Courage, mon amie

Terry Castle

You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.

Hamlet, I.iii.101-2

A year ago this past autumn – a year before the old life so shockingly blew away – I made a long-contemplated trip to France and Belgium to see the cemeteries of the First World War. My quest, though transatlantic, was a modest, conventional and somewhat anorakish one: I hoped to locate the grave of my great-uncle, Rifleman Lewis Newton Braddock, 1st/17th (County of London) Battalion (Poplar and Stepney Rifles), the London Regiment, who had died in the war and was buried near Amiens. Facts about him are scarce. My grandmother, whose only brother he was, has been dead now for twenty years. No one else who knew him is still alive. By stringing together odd comments from family members I’ve learned that he worked as a greengrocer’s boy in Derby before joining up in 1915; that he served first in the Sherwood Foresters; that he managed to survive three years before getting killed during the final German retreat in June 1918. My mother, born eight years after his death, claims to have heard as a child that he was shot accidentally – ‘by his own guns’. But my uncle Neil, her only brother, can’t believe ‘they would have told the family that.’ Newton was said to be artistic: two dusty little green-grey daubs – both of them Derbyshire landscapes – are among his surviving effects. There are two photographs of him in uniform – one from the beginning of the war, the other from the end. In the first he looks pale, spindly and rather stupid: a poorly-fed, late Victorian adolescent overfond of self-abuse. In the second, the one with the moustache, he is stouter, tougher, dreamier, and looks distressingly like both my mother and my cousin Toby. My companion Blakey says he looks like me. I don’t see it. I’ve been fascinated by him – and the Great War – since I first heard of him, at the age of six or so. I’m now 48.

Somebody should write about women obsessed with the First World War. Everybody knows Pat Barker, of course, but there’s also Lyn Macdonald – a former BBC producer whose dense, addictive, exhaustively researched oral histories of the war (1914: The Days of Hope, 1915: The Death of Innocence, Somme, They Called It Passchendaele, The Roses of No Man’s Land, To the Last Man: Spring 1918) are a fairly devastating moral education for the reader. And once you begin to delve, as I have done, into the netherworld of popular military history – battlefield guides, memorial volumes, regimental histories, military-souvenir websites – it is peculiar how many lady archivists you encounter. Some of these, it’s true, are part of husband and wife teams: the prolific Valmai Holt, for example, author, with her husband, of My Boy Jack? The Search for Kipling’s Only Son (1998). (John Kipling died in his first half-hour in action – at the age of 18 – at Loos in 1915. Though his stricken father carried on a 20-year search for his grave, his remains were not found until 1992.) When not writing, the Holts run a sprightly operation known as Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Tour Company. ‘Their Battlefield Guide to the Somme and Battlefield Guide to Ypres,’ reads one cheery promotional blurb, ‘have brought these areas to life for tens of thousands of people.’

Other female obsessives work in austere isolation. The late Rose E.B. Coombs MBE, former Special Collections Officer at the Imperial War Museum, is the author of Before Endeavours Fade: A Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War (1976 and 1994). Miss Coombs’s bleak volume, illustrated with her own amateur snaps, is a necrophile’s delight: photograph after photograph, in tiny, eye-straining black and white, of crosses, graves, plaques, inscriptions, bombed-out block-houses converted into monuments, decaying trench relics, dank rows of cypresses, grassed-over mine and shell craters, obscene-looking barrows, and yet more crosses and graves. Some of the photos show boxy 1970s cars parked in the background – a peculiarly depressing sight – and anonymous male tourists with period comb-overs and long sideburns. I bought my second-hand copy through the mail from a military book dealer in Dorset and its once-glossy pages reek of must and damp.

My own war fixation is equally grim and spinsterish; its roots primal and puzzling. My first awareness of the Great War came, quite literally, with the crack-up of my parents’ marriage. They had emigrated from England to California in the early 1950s and divorced ten years later, in 1961. (I was born in San Diego in 1953.) It was a bit of a mess – my mother had been having an affair with a lieutenant in the Navy – and in the convoluted aftermath my irascible grandfather, a former buyer for the Co-op in St Albans, prevailed on her, the Extremely Guilty Party, to come back to England and rehabilitate herself in some respectable, out of the way spot. My baby sister and I were bundled onto a plane at 4 a.m., me sobbing dolefully at the break-up of my little world. Gone into transatlantic blackness – for ever, it seemed – my cowboy hat and Mickey Mouse books, the pixie-cutted members of my Brownie troop, our blue and white Rambler, and the sunny back patio where my father had, in happier days, filmed me in vivid Kodachrome disporting in a plastic blow-up pool.

