The Golden Virgin, Parts I and II

You can be certain of judging a book by its cover if it has barbed wire and a blood-red poppy on it. As a familiar title, Goodbye To All That summons up the muddy craters of the Western Front as surely as Far From The Madding Crowd brings to mind the woods and heaths of Hardy’s Dorset. The geography of literary England includes Flanders and Artois by virtue of the writers who fought the Great War for possession of the Steenbeck, Hill 60 and the Double Crassier slag heap. By the end of 1915, such names were known throughout the English-speaking world as bywords for blood and battle.

Of the few landmarks to survive the First World War and the tide of forgetfulness that followed the Second, two stand paramount: the Golden Virgin of Albert, which became a defining symbol of the Battle of the Somme, and the Cloth Hall of Ypres, one of the glories of Gothic Europe, the ruin of which represented in British eyes the violation of Belgium and thereby the justification for entering the war as well as the vindication of sticking it out to the bitter end.

The rubble and dust of the ruined Cloth Hall posed an immediate question to the citizens who returned to YPres in 1919: to rebuild or forget? Some proposed that the Cloth Hall should be preserved as it was, a ruin, to memorialise its own desecration for future generations. The French did this with several villages wiped off the map during the battle for Verdun. Winston Churchill too, believed that the despoilation of Ypres should be left untouched as a potent symbol of what had been lost and what had been saved. There was, he said, no place on earth more sacred to the English. Every year since, for nearly a hundred years, the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish have made the pilgrimage.

Virtually every Division in the British Army passed through Ypres during the Great War. The troops called it ‘Eeps’, or ‘Eep-rez’, or ‘Wipers’. Once they had passed through the town into the Salient there was no respite. The Germans occupied all the high ground. They could reach the British trenches from three sides with precisely aimed artillery fire. The Salient, a buffer zone of soggy farmland to the east of Ypres, was where the British Army had made its stand in 1914. One million men were killed or wounded in the subsequent defence of the town as, month by month, the pinnacles and buttresses of the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral next door were pulverised by the German guns until only stumps remained. Soldiers who survived, and who returned to Ypres after the War, men like the writer and former infantryman,  Henry Williamson, were astounded to discover the thoroughness of peacetime reconstruction.

‘Ypres is unrecognizable,’ he gasped. ‘Wipers exists in the memory only. The city to-day is clean and new and hybrid English. Its vast Grand’ Place holds enough air and sunlight to give a feeling of freedom and space.’

Henry Williamson made his name as a writer of nature stories, chiefly the children’s classic, Tarka The Otter, published in 1927. He was so profoundly scarred by the Great War he was never able to escape it. When he married in 1925, a visit to the old Western Front formed part of his honeymoon. His postcards home showed the blasted buildings of Arras and Amiens (‘lovely weather, but very hot’) and the wasteland of Messines Ridge (‘comparatively untouched, this part!’). The book that eventually grew out of Williamson’s pilgrimage, The Wet Flanders Plain, contributed to the development of what has since become a highly collectable sub-genre of the Great War book – the Then and Now retrospective.

‘After sunset I walked on the ramparts of Ypres, whose brickwork, upholding a deep bank of earth, is cracked and fallen in places … Below the scarred brick ramparts lay the still water of the moat, with its deep bed of iron and lead. Fish were rising, swallows and swifts taking their last evening sips as they flew. The new Menin Gate rose white and great between two sections of neatly repaired brickwork. Children were running out of the ‘Shannon’ cinema built on the bank across the water … I saw these things, and the wraith with me wondered; for I heard in my mind, farther away than my mind, the marching of the feet of men in sweat and fear, the clatter of wheels, and the hoofs of animals not knowing why they were there in the roar and flash and appalling terror of bursting shells … ‘

Today, no English reader can look up at the Cloth Hall’s tower or the spire of St Martin’s, or the new-fangled facades enclosing the Grand’ Place of Ypres, without seeing in them the ruins they once were. It is the ruins we go to see.

‘Long grasses and wild trees grow on the ramparts. When you walk there at twilight, wary of the broken tops of the sally ports, you see the new houses, all without a chip or a tile missing; but they do not obscure the passing of the men. No, it is not the men; it is a force that is passing, an invisible wind that hurls down the stones and the bricks soundlessly, that fills the Grand’ Place and all the streets with cries and shouts and the last screams of the dying, and yet all is without sound.’

Within the re-built city of Ypres today, Henry Williamson himself is one of those wraiths he once imagined. By day and night he and his comrades are in our thoughts. WE think we can still hear and echo of the rumbling artillery batteries, the grumbling infantry, the mule trains and ambulances. At twilight on the ramparts, and when the mist of a grey dawn rises from the moat, we see the British marching to their fate.

The first ‘Then and Now’ books emerged as tourist guides, among the earliest of which were those published by the Michelin Tyre Company f or motorists. Each Western Front battlefield – Ypres, Arras, The Somme, Verdun – had a slim Michelin volume to itself comprising a series of itineraries designed around a day’s driving.

Henry Williamson felt affronted by the naked commercialism of battlefield tourism. He found Ypres’ re-paved market square full of souvenir sellers and charabanc touts hawking for passengers. M. Rolander’s half-day tour took in Zonnebeke, Sanctuary Wood, Hill 60, Shrapnel Corner and the Canadian monument at St Julien, all for 12 shillings and sixpence. It must have been a bone-shaking ride. Many roads had not been re-laid. Photographs of the post-war Salient show a moonscape scored by trenches, pitted with over-lapping shell holes and littered with wire, wrecked tanks and other rusty debris. Many of the serene British cemeteries familiar to modern visitors, the so-called ‘silent cities’, were still in the process of being reclaimed from the swamp.

