Thursday, November 10, 2011

Autumn on the Somme

Overgrown trenches

Last month I visited the Somme battlefields to do some research for a work in progress, War Songs. It's a manuscript I began some years ago, and need to rewrite. One day.

War Songs is the story of an ambulance driver and a nurse in a Casualty Clearing Station on the Somme from 1916 to 1918, the years of the great battles on that stretch of the Western Front, and since I was in France I took the train north to Amiens to get a better feel for the country and the memories it holds.

Amiens Cathedral is one of the wonders of the Gothic world, as vast and glorious as Notre Dame in Paris, but without the crowds.

It was an appropriate place to start my journey, to stop and reflect and light a candle, with memorials to many of the forces that defended the town, including the Anzac force which stopped the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.

During the war, the cathedral was piled high with sandbags to protect the precious stained glass windows, the carved choir, and the ethereal stonework. The town and the cathedral were bombed, and again during World War 2, but saved from the utter destruction suffered by many of the smaller towns in Picardy and Flanders which, to this day, have never really recovered.

One such town is Albert, a few kilometres east of Amiens. I have set most of War Songs in an encampment outside Albert, a town through which so many soldiers and ambulances passed on their way to the front line. It was also famous for its cathedral - or basilica - the spire of which is topped with a golden statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus aloft. The spire was hit by a shell in 1916, and the statue spent most of the rest of the war dangling precariously. The soldiers believed that if she ever fell, the Germans would win the war. The Australians, of course, had many nicknames for the Holy Mother, including Fanny Durack - one of our Olympic swimmers.

The statue did fall eventually, blasted off its pedestal, although that didn't seem to affect the outcome of the war. Albert itself was slowly beaten into dust by shells and bombs, and taken by the German Army in its Big Push of 1918. The basilica and the statue were rebuilt in the 1920s, and it remains - as it was then - a landmark visible across the battlefields, so you can always see where you are, and how near you are to Albert.

I hiked to the outskirts of Albert, to two small cemeteries. One was Bapaume Post, once on the frontline. Here, as in so many other sites, I was the only visitor, walking silently between the rows of graves, pausing every so often to ponder the eighteen year-old Tyneside Irishmen, the 45 year-old stretcher bearer, the four friends buried with their headstones close together, the rows and rows of human beings who share the same final day. 1 July, 1916. 23 July, 1916.  24 April, 1918. 4 July, 1918.

From here you can look back towards town, or out across what was once a contaminated mess of barbed wire, smashed vehicles, pulverised dirt, cast-off boxes and bottles and tins, and too many small wooden crosses or nondescript mounds of earth.

Cross of sacrifice

Like Gallipoli, the countryside is dotted with cemeteries, each with row upon row of simple white headstones, and edged with close-trimmed lawn and flowers, and the last few poppies of the season. Your eyes can trace the positions of the front lines and key battles by the placement of the cemeteries and memorials that mark the skyline - the high ground. Always the high ground.

Cemetery behind Thiepval memorial

You can also see, especially in autumn or winter, the marks of war scattered in the fields: the shattered white clay coming through the topsoil in circles (shell craters) or lines (trenches) or surreal blotches (all hell broke loose here). The earth still bears scars, nearly a hundred years on. Each year, even now, the farmers find more shell casings, belt buckles, water bottles, and - yes - bones. The locals call it "the memory of the earth", or "Somme harvest".

View from Australian memorial, Villers-Bretonneux

One day, I was very fortunate to have the services of Olivier Dirson from Chemins d'Histoire, a softly-spoken French battlefield guide. Olivier took me to Heilly, the site of a casualty clearing station by the railway line, its presence marked only by a small cemetery. It was just as I had imagined the setting of War Songs, but immeasurably sadder in real life. We travelled to Villers-Bretonneux, where the Australians checked the German advance, and where the school, famously, was rebuilt with funds raised by Victorian schoolchildren; to the mine crater at La Boiselle; to the old trenches at Beaumont-Hamel; to Pozières and the site of the windmill, which, according to Bean, "marks a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth".

From Pozières you can gaze across the few hundred metres to Mouquet Farm and a few hundred metres further to Theipval - to Lutyens' magnificent Memorial to the Missing.

All these place-names, learned in school and on many Anzac Days, read in countless books.

It's easy to do, easy to write: I stand on the remains of the Windmill and look towards Mouquet Farm. But in that field, the AIF suffered more than 23,000 casualties between 23 July and 5 September 1916 - just over six weeks.


Like Lone Pine, the distances between the sites of these horrific battles is sometimes just a short stroll. Just like the Nek, in places the opposing trenches were only a grenade lob apart. And yet ... and yet men were expected to climb out of those trenches and run across that thin stretch of shell-pocked ground towards the machine guns, the wire, the other men. And yet they tried. Over and over.

The numbers, the facts, are literally incomprehensible. 30,000 British casualties, just to take Mouquet Farm, a small red-roofed building on a hill. The number of names listed on the Thiepval Memorial: 73,367. And that's only the names of the British Empire and South African people who served here in these few miles of the Front and whose graves are unknown. Most of them died in the first few months of the Battle of the Somme.

Medical staff were among them: there were many RAMC headstones in the cemeteries I visited. 3000 nurses - women - died in the war. Stretcher bearers and orderlies were amongst the casualties far too often (including my great-grandfather who returned from Flanders, gassed, and ill for the rest of his life).

