You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
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.) 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.
I’d been hoping, obviously, that the trip might bring some new understanding: might clarify both my relationship with my dead great-uncle and my war-fixation. But no such éclaircissement took place, at least not immediately. On the contrary. Though a ‘success’ from a practical standpoint – we found Newton’s neat little grave and red geraniums on the second day – the journey seemed only to provoke more disorientation. As Bridget gamely motored us from one memorial to the next, the freezing rain walloping down on the windscreen (‘Hooge Crater is just up here’), I found myself less and less able to grasp what I was doing there. I felt misty, numb, a bit ghoulish. I was the Big Girl-Expert – an Unusual and Fascinating Person Now at Last Visiting the Western Front. (She’s slept with more women than her father has!) But I felt increasingly disgusted with myself. I started thinking that probably a lot of people I knew didn’t really like me, were only pretending to.
The nadir came on the second day. We’d spent the first day in and around Ypres – visiting Tyne Cot and neighbouring cemeteries, moping around the In Flanders Fields museum. Ypres itself is a huge bummer, fake and nasty and foul, with machine-cut cobblestones and dead-eyed people everywhere. Numerous renovations were going on, presumably to make the spot more of a ‘target’ destination for EC tourists. (Though it’s already been flattened and rebuilt more times than anyone can count.) We found a Great War souvenir shop, run by a surly Falklands vet, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything: not even one of the dull gold cap-badges or orphaned tunic buttons. That night we retreated in a downpour to our Ibis in Ghent Zentrum – the only good news being the charred steak and frites we gobbled down in a place near the cathedral. The hotel was filled with paunchy Benelux businessmen who took one look and didn’t bother giving us the eye; the bedroom was cramped and small, with two narrow beds about a foot apart. I got horribly self-conscious at having to undress in front of Bridget, and started blushing. The Incest Taboo, in one of its weirder manifestations, seemed to descend thickly, like a cloud of odourless gas.
The next day we zipped south on a motorway, Moby on the CD player, huge container trucks from Holland and Germany careening by in the rain. Coffee in Albert, a quick gander in the drizzle at the French war memorial in the town square, then on to the giant Lutyens monument to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. It was mid-morning, and we were the only people there apart from a sullen group of French lycée students playing around on the steps of the thing. (They all had the same annoyed-teenager look: we’re too old to be standing about here!) The memorial itself is a massively ugly parody-arch in the middle of nowhere. You see it coming up on the horizon from miles away. (‘The majestic Memorial to the Missing,’ says Miss Coombs, ‘stands amid fields still scarred with the trench lines of the Leipzig Redoubt.’) Blakey would call it fugly. Loads of Castles among the 73,000-or-so incised names, though nobody known to us. One of them had been in the Bicycle Corps, which made us laugh because it was all so Edwardian and English and pathetic. ‘He died heroically – his bicycle shot out from under him.’ Housman could have written a poem about it.
Uncle Newton, it turned out, was not far off, halfway between Amiens and Albert, in a pretty little walled ‘extension’ cemetery at Franvillers filled mainly with Australians. The cemetery was on a small rise, presumably close to the place where he had died, and impeccably maintained. It had three or four farmhouses around it, probably built in the 1960s. I figured I was the fifth person to visit him in the eighty years since his death: the other four being my grandmother, her sister Dolly, her sister’s daughter Sue, and my uncle Neil (on his way back from the Italian Front in 1945). As Bridget and I unlatched the gate and went in, the sun came out – just like in a Jane Austen novel when the heroine is about to get proposed to. We walked around; we scrutinised the inscription on the Blomfield Cross of Sacrifice. We read the homely greeting-card messages in the memorial book. (‘Sleep well, lads!’ ‘We’ll never forget you!’ ‘Thinking of you always with love and gratitude.’ ‘Always with us.’) Bridget took a photograph of me by the grave – glum and fat and respectful – and that was that.
But even as we began winding back north towards Calais and home in the late afternoon, I suppose we were getting close to having had enough. I started to feel broody and compulsive and Urne-Buriall-ish; the sky got dark and pent again. I asked Bridget, as we drove, if she thought soldiers buried in tidy little battlefield cemeteries like my great-uncle’s occupied separate plots. True, they had their individual headstones; but might they not, in the hurry and chaos of war, have simply been piled willy-nilly into a single burial pit somewhere in the vicinity of the present markers? A mass grave, if you like. Bridget said, ‘Yes, I’m afraid so,’ and kept her handsome grey-blue eyes on the road. We both hunkered down. Then back toward Ypres we decided on one last stop: a little old-fashioned war museum which, according to the guidebook, incorporated some vestiges of front-line trench – something, for all of our perambulations, we hadn’t yet seen. We followed an ancient Roman track a mile or two across sodden beetroot fields; made several bumpy turns up a hill and into a copse; then rolled up, even as the rain started again, in the little dirt parking lot.
Dank thoughts in a dank shade. In the front of the ‘museum’ – a little cluster of dilapidated houses and sheds – was a café, deserted inside except for a couple of bloated Flemish men with wet black moustaches. Empty beer glasses. The drill here was: buy your ticket in the café; walk through the two side rooms where the ‘exhibits’ were; then out into the back garden where the bit of old trench was; then back again. The bleary-eyed proprietor, likewise with moustache, looked like that Belgian serial killer who got caught by Interpol a year or two ago. He contemplated us briefly with deep alcoholic hatred. How yoo zhay in Inghlissh? Who arrhh zeeez two fhucking dykes? The place was damp and cold and dirty – old spiked Uhlan helmets and things lined up on a shelf behind him – and smelled like hell.
The place, I learned afterward, is famously horrible. Stephen O’Shea, the wonderful Canadian writer, has a stark riff on it in Back to the Front, his extraordinary 1996 account of hitch-hiking the entire length of the Western Front. (O’Shea is another catastrophe junkie: his latest book is on the Cathars.) But Bridget and I needed no guidebook to alert us to the vibe. Down one side of the display room we proceeded, dutifully examining the fly-blown war photos on the wall. They got worse as you went along. Battlefield shots first – mudslides, craters, collapsing limbers and dead horses – then a switch to British and German wounded laid out in hospital beds. The photographer, ‘Ferdinand of Ypres’, had signed each picture in a flowery chemical script. (An early example of diversification no doubt: the Ypres carte de visite business must have fallen off dramatically when the place got pulverised in November 1914.) The last two were clearly Ferdinand’s masterpieces: tight, nauseous close-ups of men with ghastly facial injuries: jaws and mouths gone, rubbery slots for noses, an eye or an ear the only human thing left. The one other person in the room with us was a pale young man in a windbreaker, one of the Four Horsemen on his day off. He was busy taking photos of the photos and smiling delightedly.