Our first few months in England were spent in my grandparents’ little brick bungalow, at the foot of Caesar’s Camp, near Folkestone. (Their house and lane have since disappeared – razed to make way for the stark, moonscaped run-up to the Channel Tunnel.) It was in those lonely, quiet days – the clock ticking on the mantel-piece, the adults discoursing in another room – that I first examined my great-uncle’s bronze memorial disc, which stood on a bookshelf next to my grandmother’s Crown Derby. It was six inches across, heavyish, and the same greeny-gold colour as a three-penny bit, a piece of coinage with which I had recently become acquainted. I was immediately charmed by its glint, its inscriptions, its palpable seriousness. It seemed to have survived – like a dense, tooth-breaking wafer – from some unknown time and place. I asked my mother, only slightly babyishly, to ask my grandmother if I could have it – for my new collection of oddments, begun when our plane had stopped in Iceland for refuelling and my mother bought me a ceramic puffin from the tiny airport gift shop. This request – received with embarrassed laughter – was not granted.

The following three years in England, a stagnant time characterised mainly by my mother’s depression and sexual loneliness, deepened my war curiosity without clarifying it. We moved to our own little bungalow in nearby Sandgate, at the top of a rise just below the Shorncliffe Army Camp. There were several new things here. I saw my first person without a leg, an old man with a horrible stump in Sandgate High Street, and though I never mentioned him to anyone, I was terrified for months we would run into him again. The village had its own little grime-blackened war memorial – standard vintage and style – and an air of lugubrious decay unlike anything I had encountered before. The grey waves of the Channel flopped endlessly and drearily on the shingle beach that ran alongside the High Street. This blighted strand, impossible to walk on in bare feet, bore no resemblance to the palm-studded sands of infancy and toddlerhood. I fixated on orange-flavoured Aero bars as a means of survival.

My primary school, Sir John Moore’s, was part of the Shorncliffe Camp. I have no recollection of the sun shining during my sojourn there. Each day I walked to school and back past deserted, dusky parade-grounds – the occasional ghostly soldier in puttees looming up out of the mist. Except for a few barracks and the redbrick officer quarters, all dating from Napoleonic days, the place seemed largely uninhabited. Once in a while an Army lorry lumbered up Artillery Road: my first suicidal fantasy had to do with flinging myself under one in the presence of my horrified parents, now strangely reunited, as if by magic carpet, to witness the act. This, I know, makes it all sound bad: but Sir John Moore’s wasn’t really so awful – our teacher once took us out to make bark rubbings – and I soon developed a powerful aesthetic attraction to the various uniforms I saw, the officers’ peaked caps and regimental insignia especially.

But when I dream of the place – and sometimes I still do – my brain usually fixes on the baleful rituals of Armistice Day. Nothing was explained. Who, or what, was an armastiss? It was never made very clear. Nonetheless schoolmates and I were duly instructed to bring cut flowers from home – the bottoms of the stems to be moistened with a wrapper of wet tissues in aluminium foil. My mother obliged – I’m not sure how, given that nothing very posy-like grew in the leftover building rubble around our house. And intriguing, too, the break in schoolday routine. At half-past ten we mustered in the playground by the toilets – no talking, straight lines, wipe your noses please – then set off through the Camp. We passed by Sir John Moore’s pokey little museum, the Folkestone bus stop and the abandoned cinema. We trundled across playing fields, skirted stinging nettles, rounded unknown corners, then ascended a rolling procession of new-old Kentish hills: hills that must have been quite close by, but, uncannily, never seemed to exist except on that particular day. At the top of these, the sky suddenly lifting, an astonishing vista broke out before us: greensward and chalk and Lear-like white cliffs, the cold massy sea and lofting gulls, the distant line of France, and everywhere, like some vibrant, disturbing retinal trick, hundreds of identical graves, sweeping down in rows to the cliff edge, as far as the eye could see.

We stayed near the top, of course, our teacher deploying us in little ranks till each of us ended up with our own white marker to stand in front of. The grave at one’s feet at once prompted animistic dread. Were you supposed to stand right on the spot under which the dead person lay? Could he feel your presence through the grass? If so, it was creepy, possibly even foolhardy, to be there. Might he not, late at night, get up from his grave, glide down Artillery Road, and seek you out? Southern California, a place entirely lacking in cemeteries, offered no precedents. The scariest thing back there had been a Time-Life book of my father’s with a picture of a grim, tiny-eyed shark, jaws open wide in prehistoric eagerness. This was far worse: a ghastly corpse-face at the bedroom window! The tattered rendition of the Last Post, by a pair of insect-buglers on the hill opposite, didn’t help. A prayer was said; the bouquets deposited; the tremors persisted. I had yet to see any Night of the Living Dead movies at this point; but when I did, back in San Diego a few years later, alone in the cheerless TV ‘den’ of the house my father now shared with his new wife and stepdaughters (the same place I was sitting when I saw Oswald get shot), I realised I already knew all about them.