The brain dodges around these numbers, tries to think about them logically, then flinches away: there is no way to properly understand them. 74,000 missing. That's the entire population of Darwin. Or New Plymouth.

74,000 people.

Numbers too big to comprehend. But they hold enormous meaning: individually and collectively.

Then. Now. Always.

It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

It wasn't.

La Boiselle, above Lochnagar crater

Remembrance Day, 2011
Selected archival photos: Australians on the Western Front, Musée Somme 1916 (Albert)

Busy hands, etc

Got a few things on over the next couple of weeks.

This Saturday, I'll be at Eltham Festival, telling pirate stories and making pirate hats and doing pirate stuff.  (3pm, November 12.)

School visits: next Tuesday I'll be at Manor Lakes in Wyndham - there'll also be a performance of some scenes from Act of Faith, which will be kinda strange but wonderful. Then a few days later I'll be at Lowther Hall. Looking forward to meeting everyone at both schools.

Also looking forward to talking to the folks from Victorian public libraries next week, about writing and research and, of course, reading.

Then it's up to Byron Bay, with my PhD hat on (actually, I don't have one of those yet) to present a paper at the annual conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs.

Unfamiliar familiar worlds

Don't you love that feeling of reading a book set in a world that is eerily familiar - but not quite? A world, perhaps, that seems like ours but where everything is unexpected, different - foreign?

In expert hands, it can be one of reading's great pleasures.

Here are two cases in point, in recent YA literature.

This is Shyness, Leanne Hall
Set in Melbourne (kind of), along Smith Street (maybe). Or not.

This is Shyness is the story of one night in a suburb, Shyness, where night is all there is. The sun doesn't rise, wild kids roam and ravage, creepy men in black suits cruise the streets, and Wildgirl meets a dark, handsome howling boy just at a moment when they both need to escape.

It's a spooky place that feels like a world we know, gone badly wrong. It's not even dystopian fiction, really - just a beautifully imagined parallel universe of inner city bars, government flats, gangs and music and darkness.

Looking forward to the sequel, Queen of the Night, due early next year.

The Leviathan trilogy, Scott Westerfeld
Goliath (just out last month) is the satisfying final instalment of Westerfeld's re-imagining of World War I into a steampunk world of Clankers versus Darwinians, of enormous - living - flying machines and sea creatures pitted against mechanical clanking monsters spitting bullets, of a girl dressed as a boy and a prince dressed as a commoner, of a world caught up in war and espionage and intrigue.

For younger readers, it's a non-stop action adventure of the very best kind: intelligent and fascinating.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Vive la France

I have gathered memories, images and notes of so many favourite things during my time in Paris, most of them to do with my research project, Tragédie; others accidental or incidental. Here are a few of the other things I noticed along the way.

Maquis motorbike
A fold-up motorbike, still in the steel container in which it was parachuted into Occupied France.

Also at the Musée d’Armée, best window frames ever.

I had been worried about Napoleon: he seems seriously out of fashion here nowadays, which seems a little unfair, given the education and legal systems and all that. But also I'd seen photos of his tomb, and it seemed very small. I know he was only little, but a weensy casket seems a bit sad.

I needn't have worried. It's as big as a bus.

But here is the thing that really stopped me in my tracks:

Paris is as beautiful and wild as ever. Men no longer urinate in the streets (though they still keep that time-honoured tradition in Marseille, we noticed). There are a million more tourists than last time I visited: you can't even get into Notre Dame without waiting in a 200 metre queue. But it still feels like a spiritual home to me.

Always will.

For the first time, I walked further down the island and visited Sainte-Chapelle, an ancient jewel-box in stained glass. I gasped. Really.

And also for the first time, I visted Versailles. Twice. It was all just as opulent and dazzling as you imagine, but the most poignant, in a way, was Marie-Antionette's little hamlet that she had built so she could play at being a milkmaid or simply get away from the rest of the Court. And there, having a lovely time, was a pukeko. Who knew? I always thought they were Antipodean.

There are so many museums in Paris, and I only visited those related to my research, but they included some gems, such as the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris:

The Musée Cluny, museum of the Middle Ages:

And in the National Archives I saw documents such as Marie-Antoinette's last letter, the proceedings of the Parlement as they discussed the matter of Jeanne d'Arc, and the Edict of Nantes. Right there in front of me. The actual Edict of freaking Nantes. Revoked or otherwise. Consider me flabbergasted.

The Archives has a strangely moving exhibition called Fiches. It is focused on the different types of files the state or authorities hold on people, and in particular since the advent of the photograph: ID cards, mugshots, registers of varying kinds. I was just walking through on my way elsewhere in the building and got caught by the sight of ID cards for Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein (who famously stayed in France throughout both wars in spite of being American and Jewish), Man Ray, Josephine Baker, Samuel Beckett and Jean Cocteau, whose file has ANARCHISTE stamped in red across it. Then I was sucked right in, by agonising images of young Jewish people in 1938 smiling at the camera - just before JUIF is stamped on their file, of forged papers used by the Resistance and Allied airmen, of photos of nuns and criminals and apprentices and men going off to the trenches and Verdun.

Speaking of which, I'm headed north to the Somme now, to do some research for a different project, War Songs, which is a manuscript that's been sitting in the drawer for years and which I will have to get to - one day.