We passed next through a kind of garage with rusty stuff piled all around – shell casings, barbed wire, rotting Sam Browne belts, a pair of ludicrous French shop-dummies, gaily attired in mismatched officers’ uniforms. Then on out to the display trenches, snaking off into the woods behind the building. These had a neat, generic, recently packed-down aspect, the corrugated iron supports looking as if they’d just come from the Lille DIY-store. Not much to see really, once you’d peered down into them or clambered in – as Bridget briefly did – so we went back in the house and down the other side of the exhibit room. Here was further war debris: ammunition boxes, ancient bully-beef tins and, jarringly, some bits of Nazi regalia and Hitler-junk. (A blotted letter to him at the Front from his grandmother.) I knew Hitler had fought – valiantly – in a Bavarian infantry regiment near the Messines Ridge, but this part of the show seemed nonetheless a mite too enthusiastic. A big dusty swastika banner – sorely in need of dry-cleaning – was draped in a corner, like a prop from the Hall of the Grail scene in Syberberg’s Postmodern Parsifal.
But they saved the best till last. Zhose ughly girls get snooquered Beeg Time! Along the far wall by the exit was a long wooden work desk with five or six seats attached – rather like a junior school science class set-up. Mounted at each seat was a beautiful old-fashioned viewing machine – a kind of antique stereopticon – made of brass and polished wood, with a double eyepiece and hand crank. It was all too exquisite and Proustian to resist. Like silent-film cameramen Bridget and I took our seats and eagerly began to crank.
Yet hellish indeed what assailed us. Trench-pix again – in lots of 20 – but now eternally fixed in a lurid, refulgent, Miltonic 3-D. Sickening and brain-twisting. A clicking, clacking kaleidoscope of atrocities. Don’t forget the vertigo. Even as I sat and stared I felt myself lurching forward: into the bright intolerable sunshine of some ruinous as usual summer day in 1917. The light itself was a somatic wedge tilting one into the past. The cerebellum went walkabout.
Granted, the light preserved in old photographs can be unnerving at the best of times. I have a picture in one of my books of Mahler and Richard Strauss stepping out into bright sunlight after a matinée of Salomé in Graz in 1906. The Old World sun glinting off the side of Mahler’s polished shoe, the sharp edge of Strauss’s boater, the geometric shadows thrown onto the wall behind them: these teleport one instantly into the scene. You start remembering what the day was like. But here the illusion of reality was fearsomely, even fiendishly intensified. The febrile glare, conjoined with the stereoscopic depth of field, equalled My God They’re Right There. A corpse with flies. A headless body upside down in the sand. Two skulls on a battlefield midden. An obscure something or other in feldgrau. I got up in disgust after seeing yet another moribund horse, its intestines spilled out and glistening.
In the weeks and months that followed, nothing made very much sense. (After a surreal shopping spree at the vast Eurostar mall outside Calais, Bridget and I got back to Herne Hill without incident.) I confess I was moody. I was on sabbatical; I should have been happy. But I maundered and malingered. On the flight home to San Francisco I stopped for the weekend in Chicago to see Blakey. She politely admired the absurd keychain I’d brought her from Flanders – a laminated reproduction of a 1914 recruiting poster. A cadre of shrewish females exhorting their unfortunate men: ‘Women of Britain Say – Go!’ (I myself had a plastic, finger-pointing Kitchener – the brave homo-warlord bristling like a 1980s Castro clone.) We took my photos of Tyne Cot and Franvillers to be developed at the Walgreens on Michigan Avenue. But then we had a big blow-up fight that evening and she rushed out of her apartment building in a rage. I had to ask the Polish doorman which way she’d gone and ran after her, gesticulating like a Keystone cop, up Lake Shore Drive.
When I got back to California friends asked about the trip. I gave brief, potted, cousin-rich recountings – sometimes I even described the stereopticon. But I felt like a bit of a sociopath, especially when one of my colleagues – an Italian – looked at me with revulsion as I related the itinerary. At the same time I became irrationally indignant when listeners seemed insufficiently captivated by my odyssey of death. In March I gave a lecture at an esteemed university where I hoped to get a job. (The people there knew that Blakey and I wanted to be together; I had been asked to apply.) The talk had to do with the war and writers of the 1920s – Wyndham Lewis, Woolf, the Sitwells. I showed slides of Claud Lovat Fraser’s sad little trench-drawings and expressed, all too dotingly, my love for them. I even mentioned (obliquely) Uncle Newton. It was not a success. The department Medusa – a steely Queer Theorist in bovver boots – decided I was ‘wedded to the aesthetic’ and needed ‘nuking’ at once. And so I was. Hopes dashed, I fell into a pompous, protracted, maudlin depression – like Mr Toad when he finds the stoats and ferrets have taken over Toad Hall. Friends kept saying: ‘But they are the ones who look bad!’ But I couldn’t get over the ghastly cruelty of it all. I felt like a bullet-ridden blob. The cemetery trip had done something to me – induced a kind of temporary insanity? – but I couldn’t get a grip on how or why. I was cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, and bound in to saucy doubts and fears.
My resolution’s plac’d, and I have nothing
Of woman in me; now from head to foot
I am marble-constant, now the fleeting
No planet is of mine.
Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.237-40
A clue to the nature of my feelings came only this past autumn, haltingly, in the wake of the attacks on the East Coast. Even in balmy California there was no escaping what had happened. Televisions – especially the silly little army of them suspended above the treadmills at the gym I belong to – became existential torture devices. No more Frasier reruns or baseball: just Peter Jennings and dirty bombs.