All very sad and picturesque (poor little female-Terence!); but enough to explain a forty-year Craving for More? For just such a craving – acquisitive, pedantic and obscurely guilt-inducing – is what I ended up with. Not all at once, of course: like most obsessions, this one took a while to get going. In my twenties, as a literature student, I read and acquired the obvious classics: Graves, Owen, Sassoon, Remarque, Barbusse, Brittain, Fussell. But I had lots of other fads and hobbies going too: opera, Baroque painting, Kurosawa films, the Titanic, the Romanovs, trashy lesbian novels. Sometimes my preoccupations overlapped: I became fascinated, for example, with the long World War One sequence in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. I read up on butch lady ambulance-drivers at the Western Front. But the world had not yet retracted to a grey, dugout-sized, lobe-gripping monomania.

Then, starting in my thirties, things seemed to intensify. I was in England teaching in my university’s overseas programme in 1989, as it happened, on the 75th anniversary of the start of the war. (An item on the news one evening, showing tottery, beribboned veterans saluting at the Menin Gate, reduced me to sudden tears.) I began absorbing ever more specialised fare: Macdonald’s books, Taylor and Tuchman on the political background, battle histories of Gallipoli, Verdun and Passchendaele, books about Haig and Kitchener, VAD nurses, brave dead subalterns and monocled mutineers. I read Michael Hurd’s desolating biography – The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney – on the train to Edinburgh, the city where the nerve-wracked composer, on his way to insanity and death, was hospitalised after being gassed in 1917. I stared at the few surviving pictures of him: the one in a private’s tunic (2nd/5th Gloucesters); the one where he’s standing, in ill-fitting civvies, alone and blank and looking down at the grass, in the grounds of his asylum in 1922.

And more and more I began investigating the filthy minutiae of 1914-18 trench warfare. John Keegan, the Face of Battle man, was my trench guru. I read all his books. I became an armchair expert on Lewis guns and enfilade fire, shrapnel and mortars, wiring parties, trench raids and listening-posts, the tricky timing of the creeping barrage. I pondered the layout of dugouts and communication trenches, the proper distance between parapet and parados, the placement of machine-gun nests. (They’re always called ‘nests’.) It seemed at the time, I realised, an odd obsession for a girl. But it seemed to go along with various other un-girlish things about me: my vast bebop collection and dislike of skirts, my aversion (polite) to sleeping with men.

I remember a conversation with a famous feminist poet in the late 1980s in which I grandly pronounced it a ‘disgrace’ that so few women knew anything about military history. In an apotheosis of pomposity – and also to see if it would get her goat – I boasted about my great-uncle and proudly asserted that I could never have been a pacifist in August 1914.

Over the past ten years the folie has only become more involved. A couple of years ago I started collecting first editions of World War One books. (Latest Internet bandersnatch: a battered copy of Reginald Berkeley’s Dawn, a patriotic tear-jerker, complete with garish pictorial dust jacket, about the martyrdom of Nurse Cavell.)

I’ve got several faded trench-maps and a tiny, pocket-sized ‘Active Service Issue’ book of Psalms and Proverbs, issued by the Scripture Gift Mission and Naval and Military Bible Society in 1918. Every year, when I go to London, I load up on greasy wartime postcards in one of the memorabilia shops in Cecil Court. (‘Helping an Ambulance through the Mud’, ‘Armée Anglaise en Observation’, ‘The Destruction at Louvain, Belgium’, ‘Tommy at Home in German Dugouts!’) I’ve got a whole shelf on war artists: C.R.W. Nevinson, Paul Nash, William Roberts, Wyndham Lewis, and the skullishly named Muirhead Bone. I’ve got books about Fabian Ware and the founding of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I’ve a 1920 Blue Guide to Belgium and the Western Front and a Michelin Somme guide from 1922 – both published for the so-called ‘pilgrims’, the aged, widowed and dead-brothered, who flooded France and Flanders after the war seeking the graves of the lost. I have scratchy recordings of ‘Pack up Your Troubles’ and ‘The Roses of Picardy’; a tape of a (supposed) German bombardment; and yet another of a Cockney BEF veteran describing, rather self-consciously, the retreat from Mons. I have videos and documentaries: Renoir’s Grande Illusion, Wellman’s Wings, Bertrand Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But, and a haunting excerpt from Abel Gance’s famous anti-war film J’Accuse. And then, too, there are all my mood-setting ‘highbrow’ CDs – the songs of Gerald Finzi, Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Gurney, Ernest Farrar. (The baritone Stephen Varcoe is unsurpassed in this repertoire.) I have but to hear the dark opening bars of Finzi’s ‘Only a Man Harrowing Clods’ to dissolve in sticky war nostalgia and an engorged, unseemly longing for things unseen.

