One of my most peaceful and haunting memories, albeit somewhat distant now, is that of visiting the Somme battlefields with school. I was a lot younger and I would usually assume slightly less able to grasp the full gravity of what I was seeing or sensing; but it doesn’t feel that way. For the entire weekend my thoughts and feelings seemed crystalline, and certain glimpses and moments have been preserved just so while the intermittent sections have been swept into the general bank of secondary school girlish memory. What I saw, what I was supposed to see, whatever I needed to see has remained with me.
I wish I could be nearer the time again to draw on more detail to describe to you the sense of floating that possessed me all weekend. I walked with ghosts, I trod on ghosts, and all of them strangely peaceful. One distinct moment is walking side by side with a friend around the edge of the most enormous crater whose name, Lochnagar, I shall never forget, feeling gusts of wind tug at pieces of my body, already spaced out enough, pulling me further apart as I watched the cascade of flowers that tumbled into its centre. Every field around us was bright yellow with rape seed flowers, it felt like a long dead volcano, like something the countryside of France had grown and nurtured itself, rather than reluctantly embraced after years of painful memorial. Nothing inside me could or can comprehend an explosion of that size, nothing in my imagination will come close.
The days have blurred, the timeline is out of order, but the little fragments are still sharp as ever. I can see a wide, low white tree, propped up forlornly now by some kindly man-made poles, swooping gracefully in all directions and shading the delicate ground at it’s feet. I remember it standing at the bottom of a long sombre walk toward Thiepval Memorial, a way marker, I also remember that it was ancient- it had survived the war perhaps? Although I’m not sure how or why. Thereafter followed more hours spent with timeless ghosts. Thiepval is an oddly happy place, it’s peaceful; people of all ages are searching for names they recognise, searching alone, searching together. Some people are merely counting names out of interest. It was sunny when I went and the white stone of the vast columns glowed and grew warm in the heat. I felt a sense of connection from running my fingers across as many names as I could, I said some names aloud and wondered who they were and how far from home they were. Inside Thiepval, for you certainly feel like you’re right inside it although it has no walls, is very sheltered; it seems to know its mind.
The trenches are less pleasant a memory. I walked under and over ground through several miles of trenches, saw ex-offices and messengers’ tunnels; we poked our heads over the top and saw how close the enemy lines were. It all feels so arbitrary- if you can’t smell or hear or taste anything close to what it must have been like then what can you feel? A damp sense of detachment and inadequacy. I remember being shocked at the size, so small that it felt like toy town compared with the vast scale on which films have portrayed war. It didn’t feel like there was room for glory here, it was a tiny, muddy rut in the ground in which one had to crouch to hide; nothing secure or sheltering here. We walked over the top of one trench. I remember a feeling of vertigo, looking down as our historian/guide described to us how the gradient of the hill pulled soldiers downwards into machine gun fire. I remember one fact: 7000 soldiers came all the way from Canada, they had marched for weeks just to get to this particular trench, and they were all mowed down on one day. I don’t remember anything from the bottom of the hill, but the fear of falling pushed down on me as I stood at the top.
Lastly I remember the graveyards- the unthinkably vast planes of white pebbles. The German graves are black crosses, there are very few sites with these and they often have four or five bodies in one grave. Or at least they have four or five names on one cross. The white pebbles are large of course, and smooth. In most graveyards there is a gentle rise and fall of curving stones; it reminds me of the seaside. Each name I tried to say again, names close to my age, many more closer to my age now, obscurely faceless people who I felt like I wanted to apologise to. I still say a little apology every time I hold a remembrance. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been but the peace rolls over you in waves, your feet pick up a gentle rhythm as they glide along the rows without really hitting any solid ground. It’s like being cushioned and I can think of few other times I’ve felt so far from reality. Memorial is far from war- as far as I am from those soldiers really- but I try to bring myself a step closer.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”