The boys with tattoos flexed nervously. Even the female-to-male transsexuals looked shaken. (It’s a gay gym.) I went through my own quiet days feeling gusty, shocked and forlorn. Blakey was still in Chicago. One evening I broke down and called my father for the first time in three years. He was surprised to hear from me. I mumbled that I was ‘calling to see how he was’, that I was upset by the attacks. Long, baffled pause. He allowed as he was fine. Silence, followed by clotted hmmms. He seemed to apprehend that I wanted something. I started raging inwardly. After a long silence, as if goaded by tiny jump leads, he morosely acknowledged that when he and his brother were evacuated to the North of England in 1940, he thought it was ‘the end of the world’. Two weeks later, though, he was feeling ‘somewhat better’. Glum Larkinesque half-chuckle. Now this was all unprecedented self-revelation but didn’t help much. I asked after his wife and the trombone-playing nephew. He sank back into his customary Arctic mode. I hung up, swearing as always never to call again.
I’d got off the World War One thing after the job fiasco – couldn’t bear to look at my lecture notes, had tried to put everything out of my mind. But now it came inching back. I was desperate for something to read in those disordered weeks – something to match up with the lost way I was feeling. I galloped through Ann Wroe’s book on Pontius Pilate, but it was too weird and dissociated. I ordered Kenneth Tynan’s diaries from Amazon but found I was in no mood for high camp and dominatrixes. I wanted something stolid and sad. With a sense of oh-what-the-hell, I finally picked up a book I’d bought on the trench trip and then instantly lost interest in: a new paperback edition of Vera Brittain’s Great War diary – the very diary she later transmuted into her celebrated 1933 war memoir, Testament of Youth.
Brittain was hardly an unknown quantity. I’d read Testament of Youth in my twenties and had never forgotten the intensity with which she related the primal bereavements of her early years. (I had once observed my grandmother surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes while reading it in the 1970s: her own Great War losses – of fiancé and only brother – duplicated Brittain’s exactly.) Yet I couldn’t say I had ever exactly warmed to Brittain, as either author or woman. For all the pain and horror she had suffered – and for all the integrity of her subsequent personal and political commitments – she struck me as abrasive and conceited. I tended to agree with Woolf, who, after devouring Testament of Youth, applied the usual backhanded praise in a comical diary entry from the 1930s:
I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Brittain. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in real life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, and how she lost lover and brother, and dabbled her hands in entrails, and was forever seeing the dead, and eating scraps, and sitting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly across my eyes.
And as I started in, it all began coming back to me: the headgirl self-righteousness; the smug rivalry with other women; the gruesome fascination with period bores like Mrs Humphry Ward and Olive Schreiner. (In her wartime letters to the doomed Roland Leighton – her 19-year-old fiancé – Brittain is forever comparing their poetical puppy love to that of the unfortunately named ‘Lyndall and Waldo’ in Story of an African Farm.) Nor did I find much at first to obviate my ill-humour. I’ve got big irritable underlinings, I see, at just that point, early in 1915, when Brittain, still at Somerville, contemplates enlisting as a VAD nurse:
Janet Adie came to tea to help me learn to typewrite. She is feeling very busy because she now has the secretaryship of one of those soup-kitchen affairs on her shoulders. It does not sound very strenuous occupation; these people who never had anything to do before don’t know the meaning of work . . . I was told I ought to join this & that & the other. Everyone seems to be so keen for me to give up one kind of work for another, & that less useful, but more understandable by them. The general idea seems to be that college is a kind of pleasant occupation which leads to nothing – least of all anything that might be useful when the results of war will cause even graver economic problems than the war itself. If only I can get some work at the Hospital in the summer. I wonder what they will say when they see me doing the nursing which seems to exhaust them all so utterly, & my college work as well! I always come out top in the end, & I always shall.
Yet as I continued to read, something else began coming through too – something less rebarbative. I started noticing, amid all the boasts and bitchiness and careening ressentiment, a more vulnerable side to Brittain’s personality. I hadn’t remembered – at all – what a phobic and self-critical woman she was, or indeed how deeply she had had to struggle, throughout the First World War, with what she felt to be her own pusillanimity. Now among the myriad painful feelings the attacks of 11 September had evoked in me – grief, despair, outrage – perhaps the most shame-making had been a penetrating awareness of my own cowardice. I worried incessantly about crashes, bombs, sarin gas, throat-slitting, eye-gouging, burning, jumping, falling. I brooded over horrific illnesses – anthrax, smallpox, nuclear sickness, plague – and imagined my own blood, teeming with bacteria, oozing thickly from my pores. I became afraid of bridges and tall buildings and the incendiary, blue-gold beauty of the city in which I lived. My childhood fear of flying revivified, I shed tears of self-disgust when I saw the pregnant Mrs Beamer, whose husband had died on United Flight 93, take the same flight a few weeks later, to show her resilience in the face of disaster. While straining to appear normal, I felt a vertiginous dread – of life itself – soar and frolic within me, like an evil biplane on the loose. I was not brave, it seemed, as men were – or even semi-stoical. I struggled with hysterical girlishness. It was an archaic and humiliating problem. I was female – and a wretched poltroon.
Yet signs of similar struggle – against girl-frights of such magnitude that she ‘ached’, she said, ‘for a cold heart & a passionless indifference’ – were everywhere in Vera Brittain’s journals. And perhaps because I was already alert to the theme, I found myself peculiarly affected by her testimony. I rapidly consumed the remaining diaries; reread Testament of Youth (in a single great dollop); then turned to Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge’s excellent Brittain biography of 1995. Before I knew it I was up to my ears again in Great War matériel, but this time with a difference. I was getting a weensy bit more honest. To confess in public that you are afraid of death – and violent death especially – is to break a powerful taboo. Simple people will pity you and say nothing; the sophisticated will accuse you of being insufferably bourgeois. (‘Spirited men and women’ – or so maintains the title character in Bellow’s Ravelstein – ‘were devoted to the pursuit of love. By contrast the bourgeois was dominated by fears of violent death.’) Yet precisely in Brittain’s unsentimental revelation of her fear and candid hankering after the kind of physical bravery she saw in the men she knew at the Front, I found not only a partial clue to the meaning of my war obsession, but a necessary insight into my own less admissible hopes and fears.
