Ypres

Born in 1958 Dyer is too young to have any memory of that war himself, though in England he grew up with family stories and in the vicinity of multiple hundreds of statues, obelisks, name lists and other memorials. And herein lies a problem.  No one today who looks at the statues, visit the graveyards, reads the poems of Sassoon and Owens, or the novels by Barbusse, Graves or Remarque,  has a memory of the war   — even though standard use of English makes it seems as though we do — commemoration, memorial, remembrance and memory all having more than a common root in language but a living, shared mental sense.  Dyer himself reveals this false memory  when he says “I too wonder if the memory of the war will perish with the generation after mine.” His generation has no memory of the war.  What it does have are ideas and attitudes about it, and likely war in general, which are extracted from, and then hung on, these same memorials.

What interests me when I seek out and read books about war, is how those who experience war –in its wrenching sorrow and, for some, transcendent exaltation– think of it, remember it and represent it.  I want to know who are the authors or sponsors of war memorials and what do they intend? If memorials are memory and emotion turned to stone, earth and text, how are they intended to be read?  And how, in fact, do we read them?  Is it as intended?  Or, shaped in our later river of time, might it be in different,  even in contrary ways?

In Chamyo, New Mexico is a stone sculpture of the Virgin Mary, which at the time of its creation was called La Conquistadora (The Conqueror,) which even if it meant ‘of your heart’ clearly held the echo of the Spaniards who had taken the New World by fire and sword, enslavement and disease.  Times have changed, and so it is now referred to as Our Lady of Peace.  In Austin, Texas — and many places through out the South– are memorials in praise of  Confederate Generals.   I read the statues, and the praise, considerably differently than many who are still aggrieved by their memories of the memories of the memories of those who erected the statues.

Dyer doesn’t have my interest in intention and result, though I thought he might.  So in reading The Missing of the Somme, I was continually distracted not only by the way he laid aside one essai to go on to another, then come back again, pursuing ideas and pinning them down in spontaneous order, like the butterfly collection he opens the essay with, but with the pull to understand what seems so important to me: how are wars remembered, in public ways, and how are those memories absorbed by those who come after?

*

About the cemeteries in France we learn

  • that decisions were made in the British Parliament that the dead would not be repatriated, but left where they had fallen, or had been buried –to the great distress of some;
  • that the form of the memorial was a matter of national debate and one which started before the end of the war;
  • that against the wishes of some a shift was made from earlier uses of allegory in statuary to “simplicity of statement’ so that “the gazer can see at once that the matter recorded is great and significant, and desires to know more’;
  • that in part this decision was driven by ‘the facts in the ground,’ so to speak; in many of the battlefields it was not possible to find and identify individual remains and so they were converted to seas of undifferentiated white crosses, no distinctions between officers and men… a  statement of ‘equality in death;”
  • that this was the first war in which the war dead had cemeteries of their own, instead of each man being returned to a family plot.

All interesting stuff, but this is not a meditation on the great graveyards and what they meant or now mean. In fact it is surprising to me how little meditative sense rises in him:

“… it is difficult to say what feelings the memorial evokes. Not pity, not pride, not sadness even.”

He gives us the numbers, which for this reader at least, add to the long-held sense of impossible sorrow.

By 1934, in the département of the Somme alone, 150,000 British and Commonwealth dead had been buried in 242 cemeteries. In total 918 cemeteries were built on the Western Front with 580,000 named and 180,000 unidentified graves.

Yet he does not pause here, or share his emotions.   For me, even in photographs, the sheer size alone takes me to places of awe-full thought. The tens of tens of thousands he drives past do not seem to find a spring from the aquifer of compassion.

Because of who he is and where he comes from there are moments of confusion for an American reader, in my case half a generation older than his.  His use of the first person plural is often misleading.  It is not ‘we’ the readers he is making assertions about, it is ‘we,’ this, British generation, and I would add, ‘this British generation of the very well educated.’ So that, for example, his claim that “it has since become impossible to see the war except through the words of Owen and Sassoon,” is true, but only for a small cadre of people, his people.  I can guarantee that my parents, more interested in the D-Day memorials in northern France than in those of the Somme, had no Owenish spectacles at all when they toured the WW I graves.  None. Though they may have stopped, stunned, longer than he. I can show him tens of Internet sites devoted to the war whose authors do not view it so.

From his opening view of cemeteries he moves to fiction, and in one book, men in battle talking about how they would be remembered.  Drawing on Henri Barbusse’s 1916 “Under Fire” (in its 1917 English translation) he raises the question, one central to his own driving question:

‘How will they regard this slaughter, they who’ll live after us … How will they regard these exploits which even we who perform them don’t know whether one should compare them with those of Plutarch’s and Corneille’s heroes or with those of hooligans and apaches.’ ‡

Citing the words engraved on many monuments “Lest we forget” he asks, appropriately,  forget what?  And moves us to Siegfried Sassoon, [who it turns out, had early admired Barbusse’s novel] a much decorated officer who was concerned about exactly that — what are we to remember, and forget?  Sacrifice, heroism, valor?