The early guidebooks were produced for those who hadn’t fought, the bereaved, the non-combatants and the curious. Returning veterans like Henry Williamson knew where they wanted to go. They went by foot, with their old trench maps to guide them. Williamson describes in The Wet Flanders Plain how he cadged a lift with a party of brass hats returning to the Salient for the dedication of a battlefield memorial.

‘We passed Zouave Villa, and Joffre Farm to the left and Foch Farm to the right – both with new red-brick walls and red-tiled roofs. “Nothing left,” said a man in mufti. “Hello, here’s Iron Cross Roads. No, it can’t be. That must be the Pilkem Ridge in front. Then where is this?” We passed other farms, which were identified only with the help of the map – Mackensen Farm, Gallwitz Farm, Boche House, Villa Gretchen, Jolie Farm. “This is the Pilkem Ridge.” We looked backwards, and down the line of “pill-boxes” among the corn … They remembered awhile, silently. Apparently the division had made an attack over this country during Third Ypres. “Ah, that’s Stray Farm on the right there. Then Iron Cross Roads is in front of us. Yes, I remember now.” We drove on for another couple of minutes, and stopped just before a culvert carrying the road over a large ditch. About two inches of water meandered in the ditch, which was strewn with roots of trees. Fifty yards from the road, at the edge of the northern bank of the beke, stood two squat, square, heavy concrete blockhouses. “Great Scott, this must be the Steenbeke! It’s a bit smaller today!”’

Ten years later again, there was even less to see. By the mid-Thirties, a note of desperation was creeping in. Returning veterans, seeing how completely Peace was effacing the evidence, began to fear for posterity’s understanding of the suffering they had gone through. Their anxieties were not eased by a prevailing mood of disillusion. The best selling Great War books of the Twenties and Thirties were antiwar books, persuasive dramatisations of futility and waste. Ex-subalterns like R.H.Mottram, who wrote a minor masterpiece in his Spanish Farm Trilogy, felt the need to redress the balance. Nine years after his trilogy was completed and more than 20 years after he first crossed to France with the Norfolk Regiment, Mottram returned to the battlefields for a final valediction. It was called, Journey To The Western Front, published in 1936.

‘Our War, the War that seems the special possession of those of us who are growing middle-aged, is being turned by time and change into something fabulous, misunderstood and made romantic by distance as it recedes into the Past. For half the people alive to-day it might almost as well be something that happened to the Ancient Egyptians, so little can they, who did not experience it, conceive what it was really like. So it seems opportune to record what the present reconstructed landscape has replaced, and what traces remain of our Great War, before they are obliterated or overlaid … I am moved to go over the same ground again, if only to assure myself that it is really true and that we did do the things that seem to have changed the way of life of most of the world … It is an attempt to recapture the past in the present.’

Mottram was plain stylist, simple in method, unshowy in his effects. Journey To The Western Front is probably the best book of pilgrimage in English because it seeks to capture  ‘the past in the present’ – the character of that specifically British sector of the Western Front from the Salient southwards to the Somme.

‘[Bailleul] had a comfortable happy spirit that never seemed to me to be found in its northern counterpart “Pop” [Poperinghe, near Ypres]. Bailleul was the less bombarded, and stood on a pleasant slope above the plain of the Lys. But I don’t think that made the difference. It was rather that “Pop” was too war-worn, too many units had been rushed through it on desperate occasions … Somehow, that feeling never overhung Bailleul, although it was a good 2000 yards nearer the line than “Pop” … It had also, on the road to the station, a very fine horticultural establishment, where Cordonnier Freres used to grow grapes for Lille and I don’t know what other towns. In early days, long before the glass of their greenhouses was all shattered, an Indian Division billeted in the town was brought into this establishment, where the temperature must have been a comfort to the troops after the rigours of a Flanders winter. They thankfully took off their equipment and hung it with their rifles on the budding vines. The damage done produced a lengthy litigation that must have been hastened if not concluded by the complete destruction of the town in 1918.’

Most writer-pilgrims shared Mottram’s wistful, elegaic tone but lacked his sensitivity in selecting their human details. More typical of the predominant tone was Pilgrimage, by Lt.-Col. Graham Seton Hutchison, published by Rich & Cowan in 1935. It is a journalistic summary of the main battles on the Western Front spiced with personal recollections and bits of French history lifted from guidebooks.

‘Corbie knew nearly every man who served on the Somme … The town with its neat streets clung around the cathedral, huge Gothic architecture, and beneath the shadow of the Cathedral stood the Café de la Poste, and the Café Alexandre, happy meeting places…. It is most interesting to remember that the ancestors of the inhabitants of Corbie, five hundred years earlier, had received English soldiers. Certainly they are descendants of those same people who witnessed the march of King Henry V of England, for very tenaciously, generation after generation, do the peasants cling to their soil …’

Corbie was mainly familiar to those who served on the Somme as a staging post. Far more important to the English were the towns of Amiens and Albert. Amiens was the favourite resort of young subalterns in search of a spree, distant enough to be safe from shelling, big enough to be able to supply most needs. Throughout the Somme offensive of 1916, wine, women and poetry books could all be procured in Amiens. But grubby little Albert was not only within range of the German guns, it was a constant target, being a well-known bottleneck in the British supply chain. It served the Somme as Ypres served the Salient. It was the last place on earth for tens of thousands of young men.

(To be continued. To browse for books by any writer whose works have been quoted, click here

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