Brittain’s own anxieties, to be sure, were to some degree part of a difficult family inheritance. As Berry and Bostridge point out, she was a delicate woman: small and gamine in appearance, even in her starched VAD uniform. (Her brother Edward, who won a Military Cross on the first day of the Somme and died in June 1918, a few days after my uncle Newton, towers over her by at least a foot in family photographs.) And in many ways she was delicate in spirit too. Insanity ran in the family – she worried greatly as an adult about a ‘bad, bad nervous inheritance’ in the Brittain line – and she was prone all her life to irrational frights and fancies. In an unfinished autobiographical novel from the 1920s she recalls the panic produced in her as a child by the sight of a ‘leering’ full moon:
The little girl in the big armchair had gazed at it, tense with fear, till at last it grew into a face with two wicked eyes & an evilly grinning mouth. Unable to bear it any longer, she hid her face in the cushions, but only for a few moments; the moon had a dreadful fascination which impelled her, quite against her will, to look up at it again. This time the grin was wider than ever & one great eye, leering obscenely at her, suddenly closed in a tremendous & unmistakable wink. Four-year-old Virginia was not at any time remarkable in her courage . . . Flinging herself back into the chair, she burst into prolonged & piercing screams.
Similar hallucinations plagued her later in life. In one of the stranger asides in Testament of Youth, she describes a ‘horrible delusion’ she suffered after being demobilised in 1918. Returning to her studies at Somerville, traumatised and embittered by her war losses, she seemed to perceive – each time she looked at herself in the mirror – a ‘dark shadow’ on her face, suggestive of a beard. For eighteen months she was tormented by this ‘sinister fungus’ and feared she was becoming a witch. In the memoir she attributes the fantasy to the strain she was under and passes over it relatively quickly. (‘I have since been told that hallucinations and dreams and insomnia are normal symptoms of over-fatigue and excessive strain, and that, had I consulted an intelligent doctor immediately after the war, I might have been spared the exhausting battle against nervous breakdown which I waged for 18 months.’) Yet one has a sense, here and elsewhere, of a woman painfully susceptible to mental distress. Despite her subsequent achievements as journalist, public speaker and political activist – or so say Berry and Bostridge – Brittain had always ‘to fight hard for what little confidence she achieved, and even in old age the predominant impression she created among those meeting her for the first time was of a woman who seemed to be in a state of almost perpetual worry’.
But cowardice, as Brittain herself knew well, was also something more or less imprinted on women. By coddling and patronising its female members, society enforced in them a kind of physical timidity; then, with infuriating circularity, defined such timidity as effeminate and despicable. Both practically and philosophically Brittain rebelled against the linkage. In Testament of Youth she recalls, broodingly enough, the violent ‘inferiority complex’ she felt in the early days of the war with regard to her lover Roland. He had enlisted in the Norfolks and would soon have his courage ‘tested’ in the most literal way possible. Yet while fearing for his safety Brittain envied him the trial. When he admitted in a letter how proud he was to be going to the Front – it relieved him of the appearance of a ‘cowardly shirking of my obvious duty’ – she declared, with palpable chagrin, that ‘women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration.’ By ‘exhilaration’ she meant, among other things, a certain exemption from self-contempt. Women got to hand out white feathers – notoriously – but the gesture took on its odium precisely because women themselves epitomised ‘cowardly shirking’ so perfectly. They were the skulkers and moochers and tremulous babies of modern life: emasculated beings in need of protection, forbearance and forgiveness.
Everyone knows what Brittain did: made herself as manly as possible by becoming a nurse on the Western Front. (Her subsequent beard in the mirror fantasy suggests the psychic intensity of her rejection of conventional femininity.) It was as if by getting as close to the fighting as she could – within striking distance of long-range German artillery – she sought to subject herself to the same practical test of bravery imposed on Roland and her brother Edward. Her war diaries make unabashedly clear the impinging wish: to act as a man would and be emboldened thereby. ‘I had no idea she would get so thrilled as she seemed about the nursing,’ she writes in 1915 after telling her classics tutor at Somerville that she is signing up for war service; ‘she seemed to put it quite on the level of a man’s deed by agreeing with me that I ought not to put the speedy starting of my career forward as an excuse, any more than a man should against enlisting.’ Joining up was doing something ‘on a level’ with a man – facing up to fear like a soldier – and ‘all part of the hard path I have assigned myself to tread’.
Which is not to say that Brittain entirely mastered her fearfulness. During her two years of nursing she was often afraid, and sometimes abjectly so. On her way by ship to Malta – her first foreign posting – she dreaded being blown up by enemy mines. During an air-raid on Etaples during the final German advance in 1918 her teeth ‘chattered with sheer terror’. But always there to sustain her was the faith that one might be inspirited – as if by magic – simply by mimicking, as far as possible, the stoic attitudes of men. Men had a certain mana, it seemed: a native supply of aplomb and insouciance that a courage-hungry woman might draw on. Blood transfusion technology, sadly, had yet to be invented at the time of the First World War; thousands of soldiers who died from blood loss at casualty clearing stations might easily have been saved in later wars. Yet if haemoglobin could not be transfused, valour might be. By placing herself in harm’s way, or as near to it as she could get, Brittain seems to have hoped to absorb, as if by osmosis, the palpable gallantry of the men she loved and admired.
After Roland’s death in 1915 by sniper bullet near Louvencourt, Brittain immediately elevated him, talismanically, to the role of chief exemplar and courage-infuser. Since his death was less than glorious – he seems merely to have lifted his head up inopportunely while slithering on his stomach through No Man’s Land on a routine night-time patrol – Brittain’s posthumous exaltation of him depended on some ambitious mental manoeuvres. In the weeks after his death she repeatedly sought to assure herself that despite the humiliating manner of his demise he was as brave an English warrior as any Arthurian knight. ‘I had another letter tonight from Roland’s servant,’ she writes in February 1916,
giving a few more illuminating details of His death. It proves Him conclusively not to have thrown His life away recklessly or needlessly. He was hit because he was the last man to leave the dangerous area for the comparative safety of the trench, and so was at the post where the Roland we worship would always have wished to be when he met Death face to face.
