The heavens opened as we stood under the Menin Gate, listening to an out-of-tune choir singing something from "West Side Story" as we prepared for the start of the nightly wreath-laying ceremony. Our arms were aching from the effort of holding a somewhat elaborate wreath of fresh flowers as we awaited our turn to walk up the marble steps, now slippery with rain. "Don't forget to bow," I muttered to Cynthia Greenwood, my colleague from the committee of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
The annual Western Front Association Poetry Tour, led by Clive Harris and Vivien Whelpton, has become a treat that I now look forward to every July. Even my husband, not a poetry fan, joined in again willingly this year after his somewhat half-hearted involvement in 2013. Clearly we are not alone, as a hardy core of individuals has now formed out of the disparate group that embarked on the Somme trip the year before last. Several of these are, like myself, SSF members, and this year we were privileged to lay our own wreath alongside the WFA wreath at the Menin Gate in Ypres (or, more correctly, Ieper, though people usually stare at me if I pronounce it the Flemish way).
The uniqueness of this tour is the combination of great literature and its historical and military context, leading to an enhanced appreciation of both aspects of the First World War. The poetry enthusiasts have got to know the military history enthusiasts and it has not been difficult to find common ground. I don't think I would seriously have considered joining the WFA had it not been for the experience. Perhaps, to someone who is more interested in strategy and tactics, the idea of standing at a war memorial, in a cemetery or at the roadside, in unpredictable weather, listening to an obscure poem being read out loud by an amateur sounds like sheer hell. Yet those who have come along mainly to hear Clive's ever-lively explanations of what it was like to fight on the Western Front seem to enjoy the readings, whilst those of us who have come for the poetry always go away with new insights into what caused it to be written.
The Ypres Salient has become a byword for danger, since, to paraphrase one of the many Great War veterans Clive knew, a salient is a place where "they can shoot at you from the front, from the sides and up your backside". It was, however, a revelation to me that the reason we associate Passchendaele with mud is that the British artillery had learned lessons from the experience of the Somme campaign and had been much more effective in their onslaught. What they had failed to take into account was the difficulties the bombardment caused for their own infantry, attempting to advance over ground completely broken up by shell-fire. But who could have anticipated such an unprecedented quantity of rainfall at that time of year?
Clive Harris manages somehow to tread the fine line between over- and understatement of the case for the generals, without belittling the experience of the fighting man or condemning the war poets as unrepresentative. Vivien Whelpton achieves the same feat, selecting apposite and interesting reading material for inclusion, complete with maps and explanations, in a booklet that becomes a keepsake to be dipped into for many years to come. In addition, this year, we were lucky enough to have Phil Carradice present to offer some additional insights into the life and death of Hedd Wyn, and Bill Aikman to talk about Canadian involvement; this was particularly appropriate in view of the contribution of John Macrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" to both the mythology and the memory of the war. Visiting the disused dressing station at Essex Farm made us particularly aware of the daunting task faced by Macrae and other members of the medical teams working at the Front.
War cemeteries in the control of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, despite the uniformity that ensures equality of treatment for all victims, are each unique, so that, even when you can't recall the name of a particular one, you can usually remember whether you've been there before. These, and the war memorials that often stand close by, bring home the human tragedy of the war without the need for words. Words can, however, help to assuage the sense of loss, and reading poetry is an opportunity for the less creative among us to give voice to our private feelings on visiting such places as the Breton Memorial and the Gas Cross at Boezinge, and the "Brooding Soldier" at Vancouver Corner.
Opinions varied on the effectiveness of the new displays at the "In Flanders Fields" Museum in the Cloth Hall at Ypres (practically demolished by wartime bombardment but now restored to all its former glory), but we have to bear in mind that the exhibition has been planned to evolve in the course of the coming four years of centenary commemorations. We were welcomed by friendly curator Piet Chielens (himself an accomplished writer and translator) and our old friend Jack Sturiano, a Vietnam veteran and stalwart of the SSF, who lives locally, volunteers at the museum, and always has his own slant on Great War literature. Jack was particularly useful in helping us find the best cafés and chocolate shops in town!
Nevertheless, most of the group agreed that the visit that really stood out was our call at the small private museum at Pond Farm, where Stijn Butaye has been collecting memorabilia from his father's fields for many years. Even more impressive than his collection is his practical knowledge; he has made a real effort to find out the full story behind every artefact. Forget the piles of manure, the horsefly-bites and my soft landing (on top of my husband) when I slipped while visiting the concrete bunker in the cattle field; it was all worth while in the cause of improved knowledge. Belgian farmers face the hazard of unexploded shells and hidden gas deposits every day of their lives, and a few mud stains on my trousers are insignificant by comparison.
Article contributed by Deb Fisher, Secretary, Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship
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