Sassoon, was a one man wrecking ball to such ideas.  Never forget, may have been his plea as well, but it was of another reality

Do you remember the rats; and the stench of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench – And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Dyer knows his literature, and his art.  For many readers, there will be much to be mined.  He creates his own images from the photographs, joining those of men marching off to war to those, after the war, of men marching past London’s Cenotaph,  commemorating the dead.

These two images are really simply two segments of a single picture of the long march through the war. There is a single column of men, so long that by the time those at the back are marching off from the recruiting stations, heading to trains , those at the front — the dead — are marching past the Cenotaph.

In another “Dyerism”  he suggests,

The public wanted a permanent version of the Cenotaph to record — to hold — the silence that was gathered within it and which, thereafter, would emanate from it.

I’m not so sure that’s what the public, had it been queried,  wanted. But that is my point: what do people want, or appreciate, in such monuments both when they are first raised ( and how do we know that?) but more relevant to us, what do they come to represent to later generations? What values were they ‘talking points’ for?  Do those values have the same place in the hierarchy now as then?  Have some value judgments even been upended?  Has what was represented as Sacrifice come to represent Waste. What did Sacrifice mean even then? Were such representations a compromise so as to stave off the sinking feeling of utter nothingness?

It is interesting that Dyer did not identify any specifically war-sorrow, peace-prayer sculpture that is visible in England and France,   in Gentioux-Pigerolles for example where the orphan, below the list of the dead, is pointing to the inscription ‘Maudite soit la guerre’ (Cursed be war).  Nothing of the grieving widow with two small children in the small town of Équeurdreville-Hainnevill. Nothing of Kathe Kollwitz in Germany.

 

The Grieving Parents, a memorial to Kollwitz's son Peter, now in Vladslo German war cemetery.

The Grieving Parents, a memorial to Kathe Kollwitz’s son Peter, now in Vladslo German war cemetery.

 

Some of what Dyer sees and says will seem odd, far removed from the war he is considering, coming from the far dialects of academia, as when he turns to the idea of ‘mediation.’

The authenticity [of the letters] derives from exactly the process of temporal mediation they have, as letters, to disclaim.

or in his wishing for a tradition that did not emerge:

“a wounded realism, a sculpture rooted in a figurative tradition but maimed by modernism; a memorial sculpture which is both rent asunder and held together buy the historical experience it seeks to express

As he leads us from memorial to photograph, from poem to novel, we are treated to unexpected and idea-stirring observations –that, for example “courage would increasingly consist of endurance rather than gallantry,” that, “since [gas]could not be evaded, resisted or fled from, it eliminated the possibility not only of bravery but of cowardice, the dark backing which heroism, traditionally, had depended on to make itself visible.”

That the world had had “the colour bombed out of it. Sepia, the colour of mud, emerged as the dominant tone of the war,” strikes me as an apt sense of what the photographs convey to us.

Nowhere else have I seen something so obvious, once seen, so smartly unhidden, that the war was a continuation of laboring for most of the men: “the battlefield was a vast open-air factory where hours were long, unions not permitted and safety standards routinely flouted. It thereby combined the worst aspects of agricultural labour and industrial shiftwork.”

I wish he had stopped and thought more about this: “Perhaps the real heroes of 1914-18, then, are those who refused to obey and to fight, who actively rejected the passivity forced upon them by the war, who reasserted their right not to suffer, not to have things done to them.”

But I have to ask myself repeatedly — what are we doing here? Or, what is he doing?  Do we have something more than an interesting cache of ideas?  Early in the book,  quoting Christopher Isherwood, he told us that he wanted  “to write a book that was not about the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation.” Has he done this?

For me, not.

I’m glad to be reminded that Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night is saturated with his experience of the war years, to hear of Timothy Findely’s 1977 The Wars, which I had missed. I’m glad for a lot in reading the book.  I do not, however, have a coherent picture of the shaping force of war imagery on his generation. What effect, if any, did it have on Tony Blair, for example, who blithely ordered British support of George Bush’s war in Iraq?

I wonder what, if anything, might have changed for Dyer in this year, 100 years after the beginning, if his balloon of observation might have come down a little closer to the ground, to the events that produced the terrible suffering from which these memorials and graveyards came.  I wonder if he would feel a sense of loss and sorrow now, transmitted from the sea of crosses, or again, as he did at the end of his book, only a sense of peace?

Cemetery Redan Ridge Number One: 154 soldiers lie here, 73 unidentified. As I look through the book, the sun makes the pages glow the same colour as the Great War Stone.

The sun is going down on one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have never felt so peaceful . I would be happy never to leave.