‘Worship’ is the operative word. In Testament of Youth Brittain presents herself as godless and disillusioned, but it is clear from the ardent tributes to Roland in the diaries that she viewed him, for a time at least, as a sort of new Jesus Christ, whose martial self-sacrifice had made possible the ‘salvation’ of others – including her own. Almost as soon as Roland was killed, she began referring to him with a god-like ‘He’: ‘Whether it was absolutely necessary for Him to go’ – on the fatal patrol – ‘is questionable, but He would not have been He if He had not, for not only did He like to do everything Himself to make sure it was done thoroughly, but He would never allow anyone, especially an inferior, to take a risk he would not take Himself.’ She herself became ‘His’ principal devotee and disciple, the mystic practitioner of a new sort of imitatio Christi, as her entries from 1916 make clear:
Sunday, 2 January. We had more details today – fuller, more personal, more interesting, & so much sadder . . . Two sentences – one in the Colonel’s letter & one in the Chaplain’s hurt me more than anything. The Colonel says, ‘The Boy was wonderfully brave,’ and the Chaplain ‘He died at 11 p.m. after a very gallant fight.’ Yes, he would have been wonderfully brave; he would have made a gallant fight, even though unconsciously, with that marvellous vitality of his. None ever had more to live for; none could ever have wanted to live more . . . I can wish to do nothing better than to act as He has acted, right up to the end.
Monday, 31 January. There was very much of a Zeppelin scare tonight. The Hospital was in utter darkness, passages black, lamps out, blinds down. I stood at the window of my ward, feeling strangely indifferent to anything that might happen. Since He had given up all safety, I was glad to be in London, which is not safe.
Sunday, 22 October. We had a simple sermon comparing harvest with the Resurrection of the Dead, & sang the hymn ‘On the Resurrection Morning’ to end with. I don’t believe half the theology implied in these things, of course, & yet it is all a reminder. ‘I could not if I would forget’ – Roland. But I never would, since in all this hard life He is my great & sole inspiration, & if it were not for Him I should not be here.
In 1917, when Roland’s old schoolfriend Victor, blinded by a bullet at Arras, lies dying in a London hospital, she admits that one reason she can’t bear to lose him is because in his ‘accurate, clear & reverent memory of Him, Roland seems to live still’. ‘All that I ask,’ she concludes, ‘is that I may fulfil my own small weary part in this War in such a way as to be worthy of Them, who die & suffer pain.’
In the nervy state that gripped me after 11 September, such reflections struck me with new and incriminating force. Had I resisted Brittain for so long – cast her off as an important Not-Me – precisely because, deep down, I felt so much like her? I found out now, with a sudden embarrassed poignancy, precisely how much I sympathised: both with her anxiety and with the florid hope that the men she knew might infect her, so to speak, with physical courage. Not very butch of me, I know. Not very feminist. But I had to confess it: I admired and coveted – quite desperately at times – the insane, uncomplaining, relentless bravery of men.
I hear the shrieks. I write this knowing full well that some readers will find such veneration wholly charmless: part of an objectionable idealisation of war or some absurd reversion to worn-out sex roles. So let me try to be a bit more precise. It seems to have something to do, first of all, with walking. Walking, paradoxically, is one of the great leitmotifs of the First World War. (I say ‘paradoxically’ because we are so used to imagining the nightmarish stasis of the trench world – a stasis more notional, perhaps, than actual. Even in times of relative quiet the typical front-line trench was an ant-heap of comings and goings.) Under normal conditions British soldiers travelled to the battle sector by troop train; contemporary accounts of ‘going up the line’ are full of descriptions of men crammed into creaking box-cars, and the slow, juddering rides towards Abbeville or Béthune. (How often the physical imagery of the First War anticipates, diabolically, that of the Second.) But on disembarking, soldiers usually had to march – sometimes for ten or twenty miles – toward billets, reserve trenches and other staging-areas behind the lines. ‘This in fact,’ Malcolm Brown writes in Tommy Goes to War, ‘was the classic progress “up the line”: train to the railhead, after which the Tommy had to fall back on the standard means of troop-transportation in the First World War – his own feet.’ All the famous soldier-songs of the time – ‘Here We Are’, ‘Tipperary’, ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’ – were first and foremost marching songs.
The route was long, exhausting and often indelibly frightening – especially for the tyro soldier seeing warfare up close for the first time. ‘Yesterday as we were jingling over the cobbles past the danger zone,’ one subaltern quoted by Brown wrote,
sure enough, away to the right came Ponk! Ze-e-e-e-e-e-ee-E-Bang! right over our heads. Again: Ponk: Ze-e-e-e-ee-E-Bang! A little nearer. The road just there is bare of cover, but a little way along on the right was a large barn, shell-holed. I would have given quids and quids just to run to that barn: but I am in front of my column, so I merely glance up in a casual way (what an effort) as if I’d been reared on shrapnel, whereas it’s my baptism!
Another described his company being scattered by a German shell on their first march up the line near Bailleul: ‘My back and pack were struck by a shower of debris and flying dirt while quite a number of men fell and bled for their country. Jack Duncan was in front of me and he received a severe wound from this, our first shell. He was carried onto the pavement and left for the attention of the doctor.’
Getting into the front-line trench itself meant further dreadful walking: a crabbed, head-down slog along battered communication trenches or over rotting duckboards, sometimes under heavy shelling or machine-gun fire. The journey to the front lines around Ypres – invariably made at night, through pools of mud and the reamy stench of dead animals and men – was notoriously ghastly. ‘The boards,’ Leon Wolff writes in In Flanders Fields,
were covered with slime, or submerged, or shattered every few yards. The heavy laden troopers (60 lb of clothing, equipment and weapons were carried per man) kept slipping and colliding. Many toppled into shell-craters and had to be hauled out by comrades extending rifle-butts. And falling into even a shallow hole was often revolting, for the water was foul with decaying equipment, excrement, and perhaps something dead; or its surface might be covered with old, sour mustard gas. It was not uncommon for a man to vomit when being extricated from something like this.
And many fell, never to be dragged out. At Passchendaele, in the satanic months of October and November 1917, soldiers going up the line would often see the heads or hands of hapless predecessors protruding from the muck.