Yet something about my fixation has always bewildered me, as it indubitably has those friends and bedmates forced to enthuse over grimy mementos and The Latest Facts. (Thanks to a troll around at www.fallenheroes.co.uk I recently discovered, for example, that Shorncliffe Camp was a major Great War jumping-off point – notably for the Canadian units who went on to fight, with appalling losses, at Vimy Ridge in 1917. The soldiers in the cemetery were mostly men who had died of wounds or sickness in nearby military hospitals after returning from the Front. But a few graves hold other kinds of casualties: a small group of Belgian refugees, a single Portuguese soldier, several members of the Chinese Labour Corps, some civilian victims of a daylight air-raid on Folkestone on 25 May 1917, in which 95 people were killed and 195 injured.)[1] I guess an obsession is defined, crudely enough, by the fact that one doesn’t understand it. Even as it besets, its determinants remain opaque. (The word ‘obsession’, interestingly, is originally a military term: in Latin, it signified a siege action, the tactical forerunner of trench warfare.) The obsessions of others embarrass and repel because they seem to dehumanise: to make the obsessed one robotic and alien and unavailable. It’s like watching an autistic child humming or scratching or banging on a plate for hours on end.

I suppose it was some desire to get free of a certain robot-feeling – in myself – that prompted my trip to France and Belgium. Not that I was planning on renouncing my books or my collections. (Nor have I.) It was more a matter of, OK, you’ve been talking about it for ever – go find him. Blakey was teaching and couldn’t go: but Bridget could, and wanted to, even though she is not from the Braddock side of the family. She turned out to be the ideal companion. She’s my first cousin, a South Londoner by way of Ipswich. Our estranged fathers are brothers. We knew each other as children – for a brief time, before my mother took us back to San Diego – but then I didn’t see her for two decades, until I looked her up one day in the London telephone book. (After my parents’ divorce I’d let all the Castle relatives go to hell.) Bridget, it turned out, had been in the Army for 11 years – in Germany and Belfast – and was now running the transport department for a London borough. She is slangy and brusque and ultra-competent – knows all about plumbing and engines and dogs – and regards me, the Prodigal Bluestocking, as a bit feckless. A couple of years ago we went down to Dungeness to see Derek Jarman’s garden and ran into a man with his wife and mother-in-law whose car had got stuck in the wet shingle. Bridget had it hitched up in a trice and dragged it free, while the man stood by looking utterly flummoxed and outdone. (‘Ex-military,’ she said, by way of explanation.) Anyway, Bridget set it all up: our Chunnel car-ticket, the package-deal hotel in Ghent, our route map. Needless to say, she drove all the way, from Herne Hill to the outskirts of Ypres, with me a slightly cranked-up presence in the passenger seat.

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[1] John Keegan on the unhappy exploits of the Portuguese army in World War One: ‘Portugal, historically Britain’s oldest ally, declared war on Germany and Austria in March 1916. It eventually sent two divisions to the Western Front, armed and equipped by the British. Put into the line at Neuve-Chapelle, in the British sector south of Ypres, they were attacked during the second great German offensive of 9 April 1918, broke and ran. Large numbers of prisoners were taken. The Portuguese, an unsophisticated and rural people, were unsuited to the strains of industrial warfare and it was unwise of the Portuguese Government to have taken sides. It would have been better advised to imitate Spain in standing apart.’ An Illustrated History of the First World War (2001).

[2] Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913-17, edited by Alan Bishop (Phoenix, 384 pp., £12.99, 17 August 2000, 1 84212 094 8).

[3] Like Sarajevo, Belfast and Dallas, Compiègne would seem to be one of the strangely doom-laden minor cities in history: my 1920 Guide to Belgium and the Western Front notes that Joan of Arc was captured and turned over to the English there in 1430; Marie Antoinette, aged 15, met her future husband the Dauphin there in 1770; and Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina were received by President Loubet at the famous nearby château in 1901.

[4] Siegfried Sassoon, in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930): ‘Markington had gloomily informed me that our [War] Aims were essentially acquisitive, what we were fighting for was the Mesopotamian Oil Wells. A jolly fine swindle it would have been for me, if I’d been killed in April for an Oil Well!’