Animals, it seems, knew better – that such walking was intolerable. ‘In one official history,’ Wolff notes, ‘there is a picture . . . captioned “Bogged”, of a mule in a shell-hole. His hindquarters are deep in the mud; only his head and shoulders protrude. In utter despair his head rests in the mud, eyes half-closed. Many mules had panicked, had fought merely to stand on visible portions of the planking, and could be made to move only with much coaxing and punishment.’ The collapsing pack-mule is a vignette out of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey – but here gone awry and nightmarish.
The most celebrated walking of all was that of soldiers going ‘over the top’. In order to stay in sync with the barrage and each other, attacking troops were strictly enjoined not to run. Once up over the parapet and into No Man’s Land, they were required to proceed in a stylised, almost courtly fashion – one man every two yards, rifles at the port, bayonets fixed, everyone moving forward in slow and regular waves. And thus unfurled what one writer calls ‘the classic drama of the Western Front’, the solemn, pavane-like motion of men towards machine-gun fire and death:
In the flame and clamour and greasy smoke the British slogged forward deliberately, almost unhurriedly. They moved from crater to crater, but even in the craters they were not safe, for the German gunners streamed bullets against the edges of the holes and wounded many men lying near the rims. As the British walked, some seemed to pause and bow their heads; they sank carefully to their knees; they rolled over without haste and then lay quietly in the soft, almost caressing mud.
There is something beyond-uncanny in such scenes. On the first day of the Somme, defending German gunners watched in amazement as row upon row of British soldiers plodded calmly towards them, only to be cut down in swathes. For the oncoming troops, it took every ounce of courage not to break formation – even as hellfire raged, crumps exploded and ground churned up around them. For the few who survived, the dream-like walk towards enemy trenches remained ever after, in the words of one historian, ‘an intensely personal journey etched in [the] memory like the Stations of the Cross’.
As Paul Fussell long ago pointed out, the passage over No Man’s Land was indeed a Christ-like transit, a hideous stroll into the Valley of Death. Like the assault on the Somme, the Passion begins – kinaesthetically and archetypally – in heroic pedestrianism: the tedious trudge ‘up the line’ to the boneyard known as Golgotha. Jesus is the first man in history to walk unwaveringly towards his own death. And ultimate masculine fortitude – at least in the modern West – has never lost its association with this Christ-like, goal-oriented walking. It is striking how many accounts of the destruction of the World Trade Center obsessively replay the image of doomed firemen and police walking into the towers and up the fatal stairwells – with exactly the same steady, flowing motion of attacking soldiers in the Great War. In a recent Newsweek report on the last minutes of Bill Feehan, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department killed in the collapse of the North Tower, he is seen exhorting his subordinates to walk just so:
Feehan’s men – Guidetti, Goldbach and two other deputy commissioners, Tom McDonald and Tom Fitzpatrick – began rushing to the elevator. ‘Now, hold it, guys,’ said Feehan, wearing a wry smile, holding his arms to the side and waving his palms down, like a teacher calming rambunctious schoolchildren. ‘Do we really want to run to this? Or should we walk to it?’ Feehan was following an old dictum: ‘Firemen should never run.’ It was important to stay calm, to size up the job before rushing in.
Panic-stricken civilians making their way down were staggered – or so one reads again and again – by the sight of ‘firefighters loaded with gear, trudging their way up the stairs. Everyone stepped aside to let them pass, watching them in awe.’ Onward, Christian soldiers.
Cynics will no doubt want to debunk this heroic image of World War One walking: they will call attention to the fact that men who balked at the whistle – the signal for the start of the assault – faced being shot on the spot by their commanding officers. True enough. It’s also true that other frightened soldiers simply faded from the scene, only to be caught and punished later. (The Ypres museum has a sad little pamphlet for sale commemorating the 306 British troops officially tried and ‘shot at dawn’ for cowardice or desertion.) Kipling – Kipling! – has the following wrenching couplet in his Epitaphs (1919):
I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.
Yet, relatively speaking, very few men seem to have failed thus in their duty. Those who did so were usually blatantly shell-shocked or otherwise unfit. However amazing in retrospect, the vast majority of ordinary soldiers accepted the martial tasks assigned them, even when such tasks were plainly suicidal. The most moving British novel to come out of the war, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930), may be taken as a fitful, yet forceful, demonstration of this fact. The hero, a laconic private soldier named Bourne, commits himself to a night-time trench raid, though he knows it is doomed to fail. When asked by his foolish commanding officer if he has any objection to going, Bourne feels ‘something in him dilate enormously, and then contract to nothing again’, but says only that he is ‘quite ready’ to go. He goes; he dies; and the book ends.
If you’re a woman – and a woman haunted by feelings of cowardice – it’s hard to know where to stand with all of this. You regret the appalling, absurd waste of life. You excoriate the madness of the system. You rail against war. You see the savage toll the cult of heroism takes – has always taken – on men and boys. But painful too – at times exorbitantly so, once you become sensitised to it – the near-total exclusion of your own sex from such primal dramas of unflinching physical courage. You feel at a moral deficit. You wonder, perhaps dubiously, if you would be capable of such nobility under the circumstances – of moving forward calmly. You fear the worst. For Brittain was right: women have seldom been asked to exert their valour in this direct, theatrical, entirely wasteful and (yet) sublime fashion. Certainly I never have.
From early childhood I have searched with little success for a woman who might show me – in some comparable and quite literal way – how to walk towards death. Few have offered themselves as models. A psychoanalyst I know says this is because women are pre-eminently concerned with ‘life’. Children and the raising of children. They have no interest in walking towards death. Given half a chance they walk away from death. It’s ‘pure and simple biology’, the shrink says. But whence my own odd questing? Some retardation of normal development? Some sad hormonal jousting with the male of the species? Some dissatisfaction with simply staying put and waiting for things to happen? Last week I went to see the film version of Lord of the Rings – not having thought about Tolkien since I was 12. The trilogy’s a death-trip of course – a long weary trudge through mud, mines, ravaged woods and orc-infested caves. As I pondered the dire, cacophonous, corpse-laden wastelands through which Frodo and his friends are forced to travel – now digitalised and Dolby-ised and fiercely estranging (like video games and cyberterrorism) – I found myself wondering whether Tolkien had been a soldier on the Western Front. Couldn’t remember. Got home and looked him up: he fought on the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers.
True, a woman on her way to public execution in some degree resembles a soldier going over the top. As a child, I uncovered a few such women, and studied them as best I could. But a certain intimacy, kinship – even friendliness – was almost always lacking. They never felt like comrades. There was Joan of Arc, but I found her celebrated visions freakish and her personality aloof. I was not raised a Catholic, so stories of female saints and martyrs made little or no impression. I was too young for the terrible dramas of the Holocaust and Resistance. There was the aforementioned Edith Cavell – her fate, I find, is luridly described in a children’s Pageant of History book I still have on my shelves – but it would take a while before I understood her actions in context. (Calling me, not long ago, from the grotty pay-phone near the latter’s memorial at the foot of Charing Cross Road, Blakey had to endure me squeaking away, at eight thousand miles’ distance, But of course she was a spy! The Germans had every right to shoot her! She knew it! Etc.) Only now do I begin to find the high starched collar, iron-grey hair and sweeping black cape oddly alluring. No, sir, I do not require a blindfold.
The French Revolution, to be sure, offers instances of almost picturesque feminine gallantry – though it’s hardly fashionable to say so. Madame Roland was famously poised on the scaffold: she let Lamarche, a feeble old man being executed with her, go first so he would not have the sight of her own headless corpse before him as he approached the guillotine. Marie Antoinette, former cocotte, was even more so. Hounded, half-starved, white-haired and decrepit at the age of 34 – from chronic menstrual flux and the gross abuse of her jailers – the no-good Autrichienne became quite staggeringly noble in her final moments. David’s harrowing sketch of her, set down from life as she rolled by in the death-cart on her way to execution, is the unexpected emblem of a stupendous and electrifying heroism.
The French Revolution is also the setting for the only major work of art – the only one that I can think of at least – devoted profoundly and entirely to the topic of feminine courage: Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites. Based on a play by Bernanos and a novel by Gertrud von Le Fort, Die letzte am Schafott (‘The Last to the Scaffold’), the opera turns on the struggle of Soeur Blanche de l’Agonie du Christ, a novice in the Carmelite order at Compiègne, to master the dread that assails her when the sisters of the convent are arrested during the Terror. The plot has its origin in fact: Marie de l’Incarnation, a Carmelite nun who survived the Revolution, tells a similar story in her memoirs. (And how odd, the WWI freak notes, that it should all have taken place at Compiègne: British GHQ during the retreat from Mons and site of the signing of the Armistice in 1918.)When the other sisters take a vow of martyrdom, Blanche runs away and hides for several weeks at her father’s house. Mortified by her own cowardice, however, she secretly follows her fellow nuns when they are taken to Paris for execution. In the opera’s final moments, as the condemned women march to the guillotine singing the Salve Regina – a voice falling out with each ferocious slice on the cymbals – Blanche suddenly materialises from the crowd and joins in the procession. Hers is the only voice left, soaring up in triumph, when the last blade-stroke comes down and the curtain drops.
But Blanche is a bit of a pill too – a sexless high soprano and one of those blonde, seraphic goody-goodies one could never stand in primary school. Charlotte Brontë would have loathed her. And for every Blanche, it seems, there are always women like the unhappy Lange Vaubernier – better known as Madame du Barry, the one-time mistress of Louis XV. On her way to execution, according to Lamartine’s Histoire des Girondins (1847), the aging harlot flung back her veil, ‘in order that her countenance might move the people’ and ‘did not cease to invoke pity, in the most humiliating terms’. The poet, spokesman of the People, is extravagantly contemptuous:
Tears flowed incessantly from her eyes upon her bosom. Her piercing cries prevailed over the noise of the wheels and the clamour of the multitude. It seemed as if the knife struck this woman beforehand, and deprived her a thousand times of life.
‘Life! Life!’ she cried; ‘life for my repentance! – life for all my devotion to the Republic! – life for all my riches to the nation!’
The people laughed and shrugged their shoulders. They showed her, by signs, the pillow of the guillotine, upon which her charming head was about to sleep. The passage of the courtesan to the scaffold was but one lamentation. Under the knife she still wept. The Court had enervated her soul. She alone, among all the women executed, died a coward, because she died neither for opinion, for virtue, nor for love, but for vice. She dishonoured the scaffold as she had dishonoured the throne.
Poor old Lange. See yah. Wouldn’t wanna be yah.
At a certain point one just gives up and decides to go with the men. They’re so much closer to home, after all. Unless one is insane or a sex fanatic, it’s impossible to identify much with Joan of Arc or Marie Antoinette; whereas one’s estimable Uncle Newton, soft moustache and all, seems just a few decades and a Chunnel trip away. I sometimes feel I could call him up on the phone. He lives in the same world as I do – the familiar vale of sorrows, fuck-ups and relentless, chain-reaction human disasters. (How acutely one feels the 11 September violence to be, like so much else in our time, simply one of the hundreds of geopolitical aftershocks of the First World War. Palestine, after all, began its long, sad modern history in 1917, when Allenby’s Army drove off the Turks at Gaza and occupied Jerusalem.)And compelling indeed is the knowledge that I myself can now walk exactly where he walked. The worst signs of battle have long disappeared from the Western Front but the war-tourism industry battens still on the morbid hankering of visitors to stroll freely about those very places (Loos, Menin, Hooge, Stuff Trench, Polygon Wood, Vimy, Festubert, Beaumont Hamel, Gheluvelt, Neuve-Chapelle) where walking – of any sort – was once so foul and frightening. One can now wander unimpeded over spots formerly blasted by gun and shell fire; where lifting one’s head above the parapet, even by an inch, meant getting it blown off. One feels floaty and tall and invulnerable, like a ghost. You imagine getting hit all over – positively laced with bullets – but it doesn’t hurt at all.
And then, too, there’s the mana effect: the hope that by treading just so, on the very spot, some ancient family backbone will be magically imparted. (After I came back from my trip I found it oddly difficult to brush the Somme mud off my hiking shoes.) Travelling through Picardy and Flanders, it’s hard to forget that the soil itself is full of once-sentient matter, now dissolved but still in situ. We are inclined to make fun of Rupert Brooke-style animism these days, perhaps because his creepy brand of dirt-magic is still so weirdly potent:
There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
Yet it’s only a short step from Brooke’s patriotic composting to fantasies of an even more atavistic sort. Almost as soon as the first Great War cemeteries were opened to the public, sentimental grave-visitors sought to absorb the magical rigour of the dead. In The Unending Vigil (1967), his history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Philip Longworth relates a saccharine tale of a French child at Versailles – a ‘heroic little thing . . . doomed by a disease of the spine’ – who insisted on tending the graves of her ‘chers soldats anglais’ until her sickness defeated her. The punning import of the story is so obvious as to be risible: how else to ward off ‘spinelessness’ in the face of mortality? I’ve got her number, and she, undoubtedly, has mine.
So I want my great-uncle to make me brave – is that what it boils down to? To place his hand in the small of my back and give me that first shove up onto the fire-step? To start me off on my wind-up-toy-like way into No Man’s Land? That’s an answer for the moment, I suppose: but no more than that. It would be nice to be sturdier and less addled: not such a twit on wheels. It would be gratifying to impress everyone with my handsome, jut-jawed selflessness. (‘I now perceive one immense omission in my Psychology,’ William James once wrote; ‘the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated.’) Somewhere, it seems, there must be a lost baby picture of me – at my father’s perhaps? – in which I look just like Mel Gibson in Gallipoli. Glug, glug, glug!
At the same time I see how kooky and notional it all is. How can I be sure, for example, that my great-uncle even died bravely? His service record seems to have disappeared: according to the Public Record Office website, it looks to have been one of the hundreds of thousands of such records destroyed during the Blitz. Perhaps he was a puny little time-serving fellow who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My mother’s vague recollection of him being shot by ‘his own guns’ is worrying: perhaps he was sitting in a dugout drinking a cup of tea, or nibbling on a piece of chocolate (the family vice), and simply got blown up by accident. Perhaps he was picked off by an errant bullet while using the company latrine. Perhaps he started jabbering in terror one day and his sergeant-major just had to brain him in homicidal exasperation. Such things were all part of the ‘normal wastage’ of the war. I have a great deal invested, I realise, in the image of him not being wasted. I prefer to view him stalking forward coolly, his fellow Poplar and Stepney Rifles at his side, across the muddy, blood-drenched plains of the Ancre.
But even if my fantasy about him is accurate, do I really need him to show me the way? I’ve got this far, after all, on my own two feet. Might it not be the case, terrors notwithstanding, that most people end up ‘walking towards death’ in a fairly resolute fashion whether they plan to or not? One of the few times, paradoxically, I’ve found myself in apparent physical danger, when a bomb warning went off deep in one of the Tube tunnels at Charing Cross and everyone had to evacuate in a hurry, I not only remained calm but felt peculiarly philosophical. The long-legged platform guard skedaddled at once – I can still see him bounding up the escalator steps two or three at a time – leaving a little group of tourists and children and old-age pensioners to scramble along after him. I ran about a third of the way up the escalator, panting horribly – it was one of those extra-long ones and for some reason wasn’t moving – then thought: Oh fuck this, I’m too tired to run any more! I don’t care if I get blown up! It was like the old French and Saunders skit: my leg-bones have gone away. So I walked the rest of the way, more or less sedately, ultimately surfacing in Trafalgar Square. The crowds and the pigeons were bustling about as usual. No bomb went off, that week or later.
Silliest of all perhaps: whom do I hope to impress with my virile equipoise? My mother? My father? Siegfried Sassoon? Vera Brittain? Miss Coombs? None, I confess, has ever asked for such a proof of character. Blakey couldn’t care less. She’s staying with me till next September, working away in the downstairs room, where she’s just figured out a way to type on a laptop while lying down. The dog loves it because he gets to spend the whole day snoozing on the bed with her while she muses. She’s stuck with me all this dreary past year, though I’m not sure what she really thinks – either about my war-obsession or the ‘walking towards death’ stuff. She is interested in evolutionary psychology and selfish genes. Given such an intellectual framework, the First World War, like all genocidal conflicts, poses certain conceptual difficulties. How could it have been possible for millions of men to squander their DNA in such a reckless fashion? It’s a stumper, I agree.
The other day we looked at an old photo in one of my books of a parade of volunteers, still dressed in their civilian clothes, marching down a London street in August 1914. War has just been declared. The men look tough and expectant; a military band is playing and women gaze down from balconies and windows. I had just realised to my great excitement that the narrow roadway in the picture (at first generic-looking Edwardian) was actually Villiers Street, the busy pedestrian thoroughfare that runs down from the Strand to Embankment. There on one side of the picture, clearly visible once you get your bearings, is the dark, somewhat dusty façade of Gordon’s Wine Bar. It looks almost exactly as it does now.
I went there the first time, I recall, with Bridget, one late autumn night in 1987, during the honeymoon phase of our cousinhood. (It was the same night – we discovered later – as the terrible fire at King’s Cross.) Down steep wooden steps into a smoky medieval crypt where they served up our burgundy and plonk. Strange, as always, the curving back of time. One of the worst things about the First World War – from the vantage point of 2002 – is that you think you’ve got to the end of thinking about it, then something makes you start all over again. This picture, for instance. I would prefer to move on and out – from gloomy 1918 especially – but I keep getting sent back to the beginning, as if stuck in some kind of Möbius loop. It’s totally unlikely, as I said to Blakey, that my great-uncle could be one of the men in the parade, coming from the Midlands as he did. (The new Sherwood Forester battalions of 1914 and 1915 formed up in Derby and Newark.) But that didn’t keep me – as soon as Blakey went back to work – from screwing in my monocle and inspecting the men like a staff general. It was a tough job: I had first to remove all the cloth caps and boaters, add rifles and packs and khaki, then connect the fatal dots. And even then, all I could really see – staring crazily upward, as if already dazed by the fumes from the dugout brazier – was my own once-boyish face.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.